“The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge” by Matt Ridley is a very thought provoking book about how our world has been largely shaped by bottom-up trial and error evolution rather than top-down intelligent design. Along the way, the author challenges assumptions about everything from how religion created morality to the role and impact of government in education. In the end it is a bracingly optimistic look at how our civilization got here and what the future may hold.
Think of the incredible web of economic activity that makes the apparently simplest of products, the humble pencil, available as explained in the famous story, “I Pencil” (check it out on YouTube if you have not seen it before). Nobody designed the entire supply chain. No single person or small group of people direct it. No government requires it or builds it. Even so, tens of thousands of people somehow coordinate their activities to make it possible.
Think, too, of invention. Edison invented the light bulb, right? What do you think would have happened if he died the week before his discovery? Well, Humphrey Davy started the march towards an efficient electric light many years before and Edison was just the best funded of those pursuing the task. It is certain that if Edison had failed, someone else would have stepped forward likely mere months later. This pattern, the almost inevitability of invention, can be seen in just about every case. Steve Jobs did not direct the invention of the smart phone. Apple just got there a bit sooner and with a bit more innovation than countless others. If Steve had died a few years sooner, Android may have been first or someone else would have stepped up with an almost identical device. The Wrights flew one of the first powered aircraft but certainly not the best. If they had crashed on the beach before anyone noticed, Curtis or one of the dozens of others chasing the flight dream would have gotten the credit. In the end, the world would have had all these advancements around the same time no matter who died, failed or gave up because they were actually the result of many improvements and ideas contributed by thousands across many years of constant evolution.
New ideas, the author suggests, are almost always the result of natural selection between competing ideas. The pace of innovation and improvement continue to grow because human beings are more empowered than ever before to collaborate and breed new ideas. For example, a developer in Houston, TX can work on an open source project with contributors from all over the world. The other important ingredient, competition, is also much easier to achieve today. An entrepreneur in Africa can compete on equal footing with another in New York thanks to the Internet and easy access to rapid travel.
The optimism in the book comes from the fact that the improvements in our lives, the countless gadgets that have made communication easier, food cheaper, close cleaner, people healthier and leisure more accessible to billions, are evolving more quickly today than they have ever been able to in the past. Today’s poor have more access to knowledge, education and communications than the richest that lived in America at the beginning of the 20th century. A man that cannot attend the best university can pay pennies at an Internet cafe and get access to more books and more research than a tenured professor at Harvard could have hoped for 40 years ago. We are living in an age of accelerating progress and opportunity for all that will breed more of each.
Check out the book on Amazon.