Sunday 7 October 2018

Matt Ridley: The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge (2015)

Edition: Harper Collins, 2015
Review number: 1513

While there are many interesting ideas, points and quotes in this book, I found it frustrating and unconvincing. While it is apparently about how evolution works in a number of settings, essentially those of complex emergent systems, much of it uses that as the basis for an attack on any form of control or management of these systems - it's a libertarian manifesto in all but name.

I have a fair number of issues with the book. First, and fundamentally, I don't think it makes a case for the word "evolution" being applied consistently to all the subjects. It starts, naturally enough, with one of the best known and best understood subjects, the evolution of life. Here, there is a sound mathematical foundation, a set of statistical rules which can predict many things (such as, for instance, the ways in which altruism can bestow an evolutionary advantage despite the immediate appearance that it shouldn't). While there are mathematical models for some of the other concepts, such as the economy, there isn't the same broad agreement on the most acceptable model. In some cases (education, for instance) it is hard to even see what a model would be like, and here it feels more as though something is evolutionary because it is complex and changes over time.

Second, the shortness of the treatments of the different topics makes it appear that Ridley makes his points through selective quotation. Some of the discussions do talk about other ideas in the field, but I think they are not given even the appearance of a fair hearing. Some authors are quoted repeatedly, which makes selective quoting seem more obvious. I don't think that this appearance was Ridley's intention, but it does reduce the impact of the book.

Thirdly, the book seems to me to avoid talking about some of the ethical issues involved in taking the libertarian approach. While he talks approvingly of unregulated private enterprise, and even makes it seem that this will improve the lot of everyone, the problem is that even in today's heavily regulated world, unethical individuals abuse positions of power over others: there have always been companies run as sweat shops, and we still see prosecutions for slavery and exploitation on a regular basis (especially, it seems, in those underground industries which are less regulated because of their essentially criminal nature, such as prostitution). It often seems that those who put forward libertarianism do so because they expect that they would be among the winners, and they don't really think about what this means for the losers. This isn't to say that live isn't going to be grim for the losers in the world as it is today, or hasn't been miserable in the past, and Ridley does cite several examples, including some from the worst moments of British colonialism.

Overall, there is much said which is interesting, but I found the book more frustrating than convincing. My rating: 5/10.