The Evolution of Everything (Book Review)

The Evolution of Everything is the second book of his that I’ve read (after The Rational Optimist) from Matt Ridley. It takes on many large topics and argues that everything is bottom-up evolution, and not top-down planning (sky-hooks). He makes a convincing argument. Sometimes the topics are a bit too wide/shallow for my taste. Yet I am convinced by his main thesis, that everything organises bottom-up and that top-down planning breaks more things than it helps.

The New York Times bestselling author of The Rational Optimistand Genome returns with a fascinating, brilliant argument for evolution that definitively dispels a dangerous, widespread myth: that we can command and control our world.

The Evolution of Everything is about bottom-up order and its enemy, the top-down twitch—the endless fascination human beings have for design rather than evolution, for direction rather than emergence. Drawing on anecdotes from science, economics, history, politics and philosophy, Matt Ridley’s wide-ranging, highly opinionated opus demolishes conventional assumptions that major scientific and social imperatives are dictated by those on high, whether in government, business, academia, or morality. On the contrary, our most important achievements develop from the bottom up. Patterns emerge, trends evolve. Just as skeins of geese form Vs in the sky without meaning to, and termites build mud cathedrals without architects, so brains take shape without brain-makers, learning can happen without teaching and morality changes without a plan.

Although we neglect, defy and ignore them, bottom-up trends shape the world. The growth of technology, the sanitation-driven health revolution, the quadrupling of farm yields so that more land can be released for nature—these were largely emergent phenomena, as were the Internet, the mobile phone revolution, and the rise of Asia. Ridley demolishes the arguments for design and effectively makes the case for evolution in the universe, morality, genes, the economy, culture, technology, the mind, personality, population, education, history, government, God, money, and the future.

As compelling as it is controversial, authoritative as it is ambitious, Ridley’s stunning perspective will revolutionize the way we think about our world and how it works.

I do also get some of the critique (that he is going way too wide with his theory). ” One major issue is the too broad definition he gives to evolution. It starts off fine, as he discusses actual evolution in the early chapters – Darwin’s theory, and DNA, and the like. He then starts to make a series of analogies later on when discussing modern issues, like economics. There is some similarity there (but I’ll get to my problems with that in a second). But later he keeps going on to anything that’s change. For example, a chapter on education contains a detailed critique of current education systems. OK, fair enough. But how is that evolution? He wants several changes made, and concludes the chapter by stating, “Let education evolve.” OK, so he’s calling for specific, deliberate changes to be made with a clear end result in mind…… And that’s evolution? As this book notes, evolution isn’t steps made toward a clear, deliberate goal. They are just gradual changes over time acting spontaneously. But he’s pushing an agenda here, and hiding behind the theory of evolution to push for specific steps to make. “

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