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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).