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The Evolution of Everything

Ridley, Matt. 2015. The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge. New York, NY: Harper.

Viscount Ridley makes the case for evolution, rather than design, as the force that has shaped much of culture, technology and society, and that even now is shaping our future. He argues that “Change in technology, language, mortality and society is incremental, inexorable, gradual and spontaneous…Much of the human world is the result of human action, but not of human design; it emerges from the interactions of millions, not from the plans of a few.”

Reading level: Basic


Matt Ridley is a journalist and author with an evolutionary view of human society. His latest book, The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, is an easy read for anyone interested in complexity itself, and in particular the emergence of order and the process of self organization.

Throughout human history, we have come to accept the idea that order is created through design and maintained through control. Sources of such design have been assigned to gods and governments in their various forms. And yet, the evidence points clearly in the opposite direction.

Ridley acknowledges the ancient philosophical stance of Epicurus, perhaps the earliest advocate of self-organization, whose works have been lost in a world dominated by the design-oriented philosophies of Plato and Aristotle.

In The Evolution of Everything, Ridley takes us on a tour through a catalog of understandings and institutions: universe, life and genetics, culture and economy, mind and personality, language and more. In each, he challenges the notion of design and describes the emergence of order through evolutionary process.

One of the most powerful arguments for self-organization and emergence is our human assignment of design after the fact. It is difficult for humans to accept the idea of emergence as our fundamental organizing principle, rather than planning. And yet, it is. Life, society, economy and money, mind and personality, governments and cities, and even religion all self-organized before we could design or plan them.

Ridley provides many eye-openers. For example, I did not know that public health insurance thrived in the United Kingdom long before the introduction of National Health. It worked through a large, distributed network of local “Friendly Societies” in the 19th Century.

… just because something is ordered does not mean it was designed. As often as not it emerged through serendipitous trial and error. Equating order with control retains a powerful intuitive appeal, Brink Lindsey has pointed out. ‘Despite the obvious successes of unplanned markets, despite the spectacular rise of the Internet’s decentralized order, and despite the well-publicized new science of “complexity” and its study of self-organizing systems, it is still widely assumed that the only alternative to central authority is chaos.’

Perhaps the most significant challenge of complexity thinkers is to help our society and culture to discover how planning and control might work in concert with emergence and self-organization, instead of trying to replace them.