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Maarten van Swaay / March 17, 2016

‘The Evolution of Everything’

On 4 Nov. 2015 The Wall Street Journal carried a review by Michael Shermer of a book by Matt Ridley: “The Evolution of Everything.” Mr. Shermer appeared quite excited by the book, which prompted me to find a copy and read it. To my regret I soon found that Mr. Shermer had overlooked more than a few flaws in the book; rather than requesting more time I returned the book to the library without reading the last 50 pages. Recently I came across another review of the same book, this one written by Jay Lehr, and printed in a newsletter from the Heartland Institute: Environment & Climate News, February 2016.

Both reviews can properly be called hagiographic. Mr. Shermer finds Mr. Ridley’s book his “best and most important work to date”. Mr. Lehr opens his review with “For those whom I convince to buy this book, it is likely you will email me a thank-you when you get to the final page.” I found a much earlier book, “The Origins of Virtue,” much stronger; Mr. Ridley wrote that book almost two decades ago. Then why my reservations about the present book?

Mr. Ridley’s book does contain much that reveals insight and deserves recognition, and thought. But its merit is undercut by more than a few serious flaws, and it is disappointing that those were overlooked by both Mr. Shermer and Mr. Lehr in their opinions. Mr. Ridley appears to ride a hobby-horse, with little regard for whether it is galloping in the right direction, or merely prancing in self-adulation.

Mr. Ridley casts a wide net, but much of what he writes has the same thrust as “The Fatal Conceit,” a book of narrower scope written by Friedrich Hayek in 1988; that book is now available as volume I of the Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, edited by W.W. Bartley III. Mr. Hayek explains that he chose his title to refer to the (flawed) expectation that social structures can be deliberately designed by some (self-anointed) elite; an expectation that Mr. Hayek faults by recognizing that the required “social intelligence” vastly exceeds what can be grasped by any individual or elite group.

Interestingly, Mr. Hayek wrote his book well before the development — which Mr. Ridley might call “evolution” — of swarming robots, which provide strong support for the theses of both Mr. Hayek and Mr. Ridley. Not because robot swarms “evolve” — they rest on deliberate design — but because the knowledge gained from the design of swarming robots helps us understand flocks of birds and schools of fish, whose behavior we can only observe. We do know much about the “intelligence” of swarming robots, but have no access to the working brains of birds or fish. I do not recall seeing the name of Mr. Hayek in Mr. Ridley’s book.

Mr. Ridley makes some strange mental jumps and conjectures. I found a clue to that casualness in his tendency to treat the verbs “to evolve” and “to develop” as synonyms. That is grammatically grating: “to evolve” is intransitive, whereas “to develop” allows an object. In other words, evolution has to proceed without external direction (though by no means without external influence), and development (implicitly) requires it. Surely one would expect Mr. Ridley to be much aware of that distinction, which is fundamental to his thesis.

Early in his book, Mr. Ridley brings up “skyhooks,” and clearly explains why he — quite properly — frowns on the casual invocation of them to bridge gaps in a reasoned argument. But he seems unaware that reason itself compels us to admit that some “skyhooks” must exist, and that they are indispensable, even in the domain of reason. Under the laws of reason — where did those laws come from? — a sound argument proceeds from premise through logic — where did its rules come from? — to a conclusion. So any argument starts, and must start, from some premise, or premises. Where did those come from? One might claim that they are the result of earlier, and settled, arguments. But then where did those earlier arguments start? We have to admit that there must exist some premises that neither need to be derived, nor can be. Yes: those have a flavor very different from, e.g., those of the “God of the gaps” we find in the debate between ID and evolutionists. Nevertheless, they must exist, and, more strongly, they are indispensable.

Among other things, Mr. Ridley claims that the current degradation of marriage is an evolution. But then he traces that “evolution” to what he claims was a deliberate policy to raise the wages of men, so that their wives could better afford to forego work outside the home. So what Mr. Ridley calls “evolution” would — by his own logic — be a consequence of a deliberate policy, a far cry from emergence in an unplanned environment.

Mr. Ridley writes — rather glibly in my view — of “digital information” in DNA, by describing it as an infinitely variable sequence of three-letter words. All true, but secondary and misleading: those three-letter words are merely convenient abbreviations for the amino acids that serve as building blocks. Yes: one can describe such sequences that way, and even in digital form, but from there it is a very long jump to Mr. Ridley’s declaration that DNA “contains digital information.” I did not find any attempt by Mr. Ridley to define what he understands as “digital information”; in my view that is a crucial omission.

In keeping with Mr. Hayek, Mr. Ridley recognizes that major behaviors and institutions can, and may even have to, arise without intent. But under that view sits an assumption that such emergence will be driven by large-scale, undirected individual action or experimentation. Quite possibly that assumption may have been tenable for much of the human era, but modern governments now have the capability — and propensity — to initiate experiments on a huge scale, e.g., the redefinition of marriage, and now “gender-bending.” Agreed: the consequences of such experiments may well be evolutionary, but the initiations were far from emergent: they were quite deliberate, and more often than not revealed as unwise. Such actions are not subject to the invisible hand of Adam Smith, and can derail spectacularly. Mr. Ridley is right, in the sense that governmental intrusion into social institutions very often has major adverse consequences; hence his preference for letting such institutions evolve without attempts at guidance. Quite possibly that explains why both Mr. Shermer and Mr. Lehr were enthralled by the book, and thereby overlooked its many flaws.

Early in his book, Mr. Ridley claims that proton transport is the “source of all biological energy.” He should know better. Biological systems tend to lose energy to their surroundings, and they all expend it for their own activities. That energy has to be replenished from somewhere, ultimately from the sun. I suspect that Mr. Ridley was sloppy with his terms: the proton is the smallest charged particle that can exist in biological systems — admittedly in hydrated form — and therefore may well be the major “energy currency” in biology. But it cannot be a source of (biological) energy.

In the chapter on language Mr. Ridley makes a very doctrinaire statement: he claims that all the anthropologists have it backward. That refers to a presumed causal relationship between language and society. But I did not find any reasoned argument why Mr. Ridley feels not merely confident but authoritarian about his pronouncement. He may be right, but deprives his statement of much of the strength it might have gained from some underlying reasoning. Nor does he make room for a very plausible symbiotic relation between language and society. In such a symbiotic relation, language and social institutions would co-evolve, driven by intertwined fitness challenges.

In the chapter on finance Mr. Ridley explains why he dislikes the word “capitalism”: it makes him think of Marxism. So he coins a new word: “innovationism.” Apparently Mr. Ridley has fallen for Mr. Marx’s hijacking of the word, and thereby remains unaware of the primary function of capital as a price signal. Price signals are essential for any society, especially for resolving scarcity. Innovation cannot even be marketed without a price signal that directs it (by evolutionary force).

In the chapter on evolution, Mr. Ridley leaves the impression that he picks his examples to support his thesis, and is either unaware of exceptions, or unwilling to recognize them. He claims that technology comes from technology, rather than from science. To name but one example, the MASER, and its offspring, the laser, were both developed well before any practical use for them had been identified. The term “laser” has by now become so common that it is no longer written as the acronym it once was.

“You will search in vain for major contributions from universities to the cellphone revolution.” What about early insights about signal/noise ratio and carrying capacity (Shannon) or EC codes (Hamming)? OK: one could argue that both insights came out of Bell Labs, but at the time that institution had a very explicit policy encouraging undirected research. More revealingly: Mr. Ridley is silent about swarming robots, on which much of the current exciting work is done in academic settings.

In the chapter on personality I found some weird contradictions. First, Mr. Ridley builds a lengthy argument for the thesis that parents have at best a minor influence on how their children develop. But then he lays out an equally lengthy argument that children develop a personality that reflects the interaction with their environment of peers during adolescence. Maybe peers can have a stronger influence than parents do — for a while — but a claim that one part of an environment can have a large influence while the influence of another part is negligible sounds incongruous.

It gets worse. A few lines later, Mr. Ridley writes: “Instead, the truth is that personality unfolds from within, responding to the environment — so in a very literal sense of the word, it evolves.” I see a contradiction here: first, Mr. Ridley says that parents have little or no influence, and then he writes that personality develops in response to environment. Are parents not part of that “environment”? And might we not expect that most parents strive to steer the environment of their children in the hope that they will grow up “well-rounded”? Does Mr. Ridley really consider that ambition futile?

In the chapter about leadership, Mr. Ridley raises the question whether there are indeed “great men.” There are, he writes, but most, if not all, are of the bad variety. I did not find any indication that Mr. Ridley is aware that his own views may quite possibly make other great men invisible to him. Those would be people who lead, not by decree, but by persuasion, example, and encouragement. Such men — and women — would intrinsically leave few marks, even though their leadership could have major consequences. “If you don’t care who gets the credit, there is much you can achieve.” To my regret I do not recall to whom that observation should be credited.

In conclusion, I agree with Messrs. Shermer and Lehr that there is much value in Mr. Ridley’s book, but am disappointed that Mr. Ridley, and both reviewers, failed to see that it suffers from more than a bit of sloppy thought and oversight.

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