Good Stuff Comes from the Bottom Up

How culture, economies, technology, and government evolve


The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, by Matt Ridley, HarperCollins, 368 pages, $28.99

Incremental, bottom-up, trial-and-error innovation yields moral progress, superior technologies, and greater wealth. Top-down mandates from centralized authorities are more likely to produce ethical disasters, technological stagnation, and persistent poverty. "Bad news is man-made, top-down, purposed stuff, imposed on history," Matt Ridley writes in The Evolution of Everything. "Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves."

Ridley, a British journalist who has written extensively about science, economics, and technological progress, begins by explaining the fundamentals of biological evolution by natural selection: Biological complexity evolves through random mutation followed by non-random survival. Ridley then argues that the Darwinian process is a "special theory of evolution" embedded in a more "general theory of evolution that applies to much more than biology."

Decentralized evolution by trial and error, Ridley asserts, is the chief way improvements have emerged in all sorts of human endeavor, including "morality, the economy, culture, language, technology, cities, firms, education, history, law, government, God, money, and society." As the 18th century Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson argued, these phenomena are the result of human action but not of human design. By book's end, Ridley has adeptly dismantled all forms of creationism, divine and progressive.

Consider the evolution of culture. More and more, cultural anthropologists have come to accept the view that—to quote a recent paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences—"human cultural groups have all the key attributes of a Darwinian evolutionary system." As Ridley explains, "Our habits and our institutions, from language to cities, are constantly changing, and the mechanism of change turns out to be surprisingly Darwinian: it is gradual, undirected, mutational, inexorable, combinatorial, selective and in some vague sense progressive."

One example: the institution of marriage. As our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved into herders and farmers, polygamy became more common, since some men could now accumulate the resources needed to support and defend more than one woman and their progeny. However, polygamy has a big downside: Male sexual competition produces lots of violence. While some 80 percent of the distinct cultures identified by anthropologists still sanction polygamy, monogamy is by far now the most common form of marriage. Why?

The University of British Columbia anthropologist Joseph Henrich and his colleagues argue that societies that adopted normative monogamy increased their social solidarity and trust, thus enhancing "the competitive success of the polities, nations and religions that adopted this cultural package." The upshot is that in the modern world, cultures where polygamy still thrives tend to be marginalized, poor, and violent. Henrich and his colleagues also speculate that "the peculiar institutions of monogamous marriage may help explain why democratic ideals and notions of equality and human rights first emerged in the West." This egalitarian impulse, interestingly, may be behind the evolving inclination toward including same-sex unions in the institution of marriage.

What about the evolution of economics? Prior to the 18th century, top-down extraction of wealth by elites from hapless serfs and peasants was the nearly universal form of economic and political organization among settled societies. The result was persistent and pervasive poverty. As the University of Groningen economist Angus Maddison has shown, economic growth proceeded at the stately pace of less than 0.1 percent per year in Western Europe for more than 18 centuries, rising in constant dollars from $425 per capita in AD 1 to $1,200 in 1820.

Toward the end of that period, a socioeconomic mutation—market liberalism—arose in Britain and the Netherlands. As it spread around the world, the mutation proved highly advantageous to the societies that accepted some degree of it, enabling them to prosper. This "great enrichment," as the University of Illinois at Chicago economist Deirdre McCloskey calls it, boosted average incomes 10- to 20-fold in those countries where it took hold.

Ridley cites entrepreneur Nick Hanauer and economist Eric Beinhocker, who suggest that unfettered commerce is "best understood as an evolutionary system, constantly creating and trying out new solutions to problems in a similar way to how evolution works in nature. Some solutions are 'fitter' than others. The fittest survive and propagate. The unfit die." The consequence of competition is constant innovation, which the economist Joseph Schumpeter neatly summarized as "creative destruction." After accounting for the contributions of labor and capital, economist Robert Solow calculated that nearly 90 percent of the improvements in living standards is due to technological progress.

How about technological evolution? "Biology and technology in the end boil down to systems of information…and both evolve by trial and error," writes Ridley. "Technology is in [a] sense a continuation of biological evolution—an imposition of informational order on a random world."

Every technology is built by recombining earlier technologies. Ridley makes the arresting but persuasive claim that, far more often than not, "scientific breakthroughs [are] the effect, not the cause, of technological change." In other words, technologists' tools are what enable basic researchers to uncover nature's secrets. One modest example is the invention of the microscope in the 1590s by a Dutchman, Zacharias Jansen, who made spectacles for a living. Another is the automated gene sequencer introduced in 1987 by Applied Biosystems, which paved the way for the Human Genome Project.

Ridley also suggests that scientific central planning, especially in the form of public funding of research, poses problems. In 2015, for example, the Institute for International Economics found that research and development in "the business sector had high social returns, and hence contributed to growth, but there was no evidence in this analysis of positive effects from government R&D." It would be really surprising if government R&D did not help give birth to some technological breakthroughs—nuclear power and the Internet leap to mind. Still, a 2014 paper published in PLOS Medicine estimated that 85 percent of research resources are wasted.

What's more, a 2015 study in PLOS Biology alarmingly suggested that half of all preclinical research is irreproducible. Replication and cumulative knowledge production are cornerstones of the scientific process. This means that in the U.S. about $19 billion in annual public biomedical research funding is, arguably, squandered.

And then there is the evolution of government. States emerged from protection rackets in which a gang monopolizing violence demanded payment of goods and services—taxes—in exchange for promises to defend local farmers and artisans from predation by rival gangs. "Tudor monarchs and the Taliban are cut from exactly the same cloth," Ridley provocatively claims.

But two or three centuries ago, the fractured polities of Western Europe provided an open, speculative space where novel ideas about property rights, free trade, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and limits on government could mutate and grow. Where those bottom-up conceptual ideas took hold, technological innovation sped forward, incomes rose, and civil liberties were recognized.

Once established, liberal societies are veritable evolution machines that frenetically generate new mutations and swiftly recombine them to produce a vast array of products, services, and social institutions that enable ever more people to flourish. So far liberal societies are outcompeting—in the sense of being richer and more appealing—those polities that are closer to the original protection rackets.

"Perhaps," Ridley suggests hopefully, "the state is now evolving steadily towards benign and gentle virtue." He then adds, "Perhaps not."

Supporting the more benign scenario is the fact that the ratio of countries rated as free by Freedom House increased from 29 percent in 1973 to 47 percent in 2007. Since then, however, the spread of liberty has faltered.

Biological evolution has no end goals; those creatures that survive then reproduce. Presumably the sorts of cultural, economic, technological, and governmental evolution described by Ridley also do not have end goals; what survives is replicated. It is not impossible that some future cultural mutation might arise and outcompete market liberalism. Yet as a constant novelty-generating dynamo, market liberalism has a pretty good chance of staying ahead of mutations that tend in more authoritarian directions.

There is another way to think of the developments that are the result of human action but not of human design. Human beings, through a long process of trial and error (mostly error), are slowly discovering our own given natures. We chance upon habits, institutions, and moralities that increasingly incline our inborn predilections toward promoting human flourishing.

Flourishing does not mean sheer biological reproduction. After all, it is those societies where the market liberalism mutation took hold earliest that have the lowest fertility rates. Flourishing means something like the pursuit and enjoyment of more meaningful lives.

As Ridley concludes, "It is a fair bet that the twenty-first century will be dominated mostly by shocks of bad news, but will experience mostly invisible progress of good things. Incremental, inexorable, inevitable changes will bring us material and spiritual improvements that will make the lives of our grandchildren wealthier, healthier, happier, cleverer, kinder, freer, more peaceful, and more equal—almost entirely as a serendipitous by-product of cultural evolution."