I recently finished reading Matt Ridley’s book The Evolution of Everything : How Ideas Emerge. I rarely read books with an overarching social theme because they usually push their theme too far, but this one is good. The blurb gives the book’s message well enough.
We are taught that the world is a top-down place. 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; environmentalists save the planet. Not just individuals, but institutions too: Goldman Sachs, the Communist Party, the Catholic Church, Al Qaeda – these are said to shape the world.
This is more often wrong than right. ‘Tear Down the Sky Hooks’ 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. Top downery is the source of most of our worst problems in the past – why Hitler won an election, why the sub-prime bubble happened, why Africa lingered in poverty when Asia did not, why the euro is a disaster – and will be the scourge of this century too.
And although we neglect, defy and ignore them, bottom-up trends still shape the world. The growth of technology, the sanitation-driven health revolution, the quadrupling of farm yields so that more land could be released for nature – these were largely emergent phenomena. So was the internet, the mobile phone revolution and the rise of Asia.
In this wide-ranging, highly opinionated non-fiction narrative, Ridley draws on anecdotes from science, economics, history, politics and philosophy and examples drawn from the scientific literature, from historical narratives and from personal anecdotes.
The book’s message is that many things evolve, not just plants and animals. Ideas evolve too. The world is a gradual and relentless unfolding of adjacent possibilities. As new possibilities become realities then a whole new web of further possibilities move closer to becoming realities until they too are accepted or rejected by evolution, by the survival of the fittest.
So from this perspective one might see David Cameron as a clearing house for evolving pressures rather than a leader who exerts and directs those pressures. More puppet than mover and shaker. Once we take into account a vast array of events, pressures and contributing factors, then there are very few if any movers and shakers. The world is largely governed by the enormously complex and powerful evolution of new realities - not particular individuals.
Celebrities, leaders, kings, queens, prime ministers and presidents are our largely incorrect top down way of attributing causes to powerful people. It's the Big Man myth and it has been with us since the dawn of time. Ridley’s book is a sound antidote.
What one does with it is another matter. We tend to think and argue in top down terms and if we try to change things via a more realistic evolutionary approach then we are likely to find ourselves on the edge of the debate. However, today’s edge may evolve into tomorrow’s mainstream.
You never know. It would certainly upset a few people.