»  The New Criterion

January 2016

  Stuff Happens

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge
        by Matt Ridley


I am not a fan of "airport nonfiction": the kind of book featured at airport bookstalls and purchased by intelligent young businesspeople to while away a cross-country flight. This genre has brought wealth and fame to Malcolm Gladwell (Blink), Nassim Taleb (The Black Swan), the Levitt-Dubner partnership (Freakonomics), and others. Jolly good luck to them all. I'm just happier with a novel, biography, or history book.

An airport nonfiction book is built around a single big idea. By thirty pages in I have grasped the idea and found it neither original nor interesting. Then … oh, the guy has three hundred more pages of examples and case studies? Uh …

The thing can be done well or badly, though, and Matt Ridley does it decently well. His big idea is the one in his title: that most of the change that takes place in the world is "bottom-up," not "top down." We have a strong predisposition to attribute everything that happens, in both the human and the natural world, to agents: generals win battles, tycoons guide their businesses, nations are shaped by political leaders, new species are created by an Intelligent Designer, the Self — an invisible homunculus located somewhere behind the eyeballs — directs our actions.

Ridley wants to tell us that while agency might occasionally be in play — it would be hard to deny it in the case of, say, the D-Day landings — it is much more often the case that order and progress are emergent, the results of random bottom-up shufflings in the always-in-motion natural or human worlds.

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[Read the entire article in the January 2016 issue of The New Criterion.]