Podcast Episode Highlights
|0:33||Intro. [Recording date: February 4, 2016.] Russ: Before introducing today's guest, I want to share with you the results of the survey of your favorite episodes of 2015. I want to thank all of you around the world (and you live in 65 different countries) who responded, particularly your general comments and feedback. Those comments were very helpful in thinking about ways to make EconTalk better. And I very much enjoyed hearing how EconTalk has been useful or educational for you. It's very gratifying and I thank you for listening and for sharing.
I also want to thank Katie D'Amour who is a new addition to the EconTalk team who has been helping me with links and description for each episode. We're looking for new ways to make EconTalk more valuable to you and EconTalk.org has some great resources for additional learning or to engage with other listeners through the EconTalk Extras you'll find there.
Here are your favorites episodes from 2015:
|2:20||Russ: So it's appropriate that today's guest is Matt Ridley, science writer, and member of the House of Lords. His latest book is The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge. Matt, welcome back to EconTalk. Guest: Russ, it's great to be back on the show, and I'm delighted to have come out on top of that poll. Russ: It's great that a lukewarmer can still be at the top. You're lukewarm but you still generate a lot of enthusiasm. Guest: The extreme moderation in my view. Russ: Exactly. Now, your book, which is quite ambitious, is about the evolution of everything, which is about as ambitious as something can get, I guess. It's about emergent order, a favorite topic here on our program and how life and everything within it evolves. Give us a brief definition of how you see emergence and its evolution. Guest: Well, I'd like to start by acknowledging my debt to both Russ Roberts and Don Boudreaux for their incredibly insightful blogs, essays, podcasts, and everything else, which I've learnt an enormous amount from over the years. And as you say, emergence is very much a theme--spontaneous order is very much the theme of what you and Don write about. So I've relentlessly plagiarized some of your best ideas in this book, I'm sorry to say. But, then, that's kind of--one of my arguments in the book is that we're all gradually adding to each other's ideas and that whole thing is cumulative and gradual rather than going in the way of sort of jumps, and so on. Russ: Thank you for that appreciation. I'd like to say you are standing on the shoulders of giants, but as my listeners know, I'm only 5'6". But go ahead. Guest: Well, I'm standing on the shoulders of intellectual giants. The gist of the book is that the theory of evolution by natural selection, the emergence of complexity and sophisticated [?] between form and function, which but an undirected mechanism, which Charles Darwin discovered in 1859, applied through a lot of other things than just biology. It applies to a lot of other things than just genetic systems. It's the best way of describing how society changes, how culture changes, how the economy emerges, how technology progresses. And therefore what I'm trying to do is erect a general theory of evolution to go alongside the special theory of evolution that Charles Darwin came up. And if you like, I therefore reach back further than Darwin and say the whole Enlightenment project, particularly when Adam Smith gets hold of it in 1759, exactly a hundred years before Darwin gets hold of it in 1859, it is to recognize that most of the important things that happen in the world, happen spontaneously. And produce complex order, and produce a fit between form and function. But that we have made the mistake of many centuries of, whenever we see something complex, assuming someone is in charge. And assuming that it had to be designed by a central intelligence of some kind. I have to be a little careful: I mustn't be too Procrustean and try and fit absolutely everything in the world into my theory. But I have a go at doing that. Russ: Yes, you do. Guest: And in a sense what I'm saying is: Let's see how far we can take this idea. Because of course there are moments when I have to fall back and say, 'Well, yes, you know, somebody did that.' Hitler had an effect on history. He wasn't just a symptom of history: he was also someone who changed history. So, you know, I am of course prepared to concede that there is intelligent design, or unintelligent design in the case where--in the world. But an awful lot of what happens, we overestimate the impact of centralized direction and top-down thinking.|
|6:38||Russ: Now, in general, I couldn't agree more. Although I found a number of things in the book I disagreed with. We'll get to some of those. But I want to start with the human side; the biological side is a little more well known. On the human side, we often talk about the economy being emergent. But you go way beyond that. And I want to talk first about culture. How is culture emergent, and to what extent does it get steered or not? Guest: Well, there is a theory of cultural evolution now, which is really relatively sophisticated. Rob Boyd, Pete Richerson, and Joe Henrich are the main leaders in this field. And they have [?] out that actually the best way of describing how culture changes is by talking about it being something that's gradual, something that comes from the interactions of many individuals rather than the decisions of 2 or 3 leaders. And in particular they've modeled this and said, 'Look, so long as people are copying each other with imperfections, then you will get a form of spontaneous evolution happening.' That you don't have to have, you know, perfect digital bytes of information like you get in genomes. You don't have to have very faithful replication of ideas for there to be an effective competition between ideas; it ends up with some taking over from others. And if you look at the history of culture, it is one of gradual change in which the people in charge of society are actually reflecting the mood of ordinary people rather than directing it, much more often than we think. Let me give you a very concrete example, because I've been speaking in rather abstract terms the last couple of minutes. And that is the changing attitudes toward, say, homosexuality. Now, in my lifetime, it's gone from being an illegal act to being quite the reverse, something that you can even have gay marriage under the law. I would argue that it's pretty clear that every legal change--every change that happened in politics, whether it's the legalization of homosexuality or the legalization of gay marriage--was a reflection of the way society was changing, not a cause of the way society was changing. Was a symptom of society rather than a cause. In other words, tolerance of homosexuality emerged among ordinary people before politicians decided to act and make it emerge. Russ: I think that's true of a lot of things. Racism would be another example. There are many. Here's the challenge I have for you, which is: Overlaying your view of emergence, as I would say, "the right way to think about most things"--and I agree with you there--you often argue in the book that it's also a good thing. That emergence is a good thing. That this uncontrolled process leads to progress. For example, in economics. Which I agree with. But the problem I have is that in economics, one of the reasons I think it leads to progress is that there are these feedback loops--of profit and loss, of customer satisfaction, of freedom to shop wherever you want--that help encourage suppliers to work harder, do better, innovate, and so on. It's not as clear that those feedback loops work very well in the case of culture. So, racism, to take an example, can persist for centuries, millennia. It's emergent; no one's in charge of it; no one's in charge of the idea that we should look down on certain skin colors or ethnic groups or religious beliefs or sexual practices. But it's emergent. And there's nothing progressive about it, in particular, and of course at the time people thought it was not just benign, not just not harmful, but the right way to think about things. Do you think we make progress in morality and in culture? Or is it merely just adaptive to the attitudes of its time and swims around like many species do? Guest: Well, my answer to that goes back to my previous book, which was The Rational Optimist, where I identified not for the first time and not uniquely but I nonetheless zeroed in on the fact that we have seen extraordinary progress in human economy situations like living standards; but also in culture. And of course Steven Pinker has chronicled this in respect of violence, the decline of violence over the last 200 years. So, whether you like it or not, the fact is that progress has more often been in a beneficial than in a bad direction over the last hundred years or so. Now, why is that? Why would I claim that an evolutionary system is more likely to produce positive results than negative results? You're absolutely right, of course, about racism--that we've seen periods of history where emergent phenomena have appeared which are bad things. To your example of racism I would add for example the period in the early 20th century when a lot of countries drifted toward dictatorships. And I actually think that technology had a part to play in that, because of the radio in allowing demagoguery and so on. So, yes, evolution can certainly go in a bad direction in human society. Why am I claiming that net it has tended to go in a good direction and therefore we should be not frightened of it and then let it happen, mostly, rather than frantically trying to jump on its back and drive it in a certain direction? Why am I claiming that? Well, because evolution is a theory of mutation and selection, of spontaneous change, some of which gets kept and some of which gets rejected. And it seems to me that we are the agents of selection as individuals in this process. And, you know, if you think about, say, whether or not a genre of art persists, it's because people have selected it--have said, 'Yes, we like that. We don't like that.' And there's no reason for people to select things they don't like. And on the whole people don't like violence or unpleasantness. They like nice things. So, there is a bias towards us picking the good things. You might say I've suddenly thrown away my belief in bottom-upness and gone for a top-down selection process--you know, we're allowing lots of different ideas and trial and error and then we are suddenly picking the things we like and not the things we don't like. But who is we in this? It's everybody. It's the great bulk of people. It's an anti-elitist message that I'm trying to deliver here a lot of the time. In other words, I think it's not the--it's very hard to identify a case where a certain style of art or music became popular and persisted in human society because some ruler said he liked it rather than because ordinary people decided they like it. I think that's what I'm saying. But as I say, a lot of this is quite exploratory, and I'm prepared to have counterexamples thrown at me to make me re-think as I go along. I don't--I'm not trying to have the very last word on this stuff in this book.|
|14:46||Russ: Let's talk about language for a minute, which is an example you use, an example I've used, we've talked about here on EconTalk. If I come up with a clever phrase and other people hear it and like it, can get repeated through word of mouth and it can catch on; and we don't really have an understanding of who the first person who existed who used 'google' as a verb. Probably many people at once thought it was a useful thing, and it just immediately, I suspect, caught on to me 'used a search engine called google,' or even often not a search engine called google. It became a generic term. But there are lots of things that would be nice to change. Just to take one silly example, the word 'debt,' it's probably better to spell it without the 'b'. If I did that, I'd look illiterate. People would assume I'd made a typo. And so a lot of things persist in English that are very flawed--lots of duplicate words, homonyms, confusing things, grammatical weirdnesses. English is incredibly complicated in a not very good way of complex. And yet they persist. So, my view of English is, it's pretty good. It's shockingly good given that it isn't steered. But I don't have any--and there are some feedback loops; so if I use useful, clever phrases or shorter contractions, people might start using them without the approval of a committee or a board of experts. But in morality it's a lot harder--culture, generally it's a lot harder to see where the feedback loops are that encourage us to do something that has an effect beyond me. Which is of course what we really are interested in--not just the local changes that benefit us. That, we understand. But the overall evolution of an entire culture in one direction or another, whether it's the length of a woman's skirt, whether men wear hats; whether men have to tuck their shirts in or wear ties--these are things that, I'm not sure there are really useful feedback loops that help us move "forward." I don't know what 'forward' is. Guest: Yep. Russ: So I'm just a little bit skeptical in those areas. Guest: Well, there's a lot of things I want to respond to in that. It was a very, very rich question, maybe more of an obstinate[?] question; but anyway it was a rich little piece of text you just delivered there in the English language, of course. And of course all of what we're talking about goes back, as you know better than almost anybody, to Adam Smith, because not only did he write a very fine and important essay on language, but he then wrote a groundbreaking book on morality, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. And he describes--I want to come back to the language example in one minute, but let me park that on one side and just answer the last part of your question about morality. He describes what I think really is rather a good feedback loop: he talks about how the impartial spectator sort of stands for your and my discovery of how behavior is responded to by other people. In other words, as I grow up, I calibrate my behavior according to what other people consider to be good or bad. I find out that killing someone is disapproved of in society, and I therefore try not to do that. To put it at its bluntest. And of course what's so revolutionary about Adam Smith saying this--I'm porting[?] all this from you, actually--is that he's saying, actually we're not getting this stuff from priests. Priests are just reflecting back to us what we've agreed are the rules of moral behavior in society. We're getting this from literally the reactions of other people to how we behave. And in one society, people can react by saying, 'Good for you. You killed that man who looked at your wife. That's an honorable thing to do; that's a very moral thing to do.' And you learn that that's what morality is. And in other societies you learn that, 'No, however badly someone has behaved towards you, you never kill them.' And in fact you are an outcast if you do go that way. So, Smith is talking about a feedback loop into the way we respond to behavior that produces moral codes. And priests then come along and say, 'Actually the only reason you are not killing people is because Jesus Christ told you not to kill people.' And we go, 'Oh, is that right? We didn't realize that?' And I think it's a mistake. We'll come onto the religious question later, I'm sure. But can I just get back to the language [?] Russ: Sure. Guest: Because you touched on this but didn't drill into it. And I think one of the most powerful ways of getting people to think about evolution as the right way of getting people to think about cultural change is to talk about language. Because it falls into a category for which we don't have a good word. And again, I think I got this straight from you. I'm just telling back to you what you've taught me, Russ, anyway. Russ: Well, [?] again. And Adam Ferguson, a contemporary of Adam Smith, came up with this rather nice phrase where he said there are things in the world that are the result of human action but not the result of human design. And it's very obvious that a pen is the result of human design; a thunderstorm is not the result of human design or actions. But the English language is a result of human action. It's clearly man-made, in that sense. And yet it's clearly not designed. No one is in charge of it; no one invented it. It's spontaneous. And we don't have a good vocabulary to describe such things. And yet they are everywhere, when you think about it. The economy is a good example, as well. But language is a beautiful example. It's got a fit between form and function. It's highly complex. It's got rules. There are rules that you and I use in language that we don't even know about. I use the example in the book that the commoner a word is, the less likely it is to change its meaning. The commoner a word is, the more it's likely to shorten and become abbreviated; or vice versa, the more it gets abbreviated, the more likely we are to use it. So these are rules you and I are obeying; and yet they are rules that were never--there was no lawgiver who wrote these rules. We came up with these rules among ourselves, through some kind of feedback look. Now, it doesn't involve a price mechanism, as you are right in saying. But isn't that the answer to your question: that's where the feedback loops lie, the reactions among ourselves to the way we let culture change? Russ: Well, there are feedback loops. I just think they are very imperfect. An example would be the example I gave of 'debt': dropping the 'b'. I get a feedback loop: 'Don't do that.' Guest: Yes, but on that: I love that kind of example because it's a living fossil. It's a vestigial form. It's like the appendix in your intestinal canal or your little toe, neither of which nowadays have a function. You don't use your little toe for grasping fruit in the trees in a way that your ancestor may have done, but it's still there. It's kind of left over. And there are things about the human body that are mistakes, that evolution can't get round, because it left them in there. So the fact that your retina is facing backwards--the light has to go through the nerves to get to the [?] cells. Which is a mistake that's not repeated in, for example, the octopus, but it is found in all vertebrates. And it simply impossible to get rid of that. So the 'b' in 'debt' is a living fossil: it's a sign that we're dealing with an evolutionary system, not a designed system. If you designed it, you wouldn't have put the 'b' in it. Russ: Right; and we can't fix it. We could fix it. And it might get fixed over a few hundred years, just like lots of words have changed their spelling. But a bad--a vendor who sells rotten fruit doesn't last very long. They get weeded out by a much more effective feedback loop. That's all I'm saying. But I think the more challenging case--that's not so important, to start with. That's one of the reasons it doesn't get fixed. And extra 'b' is not an enormous burden. Guest: It's a cheap mistake.|
|23:55||Russ: Russ: I think the bigger problem is that morality writ large--and let's come back to that because I think it's more interesting--morality writ large is much harder to fix at the global level. So I'll give you an example and open up another--I'm not sure whether it's a Pandora's Box or a can of worms. You'll tell me when I'm done. You are very--I like your Adam Smith point, obviously, because as you know, I'm interested in Smith. Smith clearly is trying to show in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that you don't need--I shouldn't say 'you don't need.' Smith's trying to say in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that our conscience, our sense of right and wrong, comes from ourselves--meaning those around us--not necessarily from God, not necessarily from our parents, our upbringing. And so--but it doesn't answer the question of where those opinions of others comes from. It's a little bit of a circular system. And as you point out, there can be cultures where it's okay to kill people--in fact it's considered admirable and heroic, for all kinds of reasons. And Smith has to fall--not Smith, because he doesn't write about this, I think, but Hayek does. Hayek has to argue then that cultures that honor life--Smith talks about it a little bit; I should put a footnote there--but Hayek argues that cultures that have better rules about norms that develop, that emerge, are going to dominate the cultures. And that's kind of true, but that's a very weak feedback loop, not just because it takes a lot of time, but because the competition between cultures, between cities, between nations, between hemispheres is not like the competition among retailers, say, between Walmart and Target. It just--it's not as--"mistakes" can easily be made and it might not even be easy to measure what is a mistake. So that's the challenge I have there. Guest: Yeah. This may not be the point you are driving at, but I have a reflection on that. Which is that there's a live debate in biological evolution between group selectionism and individual gene selectionism. And the idea goes that, some people have tended to say, 'Well, actually what's happening in human beings is that groups live and die at the expense of other groups, and that that's the real driver of evolutionary change,' particularly in human beings and indeed in some other species, too. Whereas other people say, 'No. Your main rival is the guy within your own society who is living across the road and starting up a rival business. It's not a Frenchman when you are an Englishman, or a Chinese man if you are an American'. So the life and death of whole societies at the expense of other societies does happen. But it's a smaller and rarer effect than the life and death of a business, a family, an idea within a society in competition with other ideas within that society. So I think it's important not to get sidetracked by the problem of whole societies having to come and go. And I think that was Hayek's mistake. He came into this at a time when biological evolutionists were talking much too much about species competing with other species rather than individuals within a species competing with other individuals within that species. Russ: Well, both are going on. Right? It's just, to borrow a phrase from Smith, the connection between quality and outcome between societal competition is "loose, vague, and indeterminate." It's not as reliable and obvious and actionable as it is at the micro level. So, let's put that aside.|
|27:48||Russ: Let me turn to a different question related to morality. Which is: Your book is relentlessly critical of religion and belief in God. It's a subtheme that runs through it. And although Smith argues that our conscience comes from those around us, he doesn't rule out the possibility of God. And I would argue that Hayek, another modern champion of the ideas in your book, was a believer that morality did have an enormous reliance on religion. I'm going to quote him and ask for your response. Because you view it as a negative, or at least as a sort of irrelevance in the emergence of morality. So, Hayek said [in The Fatal Conceit--Econlib Ed.] the following:|
Like it or not, we owe the persistence of certain practices, and the civilization that resulted from them in part to support from beliefs which are not true--or verifiable or testable--in the same sense as our scientific statements, which are certainly not the result of rational argumentation. They did help their adherents to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it.And I'm continuing quoting Hayek:
Even those among us like myself who are not prepared to accept the anthropomorphic conception of a personal deity ought to admit that the premature loss of what we regard as non-factual beliefs would have deprived mankind of a powerful support in the long development of the extended order that we now enjoy. And that even now the loss of those beliefs, whether true or false, creates great difficulties.So, your book is a counterpoint to that. Why do you disagree with it? Guest: Yeah. Well, basically because I think that case has not been made. That is a very, very common view, that on the whole we would have become as moral as we are less rapidly if we hadn't had supernatural beliefs, essentially, to put it blunt[?]. And that's an extremely widespread view to this day. And Hayek makes that. And my problem with that is twofold. One, I simply can't see the dispassionate evidence for it. I mean, sure, religions have been promulgators of morality in recent centuries. Before that, they weren't, frankly. Very few religions were really saying anything moral, for large chunks of history. Rather, were saying a lot of immoral things, like beat up your rival revisions[?] and so on. So, it's possible that absent a supernatural reason for believing in morality, people wouldn't have got there as quickly. I'm just not, myself, convinced that there's any good evidence of that. Because we've had so many centuries where religion has taken the credit for morality, relentlessly, that we can't really get behind the veil and find out whether that explanation is true. Now, I will certainly concede that religion is a lot nicer now than it was, you know, in the time of the Old Testament--you've only got to read the Bible--or any of the years of Islam. But I also--my view on this has gotten a lot less benign since the turn of the millennium, as I see religion being used to justify truly awful crimes. Again and again and again, in the last 2 decades. One religion in particular, more than others. And while I, you know--and at the same time, I'm simply motivated to say, well, actually I also want to know whether these supernatural beliefs are true or not. And if you go back to biology, you find that these supernatural beliefs got in the way of seeing a spontaneous-order explanation for the world, and fought it very furiously. And really quite intolerantly, for a long time. And therefore I'm inclined to the view that I want to give the null hypothesis, that we can do better with reason than with unreason, and that we don't need religion to be moral. I want to give that idea a chance. It's not as if the past 2000 years when religion dominated almost every society on earth have been wonderful, peaceful ones that we'd be giving up. I think we might be able to achieve greater peace and greater generosity of spirit without it. I mean, I've gone to your question in a very sort of umbrella, big historical way; but I could answer it in a different way and drill down. And maybe we'll get a chance to do that. Russ: Well, there's a lot; and we could spend two or three hours talking just about this issue because it's so fascinating. I'm a religious believer. I'm a religious Jew. And the book is somewhat discomforting. I would say more strongly that we live in a time--in my lifetime there's never been a time like today where religion is seen with such disdain and disrespect by intellectual elites. So, it's fascinating to me to feel that, to read that in your book. But of course I pushed back against it emotionally while reading the book. But just one comment on this point about morality, and then I want to move on. We'll come back to religion, I'm sure. I've got a couple more points I want to get you to respond to. But, just to stick with morality for a minute: You suggested earlier that morality was emergent; religion responded to moral trends in society, whether they are toward transsexual practices, racism, etc. And yet, you know, when we go back to the Bible, 'Love your neighbor as yourself' is kind of a radical idea. It's in the Old Testament. It wasn't, I don't think, the common view of the people of the day. So, while I concede the ugliness of a bunch of human history, and certainly evil things have been done in the name of religion, there are many things in religion that I think do underpin much of our modern morality. But whether I can prove that or not to your satisfaction remains to be seen. Guest: Well, exactly. That would be my response: Yes, 'love your neighbor as yourself' is a great invention as an idea. But was it an invention of ordinary people trying to get along with each other, or was it an invention of priests saying, 'because of [?] or someone, this is a good way to behave.' I suspect neither of us could produce decent evidence to support that case. That kind of question is lost in the mists of time. Yet it's entirely possible that were you and I able to get in a time machine and go back, we could find really good evidence for your hypothesis. I doubt it. But it's entirely possible.
|35:31||Russ: But it was a radical idea; and I'm going to use that as a segue to--one of the more interesting parts of the book is your view of history and entrepreneurship, history and technology, history and innovation, where you criticize the so-called Great Man theory. Explain what that theory is and why you disagree with it--especially in regards to innovation, where I think a lot of people are very romantic about that, and I could probably put myself in that group. So, I find your book to be a bit of [?] Guest: [?] Russ: No, an educator. I really like that part of your [?] nature. Go ahead. Guest: Exactly. Well, like you, my emotional self wants there to be wonderful, famous people who change history and invent things and discover things and are sort of demigods; and I love reading stories about them and I love reading biography and I'm fascinated by great figures of history. But the argument that raged in the 18th century and on into the 19th century between two schools of thought about history--that history was made by great men--let's leave the fact that they left women out of the story at that point on one side--versus the theory that actually we're overemphasizing great men. That the great men are symptoms of their times rather than authors of the changes they lived through. And in the 18th century, Denis Diderot in particular and the other stars of the French Enlightenment fought back against this way of telling history as King X did this to King Y, and you know, such and such a priest came and changed the world, etc., and said: Actually, it's not like that. It's ordinary people who are driving historical changes. And sure, occasionally one of them emerges and becomes a leader, but he's as much the effect as the cause. So the example I gave in the book of this is that in the Great Encyclopedia that the French Enlightenment stars produced--Diderot and d'Alembert in particular in the 18th century--they refused to put any biographical entries in that whole book. Russ: Yeah, I love that. Guest: So, if you want to read Isaac Newton's biography--and they do have a very good biography of Isaac Newton in the Encyclopedia, but it's not listed under 'Newton.' It's listed under Woolsthorpe, which is the village he was born in. And it's a sort of joke in a way that they are doing that. But they are trying to make a point. Carlyle comes along in the early 19th century and says, 'You've got to be joking. Come on. Look what Napoleon did. That was a great man--not necessarily saying morally great but-- Russ: Influential-- Guest: a man who changed history. An influential man. And after the 20th century, it's hard not to agree that great men can influence history. But Lord Acton said, great men are mostly bad men. And we have some good examples of that in the 20th century. And I--so, where the rubber hits the road for me on this is the history of technology, of discovery and invention. And I'm very struck by something that I really got from Kevin Kelly's book, What Technology Wants, where he introduced me to a whole literature on the simultaneous discovery phenomenon. The fact that pretty well every invention and discovery you mention has occurred to two different people at possibly the same time. Possibly three. Possibly four. My favorite example of this is the light bulb, which in my part of the world a man named Joseph Swan gets the credit for inventing the light bulb and a terrible fraud called Thomas Edison came along and ripped him off. Well, if I live in Russia, I give the credit to Lodygin, and I'm equally cross with Edison. But actually if you drill down into history, in the 18th century there are 23 people in that decade alone who deserve independent credit for coming up with the idea of the incandescent light bulb. It was an idea ripe to be discovered. It was inevitable that it would be discovered in that decade. And that's true of almost everything. And then of course famously evolution itself, the idea of natural selection occurs to Wallace and Darwin at the same time, and Darwin has to rush into print to prevent himself being preempted. Even relativity--we tend to think of Einstein as unique in coming up with this idea that nobody else, that it took the world by surprise and nobody believed him. Well, that's true, but if you look at what Hendrik Lorentz was doing at the same time, he was well on the trail. He would have got there if Einstein had been run over by a tram. The double helix of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), incredibly important discovery--big race going on to find it. That, the technology had reached the point where we're going to find the genetic code around that time. So, there's a sort of complete dispensability of scientists and inventors that really surprises people when you think about it. Now, does that mean that we don't admire them? No. In some ways we admire them more, because they were in a race: they had to get there first, if you like. And by the way this doesn't apply nearly as well in the arts. So, if Beethoven had failed to write the Ninth Symphony, nobody else would have done it. Although, there are musical genres that would have emerged. So, I'm just trying to take--partly I think we put these people on such a pedestal that it makes it hard for young people to think they could ever achieve this. And once you read the biography of a great scientist or a great general or something, you realize there's a lot of chance and there's a lot of being in the right place at the right time that got him where he was. It isn't all about his God-like character. So, I'm very much coming down on the anti-great-theory side of history. Though, of course I can see that individuals can make a difference. But the general point that technology would march along, whoever is discovering it, is I think a really interesting evolutionary one; and it makes technology progress seem almost inevitable. And I get a little bit mystical in this part of the book, to the fury of some people, who think that I've somehow imbued technology with a spirit or something, which is not my intention at all, because that would be top-down [?]. Russ: Yeah, I really like your observation that it's hard to think of inventions or products that came well before their time. Guest: Yes. I had this conversation with someone just the other day, and he said, 'I've got a really good example of that: wheeled suitcases.' And I said, 'Funny, that's the example I thought of, too; and when I looked it up I discovered, actually they came about the right time, when airports got big and aluminum wheels got small, etc.' And porters became rare. Before that there really wasn't much point in putting heavy wheels on the suitcase. Anyway. Russ: And taking up room that might otherwise be used for clothes. It's a trivial example but it's quite interesting, actually. The Personal Data Assistant--the so-called PDA--I think that's what D stands for--the original Newton, which was the Apple product, really the first hand-held device, was a failure. But no one took that to mean that it could never be done. Guest: Right. Russ: And of course "shortly" after--not so shortly, but by historical standards very shortly after, a whole group of products came into being: the smart phone, the Palm Pilot, and other devices that were successful a few years later was because they were designed better, they were more timely--I don't know. But it isn't because-- Guest: Well, it was partly because the density of chips had shrunk even further--had increased even further--and therefore, you know, the PDA had suddenly become really sophisticated enough to be useful. Whereas before that it was a pretty trivial device, or whatever. And one of the things I'm fascinated by, by the way, is the way in which this phenomenon of inexorable, inevitable invention is clearest in the digital world. I mean, nobody thinks that if Google hadn't been born we would have no search engines, for example. And yet, this is also the world in which we give most credit to the entrepreneurs who end up at the top of the tree. These are--Zuckerberg and Gates and of course Jobs end up with this sort of God-like status as if they've changed the world dramatically, whereas in fact in some sense they are the lucky ones. I'm sorry--I don't mean to deny those guys. Again, they were doing it in competition with others, which makes it all the more impressive achievement. But it's rather ironic that it's in an industry where we're just inevitably discovering all these things. We're creating this almost sort of imperial, almost demigod-like status for businessmen. Russ: It's a fascinating thing to think about. The way I was forced to think about it--you mention Johnny Ive in your book, the Apple designer. If Steve Jobs had, say, had a little more psychedelic drug use in his youth and had gone off to India and never been heard from again by the rest of the world, we might think that a Dell computer is the height of design elegance and a fantastic product. Which is it. It's a little bit like evolution in that way--it's not perfect; it works really well for its circumstance. But it would be nice to have a more beautiful giraffe, perhaps, or a more beautiful laptop computer. And the Mac is, I think, a little more beautiful than a Dell. Guest: Yeah, I quite agree. I can remember where I was when I first saw--I can't remember which Apple product it was--you know, the one that was trying to look nice rather than trying to be functional. And I thought that was really weird, this is disgraceful, this is not the right way to do things; computers shouldn't be treated in this frivolous way. I had some weirdly sort of negative reaction to it. Which I can't now understand.|
|46:26||Russ: So, I'm going to ask you a tough question, for an evolutionary optimism, as you are. Why are our ideas and our meaning, those of us who are fans of leaving things relatively alone and letting things get steered by all of us rather than a few of us--why are our views so unpopular? Why aren't we sweeping the world? Why isn't free market capitalism the dominant economic system? And I know--you could say, 'Well, it is.' But I would say, 'Not really.' The growth of government in the United States has been inexorable over the last 80 years, 70 years. And those of us who think it should be a lot smaller, should we just give up? Should we reexamine our views because they haven't been adopted? Guest: It's the same question as Darwin faced, in other words, when he said, 'I don't think all this exquisite fit between form and function' that you get in the human body or any other species or in an ecosystem comes from an intelligent design--everyone went, 'Wow! You can't say that. That's obviously wrong.' No one had heard of such a stupid thing. Of course there must be design. You know--these objects are beautifully designed, so there must be a designer. It's sort of that same question. And people didn't just find it unpersuasive. They found it morally repugnant in some way. I don't fully understand why. But I think Dan Dennett gets closest to cracking this enigma when he talks about the intentional stance. So, we have a reflex assumption when we see something that it was designed, created, or planned rather than emergent and spontaneous. And we actually go too far in this direction. We think that thunderstorms are vindictive things, for example. You know--that the witch doctor has organized for lightning to strike my house. Or just, you know, there's a phrase my father used to use after he'd hit his thumb with a hammer or something, he would say, 'I hate the vindictiveness of inanimate objects.' And I can't remember where that comes from. But it's a quote from someone. And--you know what I mean. I'm sure you know the experience: 'How dare you make my life so difficult, Engine, when you won't start?' Or whatever it is. So, we imbue agency to things that don't have agency. We imbue intentionality to things that clearly can't have intentionality. Why do we do this? Well, probably because it's better to err in that direction than in the opposite direction back in the Pleistocene Stone Age. If you get hit on the back of the head by a stone, to say, 'Oh, well, things happen. You know, that's just the way of the world,' is not necessarily as sensible as to turn around and say, 'Who threw that stone?' Do you see what I mean? Russ: Sure. Guest: And so I think that's where it comes from: that we, free market people, are coming along saying, 'Actually, you don't need to put someone in charge. You don't need to--for there to be a plan. This problem will get solved if we let people free to come up with solutions.' That goes against our belief that the world is on the whole a planned and ordered and designed place. But of course it also gets in the way of human ambition. I mean, you and I are effectively saying to someone, 'Don't put me in charge; don't make me the Czar in charge of policy in this area because I won't be able to do any good.' Whoever said that? If you are being offered the Czar job in Washington with a very large salary and a lot of staff working for you and a big corner office, who is going to turn that down? So, the modern version of the intentional stance is to have a sort of belief that politicians can fix any problem. Russ: Yes. And we do like thinking we are important and powerful. We like being loved and lovely, as Adam Smith would say. Or at least loved.|
|50:55||Russ: I'm going to read a longish quote from the book, which is very provocative and then I'm going to ask you a question about it. You write the following: |
Bad news is manmade, top-down, purposed stuff, imposed on history. Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves. The things that go well are largely unintended. The things that go badly are largely intended. Let me give you two lists. First: the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Versailles Treaty, the Great Depression, the Nazi regime, the Second World War, the Chinese Revolution, the 2008 financial crisis: every single one was the result of top-down decision-making by relatively small numbers of people trying to implement deliberate plans--politicians, central bankers, revolutionaries and so on. Second: the growth of global income; the disappearance of infectious diseases; the feeding of seven billion; the clean-up of rivers and air; the reforestation of much of the rich world; the internet; the use of mobile-phone credits as banking; the use of genetic finger-printing to convict criminals and acquit the innocent. Every single one of these was a serendipitous, unexpected phenomenon supplied by millions of people who did not intend to cause these big changes.Now, I love that passage, but when I step back, I have big problems with it. And the first problem I have is that the First World War, or the Versailles Treaty, even the Great Depression--I see those as emergent, also. They are the confluence of all kinds of influences and trends and schemes of individuals which often created the opposite of what they intended. Just to pick one, Woodrow Wilson example. How should I think about those things? Why do you--how am I able to have a taxonomy with those as being so separate from the so-called 'good' things? Guest: Well, I would disagree, just simply on the historical evidence. And the First World War (WWI) was quite fresh in my mind when I was writing this book, because it was the 2014 Centenary of it. And what was emerging for me from the books--I was reading Margaret McMillan and other people--was how relatively few people in the chancelleries of Europe made relatively few decisions that led to a complete catastrophe that nobody was expecting. And that the people were appalled by it. The British people, for example, were completely focused on a sort of nasty situation in Ireland, right up until the end of August 1914, at which point they suddenly discovered that their leaders had dragged them into a war in Continental Europe based on some commitments they'd made in some treaty with the French and Russians against the Germans and the Austrians; and if, you know, Sir Edward Grey had said something different on Malta on some such occasion, we wouldn't have been there. And of course, famously--I've forgotten his name, the assassin at Sarajevo-- Russ: Gavrilo Princip. Guest: Thank you. Gavrilo Princip had not taken a wrong turn in the streets of Sarajevo and found himself right next to--no-- Russ: The other way around-- Guest: it was the prince who took the wrong turn. Yeah, exactly. But anyway. So, I really did feel at that time that that, and indeed the Great Depression based on the [?] decisions [?] of Central Bankers in that case, were relatively few-to-many decisions rather than many-to-few. And I came up with those lists quite easily. Now, of course you can list counterexamples. You know--there are phenomena in the world that come from the many to the few, [?]. And there are--well, not from the--to the many to the many if you like. And there are, you know, incredible individual decisions that result in good outcomes. But on the whole, I'm impressed by how this ludicrously simple rule that I came up with--right at the end of the book--slightly provocatively, as you've spotted--that most of the good things that happen in history tend to be unplanned. Whereas many of the bad things tend to be planned. I'm impressed by how easy it is to defend that point. Russ: Well, I guess the thought I'd have is that none of the people in those Chancelleries before WWI intended WWI. They actually thought they were either making their country safer or leading to peace. So I think WWI was very unplanned. But I do concede-- Guest: Sorry. Yes, that's a perfectly good point. Yes. I am [?] that. Yes. Russ: I do concede that they were smaller groups. Decentralization is a really good idea, as a general rule. Guest: Yes. Yes.
|55:55||Russ: A related point, I think, is this--you don't directly talk about this, but in a couple of places you remark on the irony of someone being called 'Right Wing'; you mention Hayek. And you could mention yourself. You could mention me. I've been called 'Right Wing.' I'm sure you have. Why is that? Guest: Yeah. Yeah. There's a fascinating historical trend here, in that--I'm very interested in the fact that in the late 18th, early 19th century, if you are an economic liberal who believes in the free market, you are also a believer in the abolition of slavery, and the disestablishment of the Church, and all these kind of things. And so you are very much a liberal in every sense of the word. You dislike the big state; you dislike monarchs, you dislike the powerful Church in society. And right through the first half of the 19th century, that's true: that economic liberals are also social liberals. By the time you hit the middle of the 20th century, something different has happened. And on the whole, social liberals--who want societal change, who are worried about the poor, and things like that--are by then believers in a big state. Now, how did that come about? At what point does the Left, if you like--because that's what we're talking about--suddenly say that they want a big state, not a small state? And I think it's mostly Marx's fault. And admittedly there's a little bit of the great man theory in there. Or rather let's say Marx is the symptom rather than the cause. But anyway-- Russ: Well, he could be. Guest: You know, there's a moment when suddenly the Left says, 'Actually, in economic terms we want a big state. We want to end the means of production and so on. And you are left with these fascinating relics--people like Sir John Morley in Britain, a man named Ernest Benn[?], etc. There are American examples of people who are real, old, traditional liberals who are on the Left socially, but they are also free marketers. And they kind of peter out. The Strange Death of Liberal England was a book written about this phenomenon. And when free markets, free enterprise re-emerges, it is championed by people who are basically social conservatives--Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, etc. And the only way they can get a hearing for freedom and liberty in economics is by appealing to the conservatism on social issues of a large chunk of their audience. You know, I have arguments with my good friend and colleague Tim Montgomerie in The Times [the British Times, not the NYTimes--Econlib Ed.] about this. He says, 'Look, you libertarians are never going to get a majority unless you ally with some social conservatives.' And that seems to me a pity. Because I don't ¬want to be a social conservative. I want us to approve of gay marriage, too, and all that kind of thing. And in what sense--to an 18th century philosopher to describe Russ Roberts or Matt Ridley as Right Wing, because they believe in freedom of people to not just believe and think and speak, but trade, too? What sense is that Right Wing? Right Wing surely means you believe in centralized authority. But somehow that's all got changed.|
|59:38||Russ: Now, I just want to pick on two themes that I think of when I think about these issues. One is the Progressive Movement, which we haven't talked about. Which is--I think the dark side of the Enlightenment, the dark side of the rise of rationality and science. This belief--really a form of idol worship, that human knowledge is supreme and can solve all problems: rationality as deity. And I think that's part of what we are talking about for the last 20 minutes. And I think the other part, which I think we have to confront on our side, which I think we often ignore, is that too many people, unfortunately, conflate being pro-free-enterprise with pro-business. Guest: Yes. Russ: So, whenever I can, I like to emphasize that I am not pro-business. I am in favor of the system that allows businesses to compete. And I think people are skeptical of our views, of our worldview, our philosophy, say, 'Well, in your view, which allows freedom, that just means that businesses are going to be free to exploit us.' They either don't appreciate the power of competition, or they don't think competition is very pervasive. And I think that latter concern is a legitimate one. I don't agree with it, but it's a legitimate concern that we don't do a very good job answering. And I think it causes us to be lumped in with the crony capitalists, who are, to my horror. Guest: Completely agree with everything you just said. And wouldn't be able to improve on it, in a sense. And, you know, the idea that, I mean I sometimes use the phrase to describe myself--I'm a free market anti-capitalist. Because the last thing I want is big capital to be in charge of the world. That's essentially a monopolistic way of approaching it. And where do a lot of these barriers to entry, to new competition come from? They come from, essentially, government, doing the bidding of big business. And that's--it's very hard to get that across, because I think most people--I blame the education system--that most people are not given a free and fair exposure to this notion that actually, you know, that Adam Smith was the ultimate. Antibusiness [?] if you like; anti-big-business. Russ: For sure. Guest: But in any way.|
|1:02:10||Russ: I want to close with a philosophical thought. Your book is really about pushing what I would call the materialist or reductionist approach that is implicit in science to a much wider array of phenomena. And as a result, it's an incredibly provocative book. There are things that you learn, whether you want to or not. There are things that you agree with and things you don't agree with. It's bristling with ideas--which I think is the mark of a great book. But one of the, I think, challenges of the materialist or reductionist approach is a loss of mystery. When I was reading your book I was thinking of Tom Stoppard in Arcadia when he says, 'The ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about--clouds--daffodils--waterfalls--what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in--these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks.' What he's trying to convey there is that there are things beyond our understanding. And to some extent your book is pushing the idea that nothing is beyond our understanding. And I want to ask you--I want to challenge you--in modern philosophy, people like David Chalmers and Thomas Nagle, who have suggested--not suggested: they have argued very forcefully--that consciousness itself is not amenable to the physical, materialist reductionist approach. It's not just chemistry, that we will not understand it and that our current theories of biology can't explain it. What are your thoughts on that? Guest: Well, I strongly reject the view that not understanding things makes them more wonderful than understanding them. More awe-inspiring than understanding them. And, you know, that character in Arcadia-- Russ: I think it's Bernard-- Guest: It's inevitably Bernard, and he has some of the great lines; and it's a wonderful play, and I love it--makes that point very well. But, you know, Richard Dawkins, in Unweaving the Rainbow, takes on exactly that. And says, when Keats criticizes Newton for unweaving the rainbow and telling us that it's actually made up of different wavelengths of light, does he really make it any less wonderful and less awe-inspiring? Do you now say, 'Oh, it's a rainbow. I'm not going to look at it.' Of course not. And in fact, quite the reverse. Science tells you that we have deep geological time: we have 4 billion years of history on this planet; that we have a billion billion stars in the galaxy. These are far more mind-boggling and awe-inspiring ideas than we've got a black dome over our head with points of light which are being moved around by a man with a white beard called Zeus. I just don't find that as exciting an explanation, if you'd like. Okay, I'm reducing to absurdity a little bit. Russ: It's entertaining. [?] Guest: So, my view is that science--and now I've made this--I hope to end up in the Dictionary of Quotations for this one day, because I've been saying it for 20 years and I think it's true, and I've probably stole it from someone else: Science is in the business not of getting rid of mysteries but of creating new mysteries. Every time it understands something, it creates a raft of new, extraordinary problems to understand. It creates far more questions than it does answers. Quantum mechanics, for example. We've got to the point of realizing that quantum mechanics must be true; but, boy, does it boggle our minds. And can we really understand it? No. So, I would say that we materialists, rationalists, reductionists, dreadful[?] people are in the business of making wonder. Russ: Well, at the end of--a little further along again in Arcadia--it's probably Bernard again--he says, 'When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone on an empty shore.' That's the one counterpoint. The other--I think the nice way to agree with what you've just said--is the Venetian proverb that Nassim Taleb quotes, 'The farther from the shore, the deeper the water.' So, as we learn more, we learn of what we don't know. Which is another way of saying mysteries keep going. But, what about this consciousness thing? Do you have any thoughts on that? Guest: Well, this is, I think it's called 'mysterianism,' the idea that consciousness may be too difficult for the human brain to understand. So, you can exercise it, but it doesn't necessarily mean you can understand it. And Francis Crick, who spent the last 20 years of his life trying to understand consciousness, very--took a relentlessly reductionist approach; and he said: When you look at an optical illusion and it switches from one view to another--you know those kind of things where you can either see it one way or you can see it another--something's changed in your brain when you've switched from one to the other. It hasn't moved: you know, a neuron hasn't changed place. But a pattern of firing of neurons in your brain is different now than it was a second ago. I want to find out what that is. And that will give me insights into consciousness. Now, he never succeeded; and no one else has ever succeeded. But if we do get to the point where we succeed in that, where we can say: Aha, I can actually see a pattern of activity in the brain that is different when--not when you've changed the image someone is looking at, but when we change their understanding of the image, as it were, then have we removed all the mystery and excitement from consciousness? No, I don't think we have. Have we--do we think that we will never get there? I doubt it. We thought life was going to--we couldn't get our heads around life. Right up until the mid-1950s people were saying, 'What is the difference between living things and nonliving things? I mean, I just can't imagine any? Maybe it's quantum physics,' people started saying. And then, along comes Watson and Crick, and suddenly it falls into place. Digital coded information is what makes life different from non-life. Nobody--nobody--predicted that. It came completely out of left field. It came from an area of science that was thought to be completely irrelevant to the subject. So, the same could happen in consciousness. But I certainly wouldn't bet against us being able to understand consciousness at some point in your or my lifetime.|