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Matt Ridley’s latest book, The Evolution of Everything, explores a simple but profound thesis: Most of what goes on in the world — particularly, most of the good stuff — comes from bottom-up, emergent, unplanned processes:
Far more than we like to admit, the world is to a remarkable extent a self-organizing, self-changing place. Patterns emerge, trends evolve. Skeins of geese form Vs in the sky without meaning to, termites build cathedrals without architects, bees make hexagonal honeycombs without instruction, brains take shape without brain-makers, learning can happen without teaching, political events are shaped by history rather than vice versa. The genome has no master gene, the brain has no command centre, the English language has no director, the economy has no chief executive, society has no president, the common law has no chief justice, the climate has no control knob, history has no five-star general.
Ridley spends the rest of the book going through examples, one chapter at a time, explaining how order and complexity arise without intention or command in morality, education, demographics, language, money, and about a dozen other topics. He also takes a lot of the air out of the Great Man Theory, arguing that it’s far more true that conditions shape men and that ideas are ripe for picking by the first qualified minds to grasp them. (Ridley not only rehashes the famous examples of Darwin and Russell and Newton and Leibniz, but — rather humbly — shows how a number of other authors published works remarkably similar to his previous book at very nearly the same time).
It’s sort of Friedrich Hayek cross-pollinated with Daniel Dennett and a bit of Richard Dawkins, and in a good way. If you’re interested in getting a flavor, I highly recommend this 30-minute presentation to the Cato Institute.
It’s a powerful and — I found — deeply persuasive idea. Even though I felt Ridley overshot reality by a few steps, I’m convinced he’s brought me much closer to it after than I had been before. (Speaking for myself, I kept noting the irony of being convinced of this particular thesis via my top-down reason, rather than experience. But maybe that’s just an illusion my brain feeds me. Neuroscience is unsettling.)
Though the staff occasionally cajoles or encourages particular writers on specific subjects, this site doesn’t work by top-down order. Claire, Jon, and I have absolutely no idea what you folks are going to write about on any given day, and that’s what makes our jobs — and this site — so interesting and unique.
Maybe Dan Hanson is going to write a multi-part series on SCUBA diving. Perhaps C. U. Douglas is going to treat us to a a small-screen review. Or maybe, just when we were expecting another pro- or anti-Trump post, we find the Reticulator’s fascinating post about Indian captivity narratives and what they say about our contemporary culture. How about a deep dive from Skipsul into circuit-board manufacturing? We leave it up to you folks and you surprise us all the time. And even the Code of Conduct overwhelmingly works not through top-down interventions from The Powers That Be, but because our members take it upon themselves to self-regulate and self-enforce it.
Want to be part of this decentralized, evolutionary experiment in conservative conversation? We can provide the link, but the choice is up to you.Published in