The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley – the rightwing libertarian gets it wrong

John Gray in The Guardian:

MATT-RIDLEY-large570Matt Ridley has made a discovery. The natural selection that Darwin described in The Origin of Species is only a particular example of a universal process. As he tells us at the start of this book, Darwinism is “the special theory of evolution”. But there is a general theory of evolution, too, and it applies to society, money, technology, language, law, culture, music, violence, history, education, politics, God, morality. The general theory says that things do not stay the same; they change gradually but inexorably; they show “path dependence”; they show descent with modification; they show selective persistence.

In the course of the book’s 16 chapters, which deal with the evolution of everything from the internet to leadership, Ridley repeats this mantra many times: Darwin’s mechanism of selective survival resulting in cumulative complexity applies to human culture in all its aspects, too. Our habits and 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 sense vaguely progressive”.

It’s curious that Ridley thinks this a new idea. There is nothing at all novel in theories of social evolution. I have a vivid memory of listening to the late FA Hayek, some 30 years ago, lecturing on what he called “the natural selection of religions” – a supposedly Darwinian process in which the religions that survive and spread are those that promote private property and market exchange and thereby support growing numbers of believers. I recall wondering how this account squared with the actual history of religion. The polytheistic cults of Greece and Rome didn’t die out in an incremental process of evolutionary decline; they were stamped out when the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. If Tibet’s brand of Buddhism disappears from the country, or the Baha’i faith vanishes from Iran, the reason won’t be that these faiths suffer from any evolutionary disadvantage. It will be because state power has been used to destroy them.

More here.

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