Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Evolution of Everything

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. Acclaimed author, Matt Ridley, shows just how wrong this is in his compelling new book.

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.


James Higham said...

Hmmmm, perhaps.

Sam Vega said...

Sounds plausible. Then again, having Cameron as PM would be enough to convince anyone that the real decisions are made elsewhere.

After I've finished the massive novel I'm ploughing through, I'll give it a go. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I am not so sure we do think in top down terms, at least when developing the argument. Only when the argument is formed (or malformed) do we try to broaden it out and see what else it encompasses. For ideas seem like Velcro, they need hooks inside minds to gain attachment. My hooks are not the same as yours and so a communicable idea ought to have a good handful of hooks otherwise it will be lost. A mixture of abstract and definite hooks are needed.

Then new applications seem to come from the joining of technologies, walkie-talkie + microchip = mobile phone. For new applications to grow then new technologies and ideas need adding to the soup and the soup also needs to be gently warmed.

A K Haart said...

James - worth reading.

Sam - I don't think you will be disappointed.

Roger - by "we" I mostly mean the mainstream media and their tendency to look at policies and events and responses to policies and events from the top. To my mind the hooks are language hooks which tends to be skewed top down as well, particularly when hindsight and history are being formulated for general consumption.