Steven Poole

For better, for worse | 17 September 2015

Ridley’s ‘general theory’ boasts of surpassing even Darwin’s — but his vision of a utopian libertarian future looks like evolution gone horribly wrong

For better, for worse | 17 September 2015
Text settings

The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge

Matt Ridley

4th Estate, pp. 400, £

Before I read this book, I wasn’t aware that I was a creationist. But Matt Ridley tells me I am, in his broad sense of someone who foolishly believes that any good can come of ‘human intentionality, design and planning’. With no little intellectual chutzpah, he offers to treat us to a ‘general theory of evolution’ of everything, surpassing Charles Darwin’s ‘special’ one that applied only to living organisms. According to the author, ‘top-down’ is always bad, ‘bottom-up’ is always good. By what evolutionary method he avoided consciously designing this book itself remains a mystery to the end.

The book’s many short chapters are determined to find evolutionary virtues in different arenas. Thus, Ridley argues that morality evolves, we are all getting nicer, and the unplanned common law is an excellent thing. (There are plenty of criminal statutes too, but never mind that right now.) Meanwhile, the economy evolves, and this is good because ‘lack of trade’ might have been what doomed the Neanderthals. (I’m not sure how we are supposed to know this.) Cities evolve and are good for people. (Carefully planned public transport systems go unmentioned.) And so on. There are some fascinating passages along the way, particularly on the history of genetic science and modern arguments over ‘junk DNA’.

The question does arise of how much of the ‘evolution’ that Ridley perceives really deserves the name. Even his own Apple laptop, he argues, has evolved, because different people invented its various components and they all went through many versions. (Still, it is designed.) And Ridley oddly calls the ‘Green Revolution’ in industrial agriculture of the mid-20th century an ‘emergent’ phenomenon. In fact, many of the important early Green Revolution discoveries were made by research funded by the government of Mexico. But conceding that would undermine his insistence elsewhere that public funding of science ought to shrink.

What all this glosses (or Panglosses) over, though, is the fact that evolution is a thoroughly nasty business. The evolution of species necessitates the torturous suffering and death of billions. Similarly, to abolish state schooling and allow an entirely private system to ‘evolve’ once again, as Ridley thinks is desirable, would of necessity condemn a lot of children right now to bad educations. It’s all very well to ‘fail often’, as the Silicon Valley tech mantra has it, when you are designing a smartphone app to allow hipsters to swap recipes for moustachio wax, but when failing harms people it might, after all, be useful to engage in a bit of the dreaded ‘planning’ or what one might simply call forethought.

From the evidence of this book, evolution seems to work least effectively among straw men. Education, Ridley declares, depends as much on ‘books, peers and curiosity’ as on direct indoctrination by teachers, which will not come as a surprise to any teacher. On the subject of global warming, Ridley insists that carbon dioxide levels ‘are just one influence’ on the climate among many, which is something that no climate scientist has ever denied. The well-informed will recognise what it means when Nigel Lawson is cited as an authority on this matter. Elsewhere, Ridley quotes approvingly from the American politicians Ron and Rand Paul (admired by the Tea Party), the Ukip MP Douglas Carswell and some libertarian bloggers.

Ridley allows that some things planned by people have gone rather well — after thinking quite hard, he quizzically suggests the moon landings. But in the main he despairs of humanity’s ability to manage things, a pessimism that might have been strengthened by his experience as chairman of Northern Rock. (Ridley here pleads that the global financial crisis was caused by too much regulation.) His vision of a utopian libertarian future of pandemic evolution, however, might not delight all readers. ‘Put parents in charge of their children’s individual education budget,’ his peroration enthuses; ‘patients in charge of their own health budget; cut out the bureaucratic middle man.’ But the effect of cutting out the bureaucratic middle man, inevitably, would be to force us all to become amateur bureaucrats. Personally, I think that sounds like evolution gone horribly wrong.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £18 Tel: 08430 600033