Matt Ridley manages to Pangloss over the nastier aspects of evolution

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

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge Matt Ridley

4th Estate, pp.400, £20, ISBN: 9780007542482

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.

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Show comments
  • WFB56

    “Personally, I think that sounds like evolution gone horribly wrong.” Personally, I think it sounds more like you’re not thinking, just reacting to any challenge to the status quo.

  • DavidL

    “Personally I think…” Yuk!

  • woolfiesmiff

    What a crass, ignorant and stupid review, back in the sea

  • Mike Williams

    You lost me at “Carefully planned public transport systems…”

    • Mr Grumpy

      Numerous cities lack even a carelessly designed public transport system. Do you have any experience of living in one?

    • I know. The critic sounds like Mussolini’s transport minister. Give me a break!

  • freddiethegreat

    If he’s so against any kind of forethought or planning, he’s a sure candidate to be a South African Cabinet minister.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Don’t call it intelligent design. There’s nothing intelligent about it.

  • Terry Field

    Could intelligent design have come up with Corbyn?????

  • Mr Grumpy

    Splendid demolition job.

  • ohforheavensake

    That was fun: & more informative than the book, by the sound of it.

  • tolpuddle1

    It’s absurd at square one, to apply a biological idea like Evolution to non-biological matters like politics.

    On evolutionary, biological lines, it makes good sense to bump off the elderly, frail, impaired and chronically sick and anyone else you deem unfit – as the remarkable Darwinian experiment in Germany from 1933-45 was at pains to do.

    So let’s not be evolutionary – especially at a time when the West is collapsing, not evolving (except perhaps, into part of the Ummah).

    • Hugh Jeego

      I’m not so sure – political systems do evolve ( as in change without necessarily following a set plan). Where the argument really falls down is applying evolutionary concepts to technology. Every single technological innovation has been designed, none came about by chance.

    • Jack Rocks

      It doesn’t make good sense to do that, no. You’re forgetting that empathetic behaviours are expressed across a broad spectrum of activities and interactions. Even though on a purely economic/energy cost-benefit analysis it may make sense to bump off the elderly, the overall cost including every other aspect of its expression may be far greater.

      • Hi, me again! There is usually an implicit desire that something will bump the elderly off. To begin with, elderly people (or those like my mother — aged 67 — that talk themselves into being elderly because it’s so much easier than looking after oneself) are often even more disgusting than the rest of us. They are ugly, have boring conversation, and they are incontinent, among other things. (Yes: ugliness and boringness *can* be avoided but that *does* take effort: my mother is too lazy, unintelligent, etc.). Furthermore, if they have not been utterly useless or pathetically unfortunate all their life, they have money. Money that they can’t use in any helpful or happy way but other people, poorer but in the prime of life, certainly *could*. Hence the question, long known to political philosophers: ‘father, when will you die?’ (In my case it certainly isn’t ‘mother’, since she has nothing to show for her flailings in life. Really, she is simply embarrassing and I wish I were not related to her!)

        • blandings

          I am non of those things C.
          Don’t bump me off. I’m still having fun.

          • Consider yourself safe!

          • blandings

            Thought you’d like this – maybe.
            Great act – don’t know if they have ever hit USA

          • Let’s have a look. And good morning/afternoon!

          • blandings

            By the way
            All today’s action is on Jeremy Corbyn and the owl

          • Could you explain, B?

          • blandings

            Rod Liddle’s column.
            keep up darling.
            Like you lots – off to bed – stay cool.

          • Yes I twigged and turned up. It’s not easy to stay cool when I have to be out in the heat (gardening; taking Angel-ears out). Pool might be nice, though. Sweet dreams: can’t believe it’s nearly Friday — again! (Time is speeding up.)

        • Jack Rocks

          I think you completely missed my point.

          • No, I got it and thought it a good one.

          • Jack Rocks


    • It’s absurd at square one to tar Darwin with the N zi brush.

      • tolpuddle1

        Why ? Many of his followers were eugenicists and proto-Nazis.

        And in any case, Darwin was the man who made Hitler possible.

        There is a clear link from 1859 to 1933.

        • Darwin was interested in understanding the world, and his business was a rigorous inquiry into it, not rigorous rule-making or policy-setting. Even less did he have a taste for tyranny. May I recommend Gertrude Himmelfarb’s critical study, Darwin And The Darwinian Revolution?

          • tolpuddle1

            No moral blame attaches to Darwin personally – he would have hated Nazism.

            Nevertheless, many of his followers were less scrupulous than he, so that there is indeed a clear link from 1859 to 1933. Darwinism was set up as a false, non-theistic religion – one in which the German generals of 1914-18 believed no less fervently than Hitler.

            Since Darwin’s two great works led to war and massacre on so huge a scale, no sane person can appaud their publication, whatever their scientific merits.

            And if Darwin had known what they would be used to advocate and excuse, would he have published them ?

          • You’re saying that Darwin is the English Nietzsche and I reject that characterization. N. was irresponsible and Heidegger was worse; but they were philosophers; Darwin was always a man of science and no, there need have been no political inferences drawn. The Origin is full of talk about pigeon feathers, for heaven’s sake! The Descent of Man compares us with apes. The point is that any powerful new way of seeing can be wilfully distorted by others. But Darwin himself was justified.

          • tolpuddle1

            Justified, yes – but wholly disastrous in practice, like the clever physicists who led the way to the H-bomb.

            Darwin’s evil legacy continues – the popular atheism that uses him as excuse and father-figure, has destroyed the Western world.

            But Muslims will see this as part of Allah’s providence, preparing the way for Islam’s global triumph.

          • I think you dislike his atheism more than anything else. You’re a Christian: it’s understandable. Personally I want to know more about the world and science is a fabulous gateway to knowledge.

          • tolpuddle1

            Darwin was an agnostic, in fact.

            Knowledge – yes, fabulous for those with dosh, a nice home and good health.

            For those who are homeless, skint, living in favelas or dying in pain or who are mentally tormented or enslaved to drugs – knowledge ain’t much use.

            Which is why Knowledge (“scientia”, science) can never stand in for God or be a substitute for Him.

            Many people would like Scientia to be God – and noisily pretend that it is ! In some cases, from a perverted religious impulse that seeks to worship created things (science or the proletariat or the nation or whatever) instead of the Creator. In some cases from scientists (and their hangers-on) seeking to be the divine priesthood of their God, science; modest people indeed !

          • Modesty is not their strong point, no. Have you seen the current Speccie article on Dawkins? Have a look, if not. You probably won’t be amazed.

  • Jack Rocks

    Interesting. Sounds like it’s worth a read. Just a brief criticism of your criticism. You say, “Carefully planned public transport systems go unmentioned”. But are they? They’re mostly designed to merge into existing infrastructure.

    There was an interesting study 20 or so years ago about the best way to plan a footpath: lay grass and leave it for a year. When you come back the best place to put the paving stones will be where walkers have trodden down the grass into mud. They did an experiment with this at my University at the exit of a building. The resulting path has an interesting curve. A “perfectly planned” path would have been a straight line with a right angle to the road ahead.

  • johnhenry

    Read it all the way through, but have no idea what it’s about. It’s a book review, I guess. Gives me hope that I too can earn a living as a book reviewer.

  • King Zog

    How could anyone who identifies as a conservative find themselves in sympathy with the views expressed in this book?

  • Sean L

    The premiss here appears to be that humans can consciously influence evolution. But doesn’t that contradict the theory, the blind watchmaker that humans are no less subject to, and helpless before, as any other living being?

  • I am not with Ridley on all points. Nevertheless his book is a stimulating romp through many important topics from a consistent bottom-up self-organizing perspective. The Evolution of Everything deserves a more serious and thoughtful exposition than this rather superficial review. However, compared with the character assassination of the Guardian’s review of the same book, this review actually discusses the ideas under discussion, if for a little while