A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon a Guardian review of the new Matt Ridley‘s book, The Evolution of Everything. In the past I read a couple of books of Ridley (The Red Queen and Genome), and the subtitle of this new one (“How new ideas emerge”) seemed quite relevant. On top of this, the Guardian review was not just negative, but full of genuine, quasi-emotional, hate for the volume, so I decided to invest some time to read it.
The Evolution of Everything is, indeed, quite bad. The main problem is with the definition of evolution itself. From the first pages it is clear that Ridley uses an extremely loose definition of “evolution”, which is vaguely coinciding with any bottom-up, self-organising process. While evolution is a bottom-up, self-organising process, many bottom-up, self-organising processes are not evolutionary in a particular meaningful sense. A textbook example of these processes is the bottom-up development of trails by pedestrians. In the image below (from Helbing et al, Self-organizing pedestrian movement), the less-defined “shortcuts” in the park are created by spontaneous, non-organised, activity of single pedestrians. Each time an individual walks in the shortcut the path gets clearer, more individuals will notice it and possibly walk it, in a classic self-organising loop. All this is very interesting, but calling it “evolutionary” is quite misleading. In one of the first chapter (The Evolution of Morality), Ridley makes absolutely clear he is using this framework, contrasting, for example, the “unplanned emergency” idea behind english common-law with the designed, top-down planning, of civil-law system. With such a definition of evolution not only is very difficult to understand what is ‘evolutionary’ and what is not (I will come back on this) but, mainly, one loses all, or almost, the explicative power associated to the ‘proper’ concept of evolution (e.g. selection, heritability, etc.).
Beside this – or perhaps because of this – the book has several other flaws. It is curious, for example, that just after complaining of the habit of assuming individual causation behind all events (“A battle is won so a general must have won it”), Ridley tells the story of the concept of…well…emergence perhaps…almost as an illumination of a single man-hero (Lucretius), which was re-discovered by the usual other giants of the past (Newton, etc.). In sum, the idea of “emergence” did not seem to “evolve”, after all, in the narrative of Ridley. More generally, it is not very clear what is the logic behind the organisation of the chapters of the book. It seems, at the beginning and from the title of the book, that each chapter would be the exposition of how an idea (universe, life, morality, education, etc.) “evolved” (in the sense above), but then some cases (such as “life”) are about how our current concept of it is informed by evolutionary thought, and others are mainly advertisements for the nativist views surrounding a topic (“education”).
Finally, and probably because of such a weak theoretical background, risky – as a minimum – generalisations abound. My favourite is in the last chapter, when Ridley, pondering the grand message of the book, claims that “bad news is man-made, top-down, purposed stuff, imposed on history. Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves. The things that go well are largely unintended; the things that go badly are largely intended.” Among the former we have “the First World War, the Russian Revolution, The Versailles Treaty, the Great Depression, the Nazi Regime, The Second World War, the chinese Revolution, the 2008 financial crisis”. Among the latter “the growth of global income; the disappearance of infectious diseases; the feeding of seven billion; the clean-up of rivers and air; the reforestation of much of the rich world; the internet; the use of mobile-phone credit as banking the use of genetic fingerprint to convict criminal and acquit the innocent”. Why it has to be so is a big mystery, as well how it was decided in which category to put the various events.
Going back to the Guardian review, then, it was probably justified to be harshly critic with the book. But why to extend this to all evolutionary approaches to society and culture? Almost any paragraph of the review includes an attack to “theories of social evolution”. Here just a couple of examples: “The fact that all of these predictions have been overturned by events doesn’t matter in the least. Social evolution isn’t a falsifiable theory but a succession of ideologies”; “What Ridley does is what proponents of social evolution have always done: he fastens on some of the events of the past few decades, suitably bolstered by selective bits of history, and turns these fleeting episodes into unstoppable trends”. Moreover the support of evolutionary approaches is linked to Ridley’s personal political views and, quite oddly, to his own managerial misfortunes (“Relying on social evolution can be a risky business”). I, for example, support evolutionary views to human behaviour, and I have never been chairman of a bank. Strange, eh?
So, the not-very-merry take home message here is that what the public knows on cultural and social evolution theories probably arrives from (bad) books as Matt Ridley’s one and (biased) reviews as the Guardian one. This is quite unfortunate. A growing number of people are doing a very serious work in cultural evolution. They do not generally write on widely diffused newspapers, and, while there are now quite a few very good academic books for expert or quasi-experts, we certainly still miss our Selfish Gene.