“The Evolution of Everything” by Matt Ridley

  1. Evolution is far more common, and far more influential, than most people recognise. It is not confined to genetic systems, but explains the way that virtually all of human culture changes: from morality to technology, from money to religion.
  2. The way that human history is taught can therefore mislead, because it places far too much emphasis on design, direction and planning, and far too little on evolution.
  3. We describe the world as if people and institutions were always in charge, when often they are not.
  4. Consider what must happen every second in your body to keep the show on the road. You have maybe ten trillion cells, not counting the bacteria that make up a large part of your body. Each of those cells is at any one time transcribing several thousand genes, a procedure that involves several hundred proteins coming together in a specific way and catalysing tens of chemical reactions for each of millions of base pairs. Each of those transcripts generates a protein molecule, thousands of amino acids long, which it does by entering a ribosome, a machine with tens of moving parts, capable of catalysing a flurry of chemical reactions. The proteins themselves then fan out within and without cells to speed reactions, transport goods, transmit signals and prop up structures. Millions of trillions of these immensely complicated events are occurring every second in your body to keep you alive, very few of which go wrong. It’s like the world economy in miniature, only even more complex.
  5. Darwin’s mechanism of selective survival resulting in cumulative complexity applies to human culture in all its aspects too.
  6. 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.
  7. There is an almost perfect parallel between the evolution of DNA sequences and the evolution of written and spoken language. Both consist of linear digital codes. Both evolve by selective survival of sequences generated by at least partly random variation. Both are combinatorial systems capable of generating effectively infinite diversity from a small number of discrete elements.
  8. There are economies of scale, and this pattern is the same in every part of the world. The same is true of electrical networks. So it does not matter what the policy of the country, or the mayor, is. Cities will converge on the same patterns of growth wherever they are. In this they are very like bodies. A mouse burns more energy, per unit of body weight, than an elephant; a small city burns proportionately more motor fuel than a large one. Like cities, bodies get more efficient in their energy consumption the larger they grow. There is also a consistent 15 per cent saving on infrastructure cost per head for every doubling of a city’s population size.
  9. Human beings innovate by combining and recombining ideas, and the larger and denser the network, the more innovation occurs.
  10. Everywhere, political institutions show a tendency to change much more slowly than the society around them, and when they do change, they do so with painful and traumatic lurches, called revolutions.
  11. Countries like Britain and the United States grew rich precisely because their citizens overthrew the elites who monopolised power. It was the wider distribution of political rights that made government accountable and responsive to citizens, allowing the great mass of people to take advantage of economic opportunities.
  12. Specialisation, accompanied by exchange, is the source of economic prosperity.
  13. First, the spontaneous and voluntary exchange of goods and services leads to a division of labour in which people specialise in what they are good at doing. Second, this in turn leads to gains from trade for each party to a transaction, because everybody is doing what he is most productive at and has the chance to learn, practise and even mechanise his chosen task.
  14. The invisible hand is not Utopia: ‘It is the process of driving out of business the incompetent in favour of the mediocre, the mediocre in favour of the good, and the good in favour of the excellent.’
  15. Markets, like ecosystems, work not because they are efficient, but because they are effective, because they provide solutions to problems that face customers (or organisms).
  16. Given the right institutions – a market in which to sell your product, the rule of law to prevent theft, a decent system of finance and taxation to incentivise you, some intellectual property protection, but not too much – you can set out to make an innovation and reap the rewards from it, despite sharing it with the world, in the same way you can set out to build a machine.
  17. ‘Trial and error is a tremendously powerful process for solving problems in a complex world, while expert leadership is not’.
  18. The comedian Emo Philips once joked that he considered his brain to be the most fascinating organ in his body – until he realised who was telling him this. It is a joke that brings home the absurdity of the ‘self’, the mind, the will, the ego or the soul.
  19. The root of its appeal lay in the need to think of somebody being in charge. Instead, the truth is that personality unfolds from within, responding to the environment – so in a very literal sense of the word, it evolves.
  20. We are nowhere near equality of opportunity, but if we get there we will not find equality of outcome.
  21. The ruling doctrine of the post-war period, that animals had instincts and people had learning, has also come crashing down under the realisation that evolution explains much about typical human behaviour. In virtually every mammal species, for example, the male grows larger than the female, has greater strength in its neck and front limbs, fights more often over mates or territory, is more sexually assertive, is less attentive to offspring, and shows greater variance in reproductive success (some have many children, some have none). How strange that human beings show these features too, even though people are supposedly the products of culture rather than instinct.
  22. It is nothing short of a miracle, said Albert Einstein, that ‘the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom’.
  23. If your teacher is in a private, for-profit school, however, and you withdraw your child, then the owner of the school will quickly feel the effect in his pocket, and the bad teacher will be fired. In a free system the parent, the consumer, is the boss.
  24. We need to get away from creationist thinking in education, and allow it to evolve. Education, done properly, is an emergent, evolutionary phenomenon. It is the process of encouraging learning about the world.
  25. Today, in Stephen Davies’s view, schools are little more than devices for signalling to employers that a young person has been sufficiently indoctrinated to stick to a task and do as he is told.
  26. But there is a path not taken, in which politicians and teachers both allow best practice to evolve and emerge, in which the state acts as enabler rather than dictator, in which students are encouraged to learn rather than be told what to think, in which the eager learner is boss, not servant, of the system. Let education evolve.
  27. Far from more babies causing more hunger, they argued that it was the other way round. People increased their birth rate in response to high child death rates. Make them richer and healthier and they would have fewer babies, as had already happened in Europe, where prosperity had led birth rates down, not up.
  28. The right thing to do about poor, hungry and fecund people always was, and still is, to give them hope, opportunity, freedom, education, food and medicine, including of course contraception, for not only will that make them happier, it will enable them to have smaller families. Abandon the creationism of technocratic pessimism, the repeatedly debunked doom-mongering of the scientific elite with its simplistic and static misunderstanding of the nature of resources, the easy resort to the lazy plural pronoun ‘we’ and the dreadful word ‘must’.
  29. Layers of management increase in number, size and complexity as organisations grow larger, because managers need managing too; and that a large part of a boss’s job in a big firm is to keep an organisation from collapsing under the weight of its own complexity.
  30. The problem with consensus is that people are not allowed to be different. It’s like trying to drive a car in which the brake and the accelerator have to do similar jobs. No, what really works inside a big firm is division of labour: you do what you’re good at, I’ll do what I’m good at, and we’ll coordinate our actions. That is what actually happens in practice inside most companies, and good management means good coordination.
  31. ‘What kind of company do we want this to be?’, and the answer built upon three principles: that people are happiest when they have personal control over their life; that people are ‘thinking, energetic, creative and caring’; and that the best human organisations are ones like voluntary bodies that are not managed by others, but in which participants coordinate among themselves.
  32. Economic development is more than just a growth of income – it is the appearance of a whole system of collaborative engagement among people to drive innovation that cuts the time it takes people to fill needs.
  33. Organised crime and government are more than first cousins; they are sprung from the same root. That is to say, government began as a mafia protection racket claiming a monopoly on violence and extracting a rent (tax) in return for protecting its citizens from depredation by outsiders.
  34. It taught me just how ready people are to believe supernatural explanations, to trust ‘experts’ (or prophets) even when they are blatantly phony, to prefer any explanation to the mundane and obvious one, and to treat any sceptic as a heretic to be shouted at rather than an agnostic to be persuaded by reason and evidence.
  35. But the truth is we all have it to some degree or other, which is why religious belief is found in every part of the world and every age of history, while rational scepticism is a rare and often lonely stance that leaves Lucretius, Spinoza, Voltaire and Dawkins as heretics. Indeed, the paradox of this realisation is that if belief (in the broad sense of the word) is universal, then no amount of argument can extinguish it, and in a sense therefore, gods really do exist – but inside our heads rather than outside.
  36. When people stop believing in something, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.
  37. The characteristic features of a mystical and therefore untrustworthy, theory are that it is not refutable, that it appeals to authority, that it relies heavily on anecdote, that it makes a virtue of consensus (look how many people believe like me!), and that it takes the moral high ground. You will notice that this applies to most religions.
  38. Pascal’s wager: Blaise Pascal argued that even if God is very unlikely to exist, you had better go to church just in case, because if he does exist the gain will be infinite, and if he does not the pain will have been finite.
  39. Bad news is manmade, top–down, purposed stuff, imposed on history. Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves.
  40. For far too long we have underestimated the power of spontaneous, organic and constructive change driven from below, in our obsession with designing change from above.


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