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The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge

Author(s):Ridley, Matt
Reviewer(s):Coelho, Philip R.P.

Published by EH.Net (October 2016)

Matt Ridley, The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. 360 pp. $29 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-06-229600-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Philip R.P. Coelho, Department of Economics, Ball State University.

This is a well-written and informative book; it consists of a prologue, sixteen chapters, an epilogue and an index. It is written with a point of view (libertarian right) that may grate on some readers, and its flaws may make it inadvisable to assign to lower-level undergraduates for outside reading.

Matt Ridley begins with a bow to the classical Roman author Lucretius’s extended poem, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). Each chapter starts with a quote from Lucretius pertinent to the chapter’s contents. Chapter topics are diverse; examples are: The Evolution of the Universe (Chapter 1), The Evolution of Religion (Chapter 14), The Evolution of the Internet (Chapter 16), and almost everything in between. Obviously the book’s ambitions are not modest, and, all-in-all it is a formidable introduction to the scientific and intellectual histories of a number of disciplines. As might be expected, some chapters are substantially superior to others.

The chapters on the physical sciences are excellent. These include the evolutions of the universe (Chapter 1), life (Chapter 3) genes (Chapter 4), technology (Chapter 7), and the mind (Chapter 8). These are substantive and informative. Still a major difficulty that I have with these chapters (and the book in general) is the conflation of the word “evolution” with development and/or history.  Change is not synonymous with the scientific or Darwinian meaning of evolution (which Ridley employs in parts of The Evolution of Everything), but, more than occasionally, he treats “evolution” as if it were synonymous with “history” or “development.” For example, when the author speaks of the evolution of societal attitudes toward same-sex marriage (p. 26) he is really talking about the climate of currently accepted opinion in much of the western world. My criticism of Ridley’s usage of “evolution” to describe changing attitudes towards same-sex unions as evolutionary is not normative; the toleration of same-sex unions could, or could not be, “evolutionary desirable,” where evolutionary desirable means leaving more descendants or out-competing rivals for resources.  It is possible that societies tolerant of same-sex unions may have (for whatever reasons) faster rates of growth than societies that are intolerant. The increase in resources may allow tolerant societies to dominate and surpass less tolerant societies. Using the term “evolution” to describe both evolution in a Darwinian context and as synonym for current trends or fashions may confuse readers.

Other faults with the book are that it is not well documented. An egregious example is in the chapter on the evolution (history) of money.  Ridley writes that: “Joseph Stiglitz, and Peter and Jonathan Orszag . . . concluded [in 2002] that the risk to the government from a potential default of Fannie [the Federal National Mortgage Association] or Freddie [the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation] because of sub-prime lending was ‘effectively zero’ – ‘so small that it is difficult to detect.’” (p. 292). Despite the quotations within this passage there is no footnote to the source for the quotations, nor is the source for the quotation mentioned in the “Sources of Further Readings” (pp. 323-341). Because Stiglitz and the Orszag brothers played important roles in advising the Obama administration and the Congressional Democrats (i.e. the Dodd-Frank banking/financial legislation) I was more than mildly curious about the quote’s provenance. The usual data bases had no mention of the aforesaid quote and its source, so I turned to the undergraduate’s favorite tool and Googled the names and terms, and up popped the source. In short, Ridley’s summary was correct.  Similarly, in the chapter on religion Ridley has a direct quote saying: “In the way they rescued the theory from refutation; but they did so at the price of adopting a device which made it ambiguous” (p. 270). There is no citation and the antecedent is ambiguous. (Karl Popper, the author of the quote is mentioned in the paragraph but so are five other surnames, some of which precede the quote.) Once more Google came to the rescue and identified these as Popper’s words.  Readers should not have to depend on Google to verify quotations and sources.

Ridley’s economic discussions are uneven; he has excellent intuition, still his knowledge of economics has some serious deficiencies in the foundational literature of evolutionary economics. Armen Alchian and his seminal article (1950) on the evolutionary basis of economics are not mentioned. Milton Friedman is quoted for his comments on the internet (also undocumented by Ridley; Google was able to track down Friedman’s internet quote), but Friedman’s Essays in Positive Economics (1953), which competes with Alchian’s article as foundational to evolutionary economics, was not mentioned. Here we have Ridley talking about the evolution of various economics subjects, yet ignoring the intellectual foundations of evolutionary theory in economics; the result is intellectual dissonance.

Ridley is also somewhat haphazard in his command of more recent literature. The discussion on money (chapter 15) deals in depth with the recent financial meltdown, yet he appears to be unaware of the work by Calomiris and Haber (2014) that attributes the Great Recession to government policies that affected banking and the home mortgage industry.  Other examples of ignoring the recent literature are in Chapter 11 (population) where he criticizes the Malthusian’s theory on population and vilifies Malthus without considering the Malthusian intuition that associates increased population density with an increased disease burden (which increased both mortality and morbidity, and these reduced productivity). The Malthusian intuition is an offset to the virtuous cycle postulated by Adam Smith — that increasing population increases market size which increases specialization that in turn leads to increased productivity is limited by the [absolute] size of the market. Robert McGuire and I have written (2011) about this.

In spite of omissions, oversights and errors in Ridley’s economic discussions, he does enlighten and entertain, and provides insights into economic processes. I liken this book to a major university; over all it pursues excellence, still there are deficiencies in some disciplines and specialties that could be improved upon substantially. Ridley is an accomplished and talented author and scholar whom I greatly admire. I am glad I read the book and encourage others to read it, yet a more disciplined approach and an unyielding editor would have made a good book better.

References:

Alchian, Armen A. (1950) “Uncertainty, Evolution, and Economic Theory,” Journal of Political Economy 58 (3): 211–21.

Calomiris, Charles W. and Stephen H. Haber. (2014) Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Friedman, Milton, (1953) Essays in Positive Economics.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

McGuire, Robert A. and Philip R. P. Coelho. (2011) Parasites, Pathogens, and Progress: Diseases and Economic Development. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press.

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Education and Human Resource Development
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Historical Demography, including Migration
History of Technology, including Technological Change
Markets and Institutions
Time Period(s):General or Comparative