Matt Ridley’s “The Evolution of Everything”

or How New Ideas Emerge

Synopsis after reading the book.
I like the book, but: Ridley goes too far, but not far too far. Except regarding the nature of invention where he goes far too far. Mathematical invention is legendary for being produced far away from its first application, both in space and time. To a lesser extent the same is true of physics, and in decreasing extents in other sciences. These mathematical developments go back even to the Greeks who gave us math that surely had no use when it was new. Nearly all of it is useful now and would surely not have been developed by whom ever first needed it. Most of the discoverers were either men of leisure or with patrons who were either aristocrats or tax payers.

Without Einstein we would have worked out some engineering handbook sort of thing to get our first satellite clocks right. I cannot imagine how General Relativity would have been invented without Einstein. True, Hilbert was onto the chase but only because Einstein had challenged him. Without GR a few launches would have been wasted before we got serviceable GPS. The mysterious discrepancies would have been filed away with no one to worry about them.

The disappearance of infectious diseases was partly due to direct and indirect government research. What drug company would have made the investment to discover the structure of DNA.

Lagrange wrote down his interpolation equation in the 18th century. Galois gave us finite fields in the 19the century and Reed & Solomon put these two ideas together in the 20th century to provide us “erasure coding” which makes our disk farms far more reliable. It is not the sort of thing that comes from understanding electricity.

You could not evolve from Roman numerals to ‘Arabic’ numerals. Climbing ‘mount improbable’ doesn’t get you there from Roman numerals. It was cold turkey! The blood vessels of the vertebrate’s eye are still on the wrong side of our retina. Arabic numerals were indeed truly invented. Incidentally it did not take a government decree to do the switch in 11th century Europe.

Invention is far more than tinkering:

I am glad that Ridley likes Bitcoin. If there was ever an invention that depended on complex crypto, incentives, monetary theory and a few other details, I don’t know what it is. It all had to come together in one fell swoop. One piece of it at a time would have been useless. We still don’t know how the inventor(s) fed themselves during its invention.

Ridley has trouble with the Arpanet upon which Internet was founded. There were other networks then in development, such as Tymnet and Minitel. Greenstein (page 72) speaks of a number of attempts by government to pioneer a new technology. Perhaps Internet was uniquely successful among these. Quote from location 7500 (page 365) there:

Chronological, as I read:

L 228: Well I still think that inventors invent but in Ridley’s defense Bernstein recalls the impediments to making movable type work. Gutenberg did invent but his idea would not have borne fruit 100 years earlier. Many other inventions had to emerge before it was feasible. Bernstein’s “Masters of the Word” recounts this. Kauffman has a wonderful phrase: “The adjacent possible”.

L 684: Ridley speaks of common law as “spontaneous order”. While the evolutionary process does indeed bear on common law, we need to remember that ideas are an integral part of this process. The aspect of evolution that seems relevant here is selection, and that is by humans that read legal journals (judges). The variation in law making is not random as it is with DNA.

L 957: Ridley asks why the resistance to Darwin. Aside from the good old fashioned momentum

Evolution and the evidence for it are complex. Further the time required is longer than fits our intuition. We cannot imagine a billion years.

L 1427: Why did culture become cumulative? The simplest idea is that our head got bigger, perhaps in capacity and not physically.

L 1643: I think that means by “human policy” policy set by governments or institutions that claim allegiance from some considerable set of people. ‘social planners’ in short. I think he does not mean the policy that I set to buy a house 40 years ago.

L 1889: The quality of health care has increased a great deal. Crudely we live rather longer. We get more education too.

L 1970: “I am going to argue that invention is an evolutionary thing.” He mentions “zero” among inventions. It is a good example. Zero evidently existed nearly a thousand years without spreading from India. Fibonacci put on a good publicity campaign for zero. Yet Kauffman’s ‘adjacent possible’ is relevant. But what was adjacent to zero?

L 1991: I know something about relativity. I can easily imagine that if Einstein had produced GR it would not have been produced by today. Hilbert was hard on Einstein’s heels, but only because Einstein had put Hilbert on that track. There is just not much reason to think about bent spacetime except that in retrospect it solved a riddle in special relativity and was elegant.

L 2056: Of Moore’s law: it became a business plan. That customers expected it made it strategic for suppliers to adhere to it—and conversely—a Shelling point of sorts.

L 2063: “To this day, it is very hard for a country to become a knowledge economy without being an agricultural success and a manufacturing success first.” Africa leapt over the land style phone and adopted the cell phone directly. They are ahead of us in some ways. If this story is true, phone money was nearly an accidental event.

L 2207: Carnot’s contributions to the steam engine were significant. Much of Carnot’s motivation to study this were the inefficient earlier steam engines. Later (L 2246): “Having invented the steam engine, it will pay for thermodynamics. This conclusion of Terence Kealey’s is so heretical as to be incomprehensible to most economists, as well as scientists.” Sadie Carnot was the original thermodynamicist. He was also French. No, the initial reaction of English engine builders to Carnot’s work was derision. But when some geeky English workers employed Carnot’s ideas was it eventually proven that Carnot’s equations lead to better engines.

L 2212: “You will search in vain for major contributions from universities to the cellphone revolution.” Shannon’s information theory greatly impacted telephony continuously from shortly after he published. LTE is a poster child to classic information theory.

L 2276: “That is to say, if the government spends money on the wrong kind of science, it tends to stop people working on the right kind of science.” Eh?

L 2284: Regarding government funding of science Ridley goes too far, but not far too far. He does not question the value of the Higgs boson, which I think is low. He does not question the value of pictures of Pluto which I think is high. To each his own.

L 2322: Oh dear! I am a thorough going materialist who believes in free will. I think that Google self driving cars have free will. What’s the problem? My free will is just like Google’s cars. (I think that Dennett agrees.) The brain is the mind.

“Sight” is an old word that has been repurposed to refer to an entirely materialistic functions. I repurpose “free will” accordingly.

L 2386: I agree with Ridley that consciousness is smeared out thru most of the brain. It is also an illusion of sorts, as are so many brain things. Time sense is well engineered, via illusions, to make things appear in the order they happened, not the order that the signals reached the brain. What would you expect? How could it be otherwise?

People like Ridley seem to think that there is some sort of impulse being thwarted by the physical reality of the brain. I claim that that is a dualistic stance.

L 2446: I am satisfied with Ridley’s description of the two ways of talking, but I am what Ridley calls a ‘compatabilist’.

L 2461: “Advances in neuroscientific knowledge will only shrink the scope of the criminal law.” Law protects us in ways with nothing to do with neuroscience. The locked up murderer is less likely murder again. Some premeditated mayhem is prevented in view of punishment. Blame need not be invoked. Evolution should be invoked. We evolved to punish for its mutual survival value. I think we can improve on these practices somewhat. Jails give us options that we did not have much earlier.

L 2945: Regarding teaching in India, I suspect that Ridley and Tooley are largely correct, but I would like to the other side, backed up with accurate statistics.

L 3697: Ridley discusses Hong Kong which is an important example. He does not mention Singapore.

L 3780: Ridley fails to credit Mancur Olsen for an early statement of the idea that most states began with banditry. But I am impressed with the quote from Pope Gregory VII “a group of thugs who raised themselves above their fellows by pride, plunder, treachery, murder — in short be every kind of crime”.

L 3997: “The counter-revolution of Ronald Reagan was a mere pause in the advance of government, which has become the conduit of welfare not just from the wealthy to the disadvantaged, but from the middle classes back to the middle classes.”
That is an interesting perspective. I would like to see it supported by numbers.

L 4003: “Even the weather is to be controlled by Leviathan in the future. In an interview in 2012, Christiana Figueres, head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said she and her colleagues were inspiring government, private sector and civil society to make the biggest transformation that they have ever undertaken: ‘The Industrial Revolution was also a transformation, but it wasn’t a guided transformation from a centralized policy perspective. This is a centralized transformation.’”
It would seem that Ridley ignores the logic of externalities. Weather seems to be the first global externality.

L 4191: “They are nostalgic for the doctrinal simplicities of medieval religion.” Perhaps they are nostalgic for doctrines that direct them not to ask certain questions. Quantum mechanics does so regarding position and momentum. General relativity asks one not to worry about what happens in the center of a black hole.

L 4470: Ridley notes that during the civil the federal government posed a 10% tax on commercial banks, and ruined them. This was a war issue, not a banking issue. A banking monopoly is an easy way to gain revenue while seeming to provide safety. That was the problem with English banks during the Napoleonic wars.

L 4515: I am inclined to defer to Ridley’s opinion of bank regulators who “emphasized the wrong risks”. I hope he addresses the first order question, “Should banks trade on their own account while under FDIC?” and the large distributed cost of each depositor evaluating the prudence of banks.

L 4523: “In effect, the Chinese made their exports competitive and invested the proceeds in cheap loans to Westerners.” Yes; Said otherwise the Chinese said, “We will give you the goods now and you can pay us later.”.

L 4576: It would be interesting to know what Elizabeth Warren (who I admire) said in those times.

L 4616: I have read bits and pieces of attempted exonerations of the GSEs and ACORN, but none of them held together.

L 4622: Ridley posits the Cantillon Effect but does not explain it.

L 4689: “The Internet has no center … ” Yes and no. Most people describe ICANN as Internet’s center. If ICANN were to decree, however, that China was no longer a member of Internet, China would still be a part of Internet the next day. Internet is in fact considerably decentralized much to the consternation of many of the engineers who continue to design it. The French government planned Minitel as a top-down government controlled enterprise. This illustrates the failure of Minitel central planning better than any short paper that I know.

L 4709: I know quite a lot about the Internet. It owes its beginnings to the Arpanet. It is now far more than the Arpanet ever was. There are still near its foundations the IETF which is a centralized data base of material from a wide variety of contributors. What is open about the Internet is that there are no regulations on who can build hardware to connect to the Internet. If your system interacts with the rest of Internet, that’s good enough. IETF is a pretty good Shelling point on where to find the meanings of the internode messages.

L 4722: Yes other networks were indeed invented. Tymnet was developed by ‘tinkerers’ planning no more than a year ahead. Tymnet was not inspired by Arpanet; it was earlier. Tymnet was a step-by-step evolution of timesharing with slightly bigger steps than our competitors. Internet, stemming from Arpanet, won because when the government let go they did it in such a way that competing entrepreneurs could hit the road running. They collectively outran us. I think that you can credit some government bureaucrats (the good sort) for this unusual transfer to the private domain. It is seldom that bureaucrats relinquish control. Minitel represented the opposite bureaucratic impulse.

The Web, in some form or other, was truly the ‘adjacent possible’ in 1980. Its selective advantages were so great that it evolved explosively.

L 4716: “Given all we know about the ubiquitous phenomenon of simultaneous invention, and the inevitability of the next step in innovation once a technology is ripe …, it is inconceivable that the twentieth century would have ended without a general, open means of connecting computers to each other so that people could see what was on other nodes than their own hard drive.” Alas the French government conceived of Minitel as a closed system, like AOL but with a ‘cultural values’ slant. They resisted Internet vigorously.

L 4789: “In general I remain optimistic that the forces of evolution will outwit the forces of command and control, and the internet will continue to provide a free space for all.” It is better than Ridley thinks, even now. A DNS server says what ever it wants to say. Its operator is free to program it as he pleases. Deviation from the ‘standard ICANN plan’ has not yet been convenient except for occasional criminal plans. Should ICANN become oppressive, DNS servers will not follow. ICANN knows this. ICANN nominally creates top level domain names, such as .com, .edu, .fr and they are diplomatic enough that people follow. DNS servers within a given region could go their own way, perhaps obeying a local ICANN. This would cause some havoc but would not disable Internet. Perhaps China does this now.

L 4965: “In a world that delivers an endless supply of bad news, people’s lives get better and better.” I thoroughly agree. I still think we have a climate problem and in the worst case the world will continue to improve.

Ridley wants to do away with nearly all social choice. I accuse him of wishful thinking regarding climate change. The word “externality” does not appear in the book.
I wish Ridley would choose a translation of Lucretius that did not try so hard to rhyme.