The Science of Liberty
By Arnold Kling
In The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge,1 Matt Ridley claims for liberty what Karl Marx once claimed for socialism: the mantle of science. He argues that evolution pervades not only biology but also technology and culture, and that it brings progress. In contrast, those human institutions that rely on top-down authority can cause much damage.
Change in human institutions, artifacts and habits is incremental, inexorable, and inevitable. It follows a narrative, going from one stage to the next; it creeps rather than jumps; it has its own spontaneous momentum, rather than being driven from the outside; it has no goal or end in mind; and it largely happens by trial and error—a version of natural selection.
His quarrel is with those who emphasize the individual human agent rather than the overall process of evolution.
The way that human history is taught can therefore mislead, because it places far too much emphasis on design, direction and planning, and far too little on evolution. Thus, it seems that generals win battles; politicians run countries; scientists discover truths; artists create genres; inventors make breakthroughs; teachers shape minds; philosophers change minds; priests teach morality; businessmen lead businesses; conspirators cause crises; gods make morality…
… again and again we mistake cause for effect; we blame the sailing boat for the wind, or credit the bystander with causing the event. .a child learns, so a teacher must have taught her (not books, peers and curiosity that the teacher helped her find); a species is saved, so a conservationist must have saved it (not the invention of fertiliser which cut the amount of land needed to feed the population); an invention is made, so an inventor must have invented it (not the inexorable, inevitable ripeness of the next technological step)…
Ridley’s book is itself an example of the process of human progress as he sees it. He is not inventing entirely new ideas. Instead, he is re-combining and synthesizing ideas from writers in a number of fields.
“Because we can transmit knowledge, the results of trial and error get passed along to later generations. This enables humans to progress in our economics, our technology, and our ethics.”
Ridley cites Joseph Henrich and others on the evolution of culture.2 Henrich makes the case that as isolated individuals, humans have very little intelligence. Instead, we are unique among all species in our ability to accumulate knowledge and transmit it to one another. Because we can transmit knowledge, the results of trial and error get passed along to later generations. This enables humans to progress in our economics, our technology, and our ethics.
For more on these topics, see the EconTalk podcast episodes with Matt Ridley and also Kevin Kelly on Technology and What Technology Wants.
In the field of technology, Ridley cites Kevin Kelly and Steven Berlin Johnson.3 They point out that “breakthrough” ideas, such as the electric lightbulb, the steamboat, or the theory of evolution, often occur to several individuals at the same time. This is because knowledge accumulates gradually. Scientists and inventors work with “the adjacent possible,” meaning the new combinations of ideas that become available after necessary precursors have been developed.
On the economy, Ridley writes,
Prosperity emerged despite, not because of, human policy. It developed inexorably out of the interaction of people by a form of selective progress very similar to evolution. Above all, it was a decentralised phenomenon, achieved by millions of individual decisions, mostly in spite of the actions of rulers. Indeed, it is possible to argue, as Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson do, that countries like Britain and the United States grew rich precisely because their citizens overthrew the elites who monopolised power.
Ridley sees the powerful historical figure as more likely to be a villain than a hero. No one man can be more effective than evolution at achieving progress. However, a Hitler or Stalin or Mao can kill many people and ruin the lives of many others. In conclusion,
… bad news is manmade, top-down, purposed stuff, imposed on history. Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves.
I enjoyed reading The Evolution of Everything. However, afterward I was left with several questions.
First, Ridley disparages religion. He writes,
It’s not just in its theology that religion is a top-down phenomenon, but in its human organization, too. Religions always and everywhere insist upon the argument from authority.
Nonetheless, has not religion in some periods of history been a force for progress? Ridley himself seems to suggest that Christianity played a constructive role in the transition to monogamous marriage, which in turn he argues helped tamp down violence. Also, there is the question of whether humans need some belief system that performs the functions of religion. Many libertarians worry that Marxism and environmentalism are authoritarian religion-substitutes.
Second, Ridley disparages the slow evolution of political systems. However, there may be some benefit to that. If political systems were to evolve rapidly, could they not become more effectively authoritarian?
Finally, Ridley does not explain how the idea of evolution itself remained dormant for so long, and how it continues to seem counterintuitive to so many people. He cites Greek philosopher Epicurus as describing a world that emerged without gods or kings. Ridley returns repeatedly to the long philosophical poem “Of the Nature of Things,” by Roman poet Titus Lucretia Carus, which appears to anticipate much modern thought, but which was denounced and even banned for many centuries.
If ideas emerge from the “adjacent possible,” how is it that some rare individuals thousands of years ago were able to anticipate ideas that only began to penetrate our culture in the late 18th century, when Adam Smith published his most important works? And why does the idea of evolution continue to face so much resistance today? As Ridley points out, on the one hand there are many religious conservatives and others who insist that biology comes from design, not from evolution. And there are many on the left who insist that economic well-being comes from government planning, not from markets. Are those of us who see decentralized evolution as superior to central planning forever doomed to be in the minority? Or is it possible to envision evolutionary progress on that front as well?
Matt Ridley, The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge. Harper, 2015.
Henrich has recently released The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, Princeton University Press, published at about the same time as Ridley’s The Evolution of Everything.
Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants (Viking Press, 2010) and Steven Berlin Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: the Natural History of Innovation, (Riverhead Books, 2010).
*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of five books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; and Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.
For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.