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Evolution is everything

Evolution is a concept that is associated most commonly with the natural world. However, in The Evolution of Everything, Matt Ridley argues that evolution happens in every aspect of human culture. In domains as diverse as morality, technology, money, and religion, there is evidence that the world is a self-organizing, self-changing place that cannot be controlled or commanded by mankind. Ridley purports that evolution occurs not from top-down design but from bottom-up emergence.


A common theme in Western thought is the desire to explain the world as the outcome of design and planning. The philosopher Daniel Dennett used the metaphor of “skyhooks” to describe this worldview, since solutions and explanations are imposed from on high in a miraculous way. Dennett contrasted skyhooks with “cranes,” which enable solutions and patterns to evolve from the ground up, similar to natural selection.

The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus believed every aspect of the physical world and human society emerged spontaneously, without any sort of divine intervention. Years later, Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus continued to espouse Epicurus’ theories and rejected mysticism, religion, myth, and superstition. However, because Lucretius’ beliefs did not support the concept of transubstantiation, he sunk into obscurity after Christianity gained acceptance in ancient Rome.

Yet despite the commonly held top-down viewpoint, Lucretian thought has persisted over time, for example among Enlightenment-era philosophers, who pursued paths that contradicted creationist thinking. These individuals embraced the notion that disciplines like astronomy, biology, and society could be explained without relying on intelligent design. As these natural explanations of the world supplanted supernatural ones, emergence — or the view of an evolving, bottom-up world — took hold.


Lucretian followers began to question whether morality had been handed down from the Judeo-Christian God. An alternative view was that morality evolved spontaneously through social interaction as a way for people to get along. Philosopher Adam Smith suggested that as people accommodated their desires to those of others, a system of shared morality arose. He believed that an invisible hand guided individuals toward a common moral code, rather than that a moral code was handed down by God or the clergy.

With Smith’s evolutionary view, morality evolves to different end points in different societies. This is supported by the research of Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker. Historically, centralized governments that focused on a king and a court replaced rule by local warlords. In response, people modified their behavior to be more like courtiers and less like warriors. In addition, commerce drove people to value the chance to be trusted by a stranger in transactions. Research shows that countries with thriving commerce are considerably less violent than countries where commerce is suppressed. Yet, most people do not recognize the fact that moral order emerges gradually and evolves continually.


In early 19th-century Britain, ideas of emergent order in human society were flourishing. As Charles Darwin promoted his theory of evolution, theologian William Paley argued that biological design was based on purpose. Paley’s theory was that the more that spontaneous mechanisms were discovered to explain the natural world, the more convinced people should be that there is intelligence behind those mechanisms.

Several decades after Paley published a book espousing these beliefs, Darwin suggested a different theory. He believed that the replication of competing creatures would produce cumulative complexity that fitted form to function without anyone comprehending the rationale. One of the most powerful aspects of Darwin’s idea is that natural selection cannot know the future, yet it has unparalleled access to information about the past.

Although significant evidence for evolution exists, millions still believe in a top-down design for life. One example of this is the American “intelligent design” movement. Intelligent design argues that the complex functional arrangements of biology cannot be explained except by God’s intervention.


Life creates order out of chaos and, while doing so, expends energy. Three types of molecules are essential for life: DNA, which stores information; protein, which makes order; and ATP, which facilitates energy exchange. Yet how these molecules came into existence poses a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Scientists have determined that a likely explanation is that RNA can store information like DNA and catalyze reactions like proteins. The current theory is that at one time, there was an “RNA world.” In this world, living things had RNA bodies with RNA genes that used RNA ingredients for energy. The origin of this RNA world, however, has been unclear until recently. Scientists have found at the bottom of the ocean floor a precursor of how living things currently store energy. These molecules adapted by survival of the fittest.

Each gene plays a small role, yet no single gene understands the whole plan. Nonetheless, a spontaneous design of complexity and order emerges. The human genome reinforces the idea that order and complexity can exist without any explicit management. The body, Ridley believes, is “an emergent phenomenon,” and any mutation is random rather than intentional.


Evolution is a phenomenon that is not confined to the realm of DNA. Two evolutionary theorists — Rob Boyd and Pete Richerson — discovered that Darwin’s selective survival resulting in cumulative complexity also applies to human culture. Evolutionary change will occur in any information transmission system as long as three characteristics exist:

  1. Some disorganization or “lumpiness” in the things transmitted.

  2. Some fidelity of transmission.

  3. Randomness in innovation.

Language is a perfect example of a spontaneously organized phenomenon. Languages are rules-based, but the rules emerge from the bottom up, not from the top down. There are additional ways that languages resemble other evolutionary systems. For example, animal and plant species tend to be more diverse in tropical areas and less diverse near the earth’s poles; the same patterns exist with languages. When a new species emerges, it changes very rapidly at first — as does a new language when it develops.

Evolution is at work everywhere in the world of human affairs. This can be seen, for example, in the way marriage has evolved over time, and the widespread acceptance of monogamy, which results in more peaceful and productive societies. The urbanization that began in the mid-18th century resulted not from public authorities but the needs of private citizens and market forces, and the continuing evolution of the city, Ridley argues, is the result of momentum, not policy. As for cultural institutions, many change rapidly (e.g., technologies), while others (e.g., certain political systems) remain static for some time. Those that survive evolve not because of individuals’ directions but to meet their needs.


Research shows that the annual income of the average person today is 10 to 20 times greater than the average person in 1800. The world economy is expected to keep growing. According to the OECD, the average person may earn 16 times as much in 2100 as he or she does today. The cause of this growth is unknown; no one planned it and it emerged in spite of human policies. Instead, it has been a decentralized phenomenon, resulting from millions of individual decisions.

Free commerce is decentralized. When prosperity occurs, it grows organically without any top-down direction. The primary shortcoming with command-and-control systems like fascism, communism, or socialism is the knowledge problem. Huge amounts of information are needed to organize human society and economies.

Economists have tried to explain innovation and its role in increasing standards of living. Ridley believes that innovation will never be fully explained because it requires centralization of widely dispersed knowledge. Innovation cannot be predicted; instead it emerges whenever people are free to exchange.


There is abundant evidence that technology proceeds in a methodical way from each tool to the next. Leapfrog advances are rare. In addition, inventions typically arise at the moment in history when it makes sense for them to do so. Inventions, according to historian Alfred Kroeber, are an evolutionary phenomenon — “one endless chain of parallel instances.”

Writer and editor Kevin Kelly uses the term technium to describe the evolving organism comprising the world’s collective machinery. Kelly believes that the technium is a complex organism that follows its own urges. As a result, the best way to stimulate new product development is to promote technological evolution, rather than focusing on designing new products.

If technology is an autonomous entity that evolves on its own, people are riding rather than driving the innovation wave. If technological advancement cannot be stopped, perhaps it also cannot be directed or steered. This suggests that policies that are designed to promote innovation, such as patents, prizes, and government science funding, will usually have unpredictable results. Sometimes they may be helpful, but not in every instance.


Humans commonly speak of the “self” as a unique entity. However, Ridley suggests that the self is instead a bodily phenomenon. Brain research has never found a structure that houses the “self,” consciousness, or will. Scientist Francis Crick has stated that “a person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them.”

As a result, many scientists argue that the idea of free will is an illusion. Human actions are the result of genetics and environmental history. This is troubling to many philosophers. Yet, embracing the notion that behavior is an emergent property of the evolved brain can generate less judgmental attitudes.

For many years, psychologists believed that parents were responsible for shaping their children’s personalities, but it was unclear how this was done. To some degree, this theory was a reaction to genetic determinism, which attributed all personality traits to heredity. In the 1990s, however, Judith Rich Harris examined the evidence and professed that the importance of parenting was overblown. She documented her findings in the bookThe Nurture Assumption, in which she argued that parents were important because they provided love and care, not differences in personality.

Behavior genetic studies found that half of personality differences are formed by direct and indirect effects of genes, while the other half are formed by factors that do not include the home environment. Harris suggested that children acquire habits, accents, and most of their culture from peers, not from their parents. As a result, an individual’s personality develops from within, evolving in response to the external environment.


No one questions compulsory, class-based education that is designed to prepare students for exams. Yet, what would education look like if it were permitted to evolve?

When the British introduced compulsory education in 1880, its population was already almost entirely literate thanks to voluntary education at home, in churches, and in the community. An education system had evolved spontaneously without government direction. Today, state education standards have declined and nationalized education has experienced very little innovation. However, evolutionary reform in education is occurring. James Tooley, professor of education at Newcastle University, has found that in poor slums and remote villages around the world, low-cost, high-quality private schools are prevalent — and preferred to the poorer quality state schools.

Technology is on the brink of changing education dramatically. The Bridge International Academies group, for example, runs 200 low-cost, for-profit schools in Kenya using a syllabus that is scripted for teachers and delivered on tablets. Khan Academy offers thousands of high-quality private teaching videos for free. In 50 years, traditional universities could become obsolete as a result of technology. Politicians and teachers must allow best practices for education to evolve.


Parson Robert Malthus, an English mathematician, teacher, and clergyman, wrote Essay on Population in 1798, insisting that there are limits to growth. Since this document was published, most have used it to justify the use of unkind means to achieve desirable ends. For example, Britain’s Poor Law of 1834 ensured that the very poor were helped only in workhouses and that workhouse conditions were as bad as the worst conditions in the outside world. The theory was that too much charity encouraged breeding.

Fast forward to 1966. Population control became an official stipulation of American foreign aid. One year later, William and Paul Paddock wroteFamine 1975!, which suggested that underdeveloped nations suffering from famine should be ignored and left to their fate. Ironically, birth rates in countries like India were already falling, and food production was rising faster than the population. The answer to the population explosion was agricultural advancements and demographic transitions — and both of these were emergent, rather than the result of coercion and planning.


In the world of business, companies tend to be top-down organizations. Yet, chief executives are often no more than hired spokespeople. That begs the question of who runs companies. In many large firms, division of labor and coordination of action is the norm. In this context, good management translates into good coordination.

The firm Morning Star Tomatoes has been experimenting with “self-management” for approximately 20 years. The company is now the largest tomato processor in the world. Its approach has not resulted in chaos. All employees are equally responsible and decisions are made by individuals closest to the place where the decisions will have the greatest impact. The success of the company comes from bottom-up participation, not top-down directives.


At its core, government is an arrangement among citizens to enforce public order. Governments have emerged spontaneously just as much as they have been imposed. Over time, forms of government have changed organically with little outside planning. In the pioneer days of the American West, for example, people generated their own governing arrangements, enforced by private marshals. Competition among them drove improvements and innovations.

At the turn of the 20th century, many countries operated under command-and-control states. This was true whether a country was governed by a fascist, communist, or colonial regime. Even though liberal values emerged again after World War II, the intelligentsia continues to governing by design rather than on spontaneous, organic, evolutionary development.


According to Ridley, gods are inventions of the human imagination. The religious impulse is an example of what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the “intentional stance.” This is the human instinct to see purpose, agency, and power in every aspect of the world. Ridley views the religious impulse as an illustration of cultural evolution. Religions are man-made, and evolve based on their times and places, and people’s needs. If the need for belief is universal, Ridley states, then gods do exist, but they exist only in people’s minds.


Money is an evolutionary phenomenon that was created not by rulers but emerged gradually among traders. In 18th-century Britain, a coin shortage arose as poor people moved to towns to work for wages. In response, a Welsh businessman named Thomas Williams began producing private coins that served as tokens that people could exchange for pennies. This practice of creating private coins caught on.

It is possible today for countries to have a stable paper currency that performs well even without a gold standard, central bank, or regulation. Panama, El Salvador, and Ecuador use the U.S. dollar as their currency. Although they do not have a top-down central bank that can act as a “lender of last resort,” the outcomes have been positive. The country’s banks have acted cautiously, since moral hazard has been eliminated.

Ridley believes that the economic crisis of 2008 was triggered by top-down interference in credit — a system that should have been bottom up. The incentive to lend irresponsibly to subprime borrowers was generated by governments and pressure groups.

Today, new forms of money are being created that are self-organizing. Examples include air miles, mobile phone credits, and bitcoins. Some believe these will eventually displace official currencies.


The Internet is an excellent example of evolutionary emergence. It has no hierarchy and was not planned by anyone. Despite its messiness, it is not chaotic. Instead, it is ordered, complex, and patterned. However, ever since the Internet was founded there have been factions demanding that an authority regulate it. When it comes to the Internet, Ridley believes evolutionary forces will stay ahead of the command-and-control advocates.

Another technology that is similarly emergent is blockchain technology, which makes bitcoin and other crypto-currencies work. Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer, electronic cash system that is completely decentralized. Everything is based on crypto proof rather than trust. Each coin is composed of a chain of previously mined codes called a blockchain, plus one new block. Looking ahead, it seems certain that crypto-currencies will continue to evolve.

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