Book Summary: “The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge” by Matt Ridley


Evolution of Everything

Title: The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge
Author: Matt Ridley
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Ridley argues that evolution is the best way of understanding the world around us.

Key Take-aways

  • Humans incorrectly assume that the world is a planned outcome of humans or gods.
  • Change is incremental, inexorable and inevitable.
  • Change happens from iterative trial-and-error and self-organization, not design.

Other books by the same author:

  • The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

Important Quotes from Book

This book argues that evolution is happening all around us. It is the best way of understanding how the human world changes, as well as the natural world. Change in human institutions, artefacts and habits is incremental, inexorable and inevitable. It follows a narrative, going from one stage to the next; it creeps rather than jumps; it has its own spontaneous momentum, rather than being driven from outside; it has no goal or end in mind; and it largely happens by trial and error – a version of natural selection.

Evolution is far more common, and far more influential, than most people recognize. 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… People are the victims, more often than the perpetrators, of unintended change. And though it has no goal in mind, cultural evolution none the less produces functional and ingenious solutions to problems – what biologists call adaptation.

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.

Leadership still matters. But if there is one dominant myth about the world, one huge mistake we all make, one blind spot, it is that we all go around assuming the world is much more of a planned place than it is.

I want to do for every aspect of the human world a little bit of what Charles Darwin did for biology, and get you to see past the illusion of design, to see the emergent, unplanned, inexorable and beautiful process of change that lies underneath.

They are the result of human action, but not of human design. They are evolutionary phenomena,… And evolutionary phenomena such as these are everywhere and in everything. Yet we fail to recognize this category. Our language and our thought divide the world into two kinds of things – those designed and made by people, and natural phenomena with no order or function.

Far more than we like to admit, the world is to a remarkable extent a self-organizing, self-changing place.

Evolution of Culture:

The defining feature [of humans] is not culture, for plenty of animals have culture, in the sense of traditions that are passed on by learning. The defining feature is cumulative culture – the capacity to add innovations without losing old habits.

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.

Evolution of the Economy:

Specialisation, accompanied by exchange, is the source of economic prosperity.

First, the spontaneous and voluntary exchange of goods and services leads to a division of labour in which people specialize 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, practice and even mechanize his chosen task.

Third, gains from trade encourage more specialisation, which encourages more trade, in a virtuous circle. The greater the specialisation among producers, the greater is the diversification of consumption: in moving away from self-sufficiency people get to produce fewer things, but to consume more. Fourth, specialisation inevitably incentivizes innovation, which is also a collaborative process driven by the exchange and combination of ideas. Indeed, most innovation comes about through the recombination of existing ideas for how to make or organize things.

The central feature of commerce, and the thing that distinguishes it from socialist planning, is that it is decentralized.

The central problem for systems of command and control, whether fascist, communist or socialist, is the knowledge problem. As champions of free enterprise from Frédéric Bastiat to Friedrich Hayek have pointed out, the knowledge required to organize human society is bafflingly voluminous. It cannot be held in a single human head.

Little wonder, then, that Deirdre McCloskey describes the system that produced the great enrichment of the past two centuries as ‘innovationism’ rather than ‘capitalism’. The new and crucial ingredient was not the availability of capital, but the advent of market-tested, consumer-driven innovation.

today few people appreciate just how similar the arguments made by Smith and Darwin are. Generally, Adam Smith is championed by the political right, Charles Darwin more often by the left.

Evolution of Technology:

in practice imitation is often more costly than innovation. So there is little need for intellectual property protection, because the learning curve of the imitator is so steep. Even if you had been free to copy Google’s search engine in the late 1990s, by the time you had worked through all the hidden obstacles that Google had also worked through, you would have been years behind.

Again and again, once you examine the history of innovation, you find scientific breakthroughs as the effect, not the cause, of technological change.

Evolution of Leadership:

‘most instances of economic reform do not produce growth accelerations’, and ‘most growth accelerations are not preceded or accompanied by major changes in economic policies, institutional arrangements, political circumstances, or external conditions’. The economist William Easterly points out that the evidence for a change of leadership being the cause of a growth miracle anywhere in the developing world is wholly lacking: the timing simply does not match. The effect of leaders on growth rates, he says, is close to zero, a conclusion that is ‘almost too shocking to be believed’.

The story of economic development is a bottom– up story. The story of lack of development is a top– down story. Indeed, the case against creationism in economic development is even stronger than that. The real cause of poverty today – now that it is avoidable – is the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights.

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