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The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge

November 04, 2015


Bestselling author Matt Ridley explains why "bottom-up progress through evolution is far more crucial" than top-down efforts to push ideas and innovation.

The way human history is taught is misleading, says New York Times-bestselling author Matt Ridley. Far too much emphasis is placed on what he calls the “top-down twitch”—the belief that change comes from on high: the politicians who run countries, scientists who discover truths, inventors who make breakthroughs, men and women who head companies. In fact, Ridley says, bottom-up progress through evolution is far more crucial. In his incisive, persuasively-argued new book, The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge (Harper; On sale October 27, 2015; $28.99), the renowned innovative thinker whose TED talk, “When Ideas Have Sex,” has been viewed more than two million times, explodes the time-honored, dangerous myth that we command or control our world.

From the natural forces that formed the universe and human life itself to the cultural mechanisms that have shaped everything from our educational system and global financial structure to the products we buy and the language we speak, “evolution is far more common, and far more influential, than most people recognize,” Ridley writes. “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. The way in which these streams of human culture flow is gradual, incremental, undirected, emergent and driven by natural selection among competing ideas. People are the victims, more often than the perpetrators, of unintended change. And though it has no goal in mind, cultural evolution nonetheless produces functional and ingenious solutions to problems—what biologists calls adaptation… When we find human culture being well adapted to solve human problems, we tend to assume that this is because some clever person designed it with that end in mind. So we tend to give too much credit to whichever clever person is standing nearby at the right moment.”

Throughout this sweeping survey of human achievement (and folly), Ridley underscores how time and time again it is not purposeful individuals or institutions that prompt change, but the confluence of human trial and error—growing out of need and natural innovation, and often being created or improved by chance—not some dictatorial or well-laid plan. In short, our world is shaped from the bottom up.

With his customary far-reaching purview, Ridley explores and explains the evolution of an array of customs and prized institutions, even as he demolishes our conventional assumptions about them:

  • Leadership. From autocratic governments to war commanders to “visionaries” seizing the corporate helm—how outside, uncontrollable forces often infiltrate and influence the fates of countries, battles and companies.
  • Technology. How new innovations and products are always built on the successes and failures that came before—and don’t come along until their time is ripe—rather than springing from the mind of some single, mythic genius.
  • Marriage. How polygamy gave way to monogamy for practical, economic reasons, not moral ones. And how monogamy will continue to break down with the rise of the welfare state.
  • Religion. How all religions, from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to Mormonism and Scientology have followed the same evolutionary path in their development and growth.
  • Money. How monetary systems developed and often resisted the efforts of the top-down powers that sought to control and regulate them.
  • Education. How top-down policies for education through school classes sometimes get in the way of bottom-up learning.

“The are two ways to tell the story of the twentieth century,” writes Ridley, a self-proclaimed rational optimist. “You can describe a series of wars, revolutions, crises, epidemics, financial calamities. Or you can point to the gentle but inexorable rise in the quality of life of almost everybody on the planet: the swelling of income, the conquest of disease, the disappearance of parasites, the retreat of want, the increasing persistence of peace, the lengthening of life, the advances in technology.” To put the message of The Evolution of Everything in its boldest and most surprising form, he says, “bad news is man-made, top-down, purposed stuff, imposed on history. Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves.”

Bold, controversial, ambitious and unprecedented, The Evolution of Everything encompasses our past and offers new possibilities for looking toward our future.



Matt Ridley is the award-winning, bestselling author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves; Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters; and The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. He lives in England.

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