The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, by Matt Ridley, HarperCollins, 368 pages, $28.99
INCREMENTAL, bottom-up, trial-and-error innovation yields moral progress, superior technologies, and greater wealth. Top-down mandates from centralized authorities are more likely to produce ethical disasters, technological stagnation, and persistent poverty. "Bad news is man-made, top-down, purposed stuff, imposed on history," Matt Ridley writes in The Evolution of Everything. "Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves."
Ridley, a British journalist who has written extensively about science, economics, and technological progress, begins by explaining the fundamentals of biological evolution by natural selection: Biological complexity evolves through random mutation followed by non-random survival. Ridley then argues that the Darwinian process is a "special theory of evolution" embedded in a more "general theory of evolution that applies to much more than biology."
Decentralized evolution by trial and error, Ridley asserts, is the chief way improvements have emerged in all sorts of human endeavor, including "morality, the economy, culture, language, technology, cities, firms, education, history, law, government, God, money, and society." As the 18th century Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson argued, these phenomena are the result of human action but not of human design. By book's end, Ridley has adeptly dismantled all forms of creationism, divine and progressive.
Consider the evolution of culture. More and more, cultural anthropologists have come to accept the view that--to quote a recent paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences--"human cultural groups have all the key attributes of a Darwinian evolutionary system." As Ridley explains, "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."
One example: the institution of marriage. As our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved into herders and farmers, polygamy became more common, since some men could now accumulate the resources needed to support and defend more than one woman and their progeny. However, polygamy has a big downside: Male sexual competition produces lots of violence. While some 80 percent of the distinct cultures identified by anthropologists still sanction...