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Book Review: The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge (Matt Ridley)

“The Evolution Of Everything” is a hard book to review, because it has no substance. Reviewing it is like reviewing a Cliff’s Notes or “For Dummies” book. It is a wholly derivative book, startlingly simplistic and frequently either disingenuous or stupid. What truth the book offers, is obvious, and what truth the book claims is not obvious, is not true.

Ridley poorly parrots two different strains of thought, New Atheism and economic libertarianism, to cook up a repetitive, dull stew with zero new insights. True, like a blind squirrel with a nut, sometimes Ridley is accurate and (derivatively) insightful. But he adds nothing to what cannot be read in much better and deeper books. Sadly, I will never see the time I spent on this book again. You don’t have to make the same mistake!

For Ridley, neither God nor man “creates” anything. To him, “creationism” is a dirty word that is broadly applicable to any belief that a guided process can produce anything valuable. Instead, all new things result from a wholly bottom-up evolutionary process, unguided at any point, whether that creation is of the ibex or the iPhone.

From the very beginning, though, Ridley’s framework is unsatisfying. In fact, Ridley’s real objection is to seekers after power, who always want centralized command for their benefit, not to a nonexistent philosophy of “creationism.” If he wanted to show the failures of central command in all areas of life, he should have focused on Communism and its various leftist relatives, the prime example in the modern world of failed top-down philosophies (see, e.g., Venezuela). But that would imply that atheism might be a problem, and he wants to claim that religion is the problem, and cloak his book in a philosophical wrapper. So he spends the entire book claiming the real problems are (a) religious belief of any kind and (b) any kind of top-down conformity in any area of life, which he ascribes mostly to religious belief, and never to political systems like leftism.

Ridley divides his book into chapters each titled “The Evolution of ___________,” each beginning with a quote from the Epicurean philosopher/poet Lucretius’s “De Rerum Natura.” He uses Lucretius as the paradigm of the first modern rationalist, which is a moderately fair appraisal. Apparently Lucretius’s only true disciples, though, other than the uniquely talented Mr. Ridley, are the so-called Four Horsemen of the so-called New Atheism: Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The reliance Ridley places on the first three of these throughout the entire book is truly astounding, although they are nowhere identified as primarily atheist philosophers, but rather merely as the greatest thinkers of the modern age.

This oddball worship of dogmatic and simplistic third-grade atheism starts a pattern found throughout the book—a complete lack of nuance, combined with a shrill, inflexible approach to all Ridley’s points, which are always “totally clear,” “without doubt,” and “undeniable.” In particular, throughout the book, Ridley simply lies repeatedly in order that he need never say anything positive about religion or religious believers. He modifies the (apocryphal) Chesterton quote “When a man ceases to believe in God, he does not believe in nothing, he believes in anything” to substitute “something” for “God.” He falsely claims that the Nazi Aktion T4 program, killing the mentally and physically handicapped in 1939 and 1940, was stopped by “protests from relatives,” when the reality is it was stopped by German Catholic bishops, who made public and private complaints at great personal risk, and in fact many relatives cooperated to serve Nazi ideology. He notes approvingly that there was criticism in the West of the West’s support of forced abortion and sterilization in 1970s and 1980s China and India, as there was of earlier leftist eugenics programs in the early 20th Century, but fails to note all of the criticism was religious in origin, given that all people of Ridley’s desired non-religious type (like Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood) were enthusiastic supporters of forcibly limiting the procreation of the lesser breeds. And so on.

In keeping with his simplistic approach, Ridley’s first chapter is “The Evolution of the Universe,” in which he endorses Daniel Dennett’s avoidance of “skyhooks” as explanations, a trope that occurs again and again and again and again throughout the book, and then some more. Ridley proceeds to give us a kindergarten version of the development of physics, focusing on the highly unoriginal insight that God was moved out of explanations for the physical world over time (without noting that most of the movers were themselves religious, and the theory of the Big Bang was originated by a Catholic priest in the 20th Century). In the very first pages Ridley’s malicious ignorance becomes evident, when he claims, with complete falsity, that Giordano Bruno was executed “for quoting Lucretius on the recombination of atoms.” This begins the pattern of lying about religion that permeates the entire book. In fairness, though, Ridley is correct that scientific thought has evolved over time, in a bottom-up process, so his conclusion in this chapter is actually correct, and does serve his thesis. If he had stopped here his book would have served for a mediocre Wikipedia entry. But he didn’t.

Instead, Ridley then turned to “The Evolution of Morality,” in which, relying wholly on Adam Smith and Steven Pinker, along with his favorite philosophers of atheism, he claims that shared morality automatically evolves from natural human recognition of “mutual sympathy of sentiments,” and is purely a “spontaneous phenomenon” to which religious belief is totally irrelevant. (Of course, he gives no example of any actual system of morality not based on religion.) He cites Pinker for the idea that morality has evolved in the modern era towards reduced violence, ignoring that Pinker’s arguments are almost purely anecdotal, other than applied to war, apply purely to Western cultures, and say little about morality overall. Ridley also ignores that the morality of Christian societies such as ours is radically different in nearly every way from that of other cultures, such as Chinese or Indian. Naturally, he makes no attempt to compare moral systems, merely stating that they’re all the same, which is obviously false upon a moment’s reflection, and he makes no attempt to say why morality should evolve over time, if it arises spontaneously from human “mutual sympathy of sentiments.” It’s at this point that the reader gets a sinking feeling that Ridley is wasting the reader’s time. The unwise reader forges onward.

In every chapter, Ridley manages to combine gross oversimplification with total certainty. He discusses the evolution of marriage for several pages, in his chapter “The Evolution of Culture.” He ascribes “peace com[ing] to Europe” as the result of monogamy, “except where societies continue to be based on polygamy, such as much of the Muslim world, or where polygamy was suddenly reinvented, such as in the Church of the Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” I’m pretty sure peace hasn’t come to Europe, and certainly not upon monogamy becoming the universal standard in, oh, 600 A.D., and I’m pretty sure violence in the Muslim world is not primarily due to polygamy. Ridley continues digging, though. He bizarrely claims, in support of his idea that monogamy in the West kept evolving until the modern day, that “not all early saints recommended monogamy” (without citing any examples) and that Christianity succeeded in the Roman Empire because it allowed low-status men to have sex, which was “evangelical gold.” Also, because Charles II and Augustus the Strong had lots of mistresses, polygamy was actually the norm in the late medieval West. OK, then.

In the same chapter, Ridley informs us that “cities hardly ever die. Apart from Detroit today and Sybaris in ancient times, there are few examples of cities that even shrink, let alone vanish.” Ridley obviously knows very little about ancient history. Troy? Ephesus? Petra? Hundreds of other cities that also vanished? (And why the mention of Sybaris, which is truly obscure?) Not to mention every city in the West after the fall of Rome shrinking, beginning with Rome itself? Then Ridley tells us that ancient Athens was “run by and in the interests of merchants.” How howlers like this got past Ridley’s editors I’ll never know.

Ridley often praises modern liberal social trends, to show his bona fides, yet never shows how these fit into his framework. He says “Britain has moved with the times in social terms, from legalizing gay marriage to appointing women bishops.” But “moving with the times” is not an evolutionary concept. Nor does Ridley tell us how, for example, after discussing the evolution of (heterosexual) monogamy was critical for societal progress, how homosexual marriage fits into his framework. He merely assumes that liberal social movements in the West, all of which have been dictated from the top down by the cultural and political elite, are good, and therefore magically “evolutionary,” even though that’s obviously not true. He tells us that racism, sexism and murder are “wrong,” but “the argument against [them] does not depend on whether [they] come naturally to human beings.” But he never tells us why, in fact, they are wrong, and what that argument is. If organic societal evolution dictates morality, which changes over time, how can anything be objectively “wrong”?

Occasionally, Ridley does say something interesting, though never anything original. He notes that it’s a myth that scientific advancement comes largely from academic work or government funding, citing the OECD to the effect that between 1971 and 1998, “whereas privately funded research and development stimulated economic growth, publicly funded research had no impact whatsoever.” He points out that until the 1980s, there was a universal quasi-religious belief that humans were a blank slate, and 100% of their personalities were determined by external influences, mostly parents. Today, of course, it’s universally recognized that genetics play a very large role, but as with climate change today, any suggestion then of heterodoxy was immediately met with scorn and marginalization—and, of course, nobody ever had to apologize and everybody pretends this never happened, because being liberal means never having to say you’re sorry. He praises the common law as an evolutionary success (without noting that it has today been completely eliminated by leftists eager for central, top-down power). He notes the mendacity and ignorance of population controllers and neo-Malthusians like Paul Ehrlich (as well as earlier leftist proponents of eugenics). He criticizes global warming alarmism as a religion, and a not-very-intelligent one at that (though he backs off a bit, afraid of damaging his social liberal bona fides). But finding occasional nuggets of (derivative) truth is a high price to pay for slogging through the rest of Ridley’s prose.

Then he returns to stupidity. In a rambling chapter, he denies the existence of free will, telling us that “the more we understand the workings of the brain . . . the more we will find the causes of criminal behavior.” Also, because “each person is [merely] the sum of their influences,” we should not praise people for overcoming their humble origins, like Margaret Thatcher, because every time we do that, “we implicitly denigrate those who do not overcome their disadvantages.” Well, yes.

Finally, Ridley issues a George Gilder-esque call for private money, to include Bitcoin, and complains of government strangulation of bottom-up initiatives in money, the economy, and the Internet. This part of the book is actually pretty rational, though Ridley’s real target is not “creationism,” but the simple desire for power by those in power. Again, “creationism” is a straw man. Ridley is, as it happens, correct that top-down solutions work poorly in most areas of life. He’s just wrong that top-down solutions are actually believed in by most people today, and that atheism will lead us to an earthly Paradise.

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