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George Will / December 27, 2015

Creationists of the Secular Kind

Presidential campaigns inflate expectations that power wielded from government’s pinnacle will invigorate the nation. Thus campaigns demonstrate that creationists threaten the creative ferment that produces social improvement. Not religious creationists, who are mistaken but inconsequential. It is secular creationists whose social costs are steep.

Presidential campaigns inflate expectations that power wielded from government’s pinnacle will invigorate the nation. Thus campaigns demonstrate that creationists threaten the creative ferment that produces social improvement. Not religious creationists, who are mistaken but inconsequential. It is secular creationists whose social costs are steep.

“Secular theists” — economist Don Boudreaux’s term — produce governments gripped by the fatal conceit that they are wiser than society’s spontaneous experimental order. Such governments’ imposed order suffocates improvisation and innovation. Like religious creationists gazing upon biological complexity, secular theists assume that social complexity requires an intentional design imposed from on high by wise designers, aka them.

In “The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge,” Matt Ridley refutes the secular creationists’ fallacious idea that because social complexity is the result of human actions, it must, or should, be the result of human design. In fact, Ridley says, “Far more than we like to admit, the world is to a remarkable extent a self-organizing, self-changing place.”

What explains the reluctance to admit this? Perhaps the human mind evolved to seek a Designer behind designs. (“On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel,” Ridley says, “Adam and God touch fingers. To the uneducated eye it is not clear who is creating whom.”) Or perhaps people feel anxious if no one is in charge. Ridley’s point is that everyone is in charge of social change. It is propelled by what Friedrich Hayek, echoing Darwin, called “selection by imitation of successful institutions and habits.” This is a broad-based, bottom-up process by which society, like Darwinian nature, is constantly experimenting.

Morality evolves: Religious and other moral instructors base their moral codes on the way people who are considered moral behave, people who are deemed moral because they exemplify rules conducive to human flourishing. Legal systems evolve: The common-law basis of the system under which Americans live had no inspired law-giver; it emerged from centuries of the Anglosphere’s trial and error.

Describing the way living cells respond to local effects, Ridley, an evolutionary biologist, writes: “It is as if an entire city emerged from chaos just because people responded to local incentives in the way they set up their homes and businesses. (Oh, hang on — that is how cities emerged too.)”

Similarly, no committee or other command-and-control system decreed the rules of the world’s languages. Darwin: “The formation of different languages, and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel.” Ridley: “It is as if a human language, with all its syntax and grammar, were to emerge spontaneously from the actions of its individual speakers, with nobody laying down the rules. (Oh, hang on … )”

In 1908, a French philosopher applied Darwinian reasoning to the evolution of fishing boats: “It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages and thus never be copied. … It is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.”

Ridley applies to everything the perspective of Leonard E. Read’s famous 1958 essay “I, Pencil.” In it a pencil explains that “I am a mystery” because not a single person knows how to make me. The seemingly simple pencil is wood harvested by loggers using saws and ropes made elsewhere, wood transported by trucks and trains made by many thousands of people, to mills where machines — the products of ore mined by thousands and steel mills staffed by thousands more — prepare the wood to receive graphite mined abroad and the eraser from foreign rubber, held in place by aluminum mined somewhere and smelted somewhere else, before lacquer (castor beans and other ingredients) is applied, and …

Behind a pencil stand millions of cooperating people, but no mastermind. Which is why worshipers in the church of government, the source of top-down authority, disparage a free society’s genius for spontaneous order: It limits the importance of government and other supposed possessors of the expertise that supposedly is essential for imposing order from above.

No one, writes Ridley, anticipated that when Gutenberg made printed books affordable, increased literacy would create a market for spectacles, which would lead to improved lenses and the invention of telescopes, which would produce the discovery that the Earth orbits the sun. No one planned that one particular book’s argument for the fecundity of freedom would bolster the case for limited government the way Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” did when published in 1776.

© 2015, Washington Post Writers Group

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