Evolution, a phenomenon without an underlying plan that explains life’s development, has convinced scientists, if not the general public, but authorities still debate whether Darwin’s theory applies to human society. Veteran science writer Ridley (The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, 2010) investigates.
According to conventional wisdom, progress in law, morals, economics, and even science itself doesn’t just happen. It requires creative input through religion, legislation, political or philosophical movements, individual geniuses, or the work of deep thinkers. Not so, writes the author in this ingenious study: “Intelligent design is just as bad at explaining society as it is at explaining evolution.” Over centuries, languages change in a planless process similar to natural selection, and authorities proclaim rules to little effect. Economic systems that appeared spontaneously (commerce, free markets) operate far more efficiently than top-down systems that require guidance (mercantilism, Marxism). Laws demand lawgivers—except when they don’t. The admirable Anglo-American common law simply evolved. How did torture, racism, slavery, and pedophilia—all once acceptable—become immoral today despite the decline of religion in recent decades? Ridley argues that we have evolved to prefer nicer relationships. “Morality,” he writes, “is an accidental by-product of the way human beings adjust their behavior towards each other as they grow up…goodness does not need to be taught, let alone associated with the superstitious belief that it would not exist but for the divine origin of an ancient Palestinian carpenter.” These are fascinating essays backed by a mixture of good evidence and personal philosophy. Few readers will object to the author’s contempt for intelligent design until his concluding chapters on government, when his fervent libertarianism nearly gets the better of him.
Like Malcolm Gladwell, Ridley’s taste for counterintuitive arguments often oversimplifies and ignores contradictory evidence, but he provides a wild ride, almost too thought-provoking to read for long stretches but difficult to put down.