Matt Ridley on the Evolution of Everything
Feb 22 2016

Ev%20of%20Ev.jpg Matt Ridley talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his latest book, The Evolution of Everything. Ridley applies the lens of emergent order to a wide variety of phenomena including culture, morality, religion, commerce, innovation, and consciousness.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Mark Russell
Feb 22 2016 at 10:45am

Ridley admits that he operates from a western, post-enlightenment standpoint. In so doing, does he not elevate his cultural moment and place above all others? Evolution is a distinctly western, post-enlightenment idea which is now the weapon of choice for today’s intellectual imperialists.

This is just another example of Western intellectuals steamrolling other cultures with their secular humanism, which ironically has led to its own wars and genocides.

Szymon Moldenhawer
Feb 22 2016 at 12:05pm

I have been little disappointed with Matt Riddley this time. I loved “Matt Ridley on Climate Change” This time unfortunately I heard same old and “enlightenment” biases = willful blindness to the incredible jump in philosophy and creation scientific method in the 11th century-12 century, the uniqueness of Christian experiment in Europe and in the world especially in civilizing our barbarian or pagan ancestors. Civilization regress brought about appearance of Islam that re arranged progress map of Mediterranean till today.
Learning about history of ancient Mediterranean civilization would not hurt either . I wish Matt read Aquinas Summae Teologica or Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagle or at least read Pinkerton more carefully whose own unique and valuable data undermine contradict his own(Pinkerton Thesis).
There is a an evolutionary emergence of culture but qualities of ideologies involved play the crucial role in directionality of progress.
See evolution of meso-american civilizations which increased level of violence and brutality with concurrently with the increase if technology, or interaction between Hebrew and Phoenician civilization in 600 to 300 BCE.
I guess being educated in England taints one with post – reformation propaganda of Humes and especially Gibbon limiting more broad analysis. Sad.

Greg G
Feb 22 2016 at 1:10pm

I thought this podcast was a good example of EconTalk at its best. Matt Ridley was an interesting and thought provoking guest. Russ did a good job of challenging him on the weak points in his argument. This is not so easy to do when you are basically in philosophical agreement on the most fundamental issues.

Russ challenged him on how he defines emergence, the fact that emergence sometimes leads to bad outcomes, and why we haven’t seen more evolution towards libertarianism in government if it confers such an evolutionary advantage. I thought that Matt tended to change the subject in response to each of those challenges but I really appreciate the fact that Russ was asking the questions I wanted to ask as a listener.

I thought the weakest part of Ridley’s argument was when he simply asserted without argument that the 2008 financial crisis was the result of top down control. It is easy to identify bottom up forces that were important causes of that crisis. It is not a simple top down or bottom up story.

For example, for years during the bubble homeowners saving responsibly for a 20% down payment saw their neighbors who had taken advantage of riskier financing building equity while their own savings failed to get them closer to 20% of a larger home price. This caused many of them to individually change their minds on the best way to finance.

Similar bottom up factors can be seen in executive decisions. Sub prime loans were, by far, the most profitable loans for years. Executive of the largest financial companies were able to make tens of millions of dollars a year playing this game and keep most of that money even if their companies later blew up. If they had tried telling their shareholders it would have been wiser to operate more safely and make much smaller profits they would have been quickly replaced.

Allowing securitizers of mortgages to shop for their own ratings agencies was all that was needed to produce a bottom up result of ratings agencies competing to be more lenient on ratings. No top down requirement to shop for more lenient ratings was needed. That happened as the result of the bottom up pressure to compete.

And yes, I know that many here will want to blame “government” for top down control that caused all this. Government in a democratic state is very much the product of bottom up processes itself. Any individual politician in a democratic government likely has less control over his organization than say, the Chairman of Northern Rock, has over his organization.

Greg G
Feb 22 2016 at 1:40pm

Late in the podcast, Russ asks why libertarians are so often misidentified in the public mind as right wingers in sympathy with crony capitalists. I believe I can answer this question.

This confusion is a natural result of the fact that libertarians often make political alliances with conservatives. Libertarians are the battered spouse in a bad political marriage with conservatives. Libertarians tend to consistently give conservatives their political support but get nothing back in exchange. Thus, the public identifies them with the right wingers they make alliances with.

The left/right political dichotomy long predates the birth of free market libertarianism as a significant political movement. It dates to the French Revolution and separates political views based on nationalist versus internationalist and hierarchical versus egalitarian. Libertarianism does not fit comfortably into these dichotomies.

Conservatives have always been comfortable being on the political right and have always opposed liberalism in all its various forms even as its definition has changed somewhat.

Feb 22 2016 at 3:26pm

Striking that someone as highly versed in cultural evolution research as Ridley should revert to sounding like a New Atheist when conversation turns to religion, when it’s precisely from cultural evolutionary quarters that the most robust challenge to the intellectual respectability of New Atheism springs.

Russ, how about interviewing some of these researchers who study religion from a cultural evolutionary perspective? Here are two representative articles with several authors to choose among:

[Full urls substituted for abbreviated urls. Please use full urls so readers can see where they might be going.–Econlib Ed.]

Feb 22 2016 at 5:34pm

Interesting discussion, but Ridley was so wrong on so many topics:

Evolution vs Devolution – especially in society and culture there’s so many examples of Devolution like Ancient Rome, Communism etc. In nature, is the chicken superior to the dinosaur? What about the ape to the proto-ape?

Evolution is the mythology of the atheists held dearly by the Brits because it’s their guy who did it. But think about it: does it really make any sense? See why not at and

Isn’t Evolution just a lousy hammer in the hands of a guy that sees only nails?

Feb 22 2016 at 6:14pm

Changing attitudes are not unidirectional: homosexuality was acceptable in Greek Antiquity and then it wasn’t, and now it is acceptable once again. Recent war horrors are not evolutions of the recent morality of those societies but reminiscent of some ancient times.

Emergent is not random. Maybe ideas don’t come from kings and such, but citizens still put their best effort and Intelligence into bettering their life. It’s still Intelligent Design at work. Sorry Russ, language is design too – ex: we borrow words from other languages not randomly, but purposefully to express the same necessary concepts.

“Living fossils” and “Vestigial” – just because you don’t understand, doesn’t mean it doesn’t serve a purpose. The human eye is a bad design? Doctors used to pull out appendices and tonsils for no reason, but now we think they serve a purpose.

“we’re dealing with an evolutionary system, not a designed system” – can it be both? How about the evolution of the automobile???

Feb 22 2016 at 6:35pm

“supernatural beliefs” – “supernatural” is just not an acceptable word. Who decides what’s natural and what is supernatural? Wasn’t Nuclear Energy “supernatural” 100 years ago?

Does “morality” have any meaning in a random universe as atheists imagine?

“religion being used to justify truly awful crimes” – what about beautiful women? Wasn’t Troy destroyed for a beautiful woman? Weren’t millions killed by communism in the name of the working class? The official reason for a crime means nothing.

“we can do better with reason [than with religion]” – do atheist own “reason”? Is there one single “reason”? And if so, how come reasonable people disagree all the time? See:

Greg G
Feb 22 2016 at 7:06pm


>—“Isn’t Evolution just a lousy hammer in the hands of a guy that sees only nails?”

No, evolution is “just” the best explanation we have so far of how organisms got the way they are today. It has been improved on since Darwin’s time and will likely enjoy further improvements in years to come.

There are probably more (in total numbers not percentages) theists than atheists who accept natural selection as a good theory. Not to worry though. Once you posit an all powerful God, you can believe in almost anything you want. There are many things God could do with unlimited powers. Many believe that God works through evolution among other methods. I find that to be an additional unhelpful layer of explanation but there is no way to disprove it. The fact that you find one theory inadequate and unpersuasive is not evidence for some other theory.

Feb 22 2016 at 9:58pm

Greg G,

How on earth you come up with “the best explanation”. Have you seen all possible explanations and do you have the capacity to decide which one is “the best”? Let’s see: we have “random mutations” followed by “unguided natural selection”. First, you just don’t know “random”; second, you don’t know “guided” or not; third who does the “selection” and who defines “natural”? and forth, selection makes the system non-random (i.e. designed) like it or not.

Let me quote you: “you can believe in almost anything you want” and you can be in the company of 99.999% of “scientists”, but knowledge is not a democracy and does not belong to the establishment.

You should really read my blog and write me. I am definitely looking for a capable sparring partner, though am not sure that you qualify…

Greg G
Feb 22 2016 at 11:39pm


I did take a look at your blog. I didn’t see anything there that would cause me to want to be a partner of any kind.

Good luck finding a sparring partner you think is worthy. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and predict that search might not go well.

Feb 22 2016 at 11:52pm

It’s OK Greg G. That’s what happens when you don’t do your own thinking – you run out of arguments at first challenge.

Damian C
Feb 23 2016 at 4:09am

Dear Russ

Thank you for another interesting discussion.

In the middle of the discussion you stated that there are many things in religion that underpin much of our modern morality.

Is your view that those elements of modern morality evolved from mainstream western religions (say, Christianity or Judaism) and would not be present otherwise, or were you simply observing that we see the same values in both religion and western morality? In other words, causation or correlation?

The ethicist Peter Singer, of Princeton University, says that there are fundamental moral principles which exist across all human ethical frameworks. The universality of these principles suggests to me that these principles would exist in modern morality regardless of whether they evolved from ‘Judeo-Christian’ values or from any other ethical framework, such as secular philosophy or humanism.

Peter Singer writes, in “One World: The Ethics of Globalisation” (2002):

“Some aspects of ethics can fairly be claimed to be universal. Recoprocity, at least, seems to be common to ethical systems everywhere. The notion of reciprocity may have served as the basis for the ‘Golden Rule’… The Golden Rule can be found, in differing formulations, in a wide variety of cultures and religious teachings, including, in roughly chronological order, those of Zoroaster, Confucius, Mahavira (the founder of Jainism), Buddha, the Hindu epic Mahabharata, the Book of Leviticus, Hillel, Jesus, Mohammed, Kant, and many others.”

John Sallay
Feb 23 2016 at 9:09am

I found Mr. Ridley’s arguments to be muddled and not very convincing, even though I thought that I would be easily convincable.

I think that he is conflating ideas when he talks about centralized planning and emergence as opposites. Planning is a key feature of a market economy and the good results that he mentions are generally the result of a well executed centralized plan.

A good non-governmental example, I think, is Steve Jobs. I think that most would consider him a centralized planner. The design for the iphone didn’t emerge from within Apple, it was dictated from on high. The reason why Apple produced a much better product than a government central planner would is because they internalize both the costs and the benefits. There are also a wide variety of bad things that emerge from society, take Bernie Maddoff for example or any number of serial killers. There are a wide variety of both good and bad examples of what society produces. ( I really like a few weeks ago when Russ talked about how messy markets are.)

I felt like Mr. Ridley was saying that things that he likes are emergent and things that he dislikes are centrally planned. I did not see any consistency between the items on his list.

The other point of confusion for me was his discussion of morality. He talked as though society had a single definition of what is moral. Even on a simple topic such as murder, most everyone agrees that murder is wrong, but there is widespread disagreement of what constitutes a murder. Is abortion murder? What about suicide?

He also talks about religion as though it were a single entity. There are a wide variety of religions with a wide variety of teachings on morality.

Although I will readily admit that many religions have at different times changed in response to changing public opinion, I don’t think that that is the general mechanism by which they decide on morality.

I didn’t understand his argument that religious people think that morality is what God tells us to do and it wouldn’t be known otherwise. It seams like a pretty tall straw man. I don’t think that anyone on the side of religion has ever made that argument.

All in all, I was excited when I saw the topic of this podcast, but found Mr. Ridley’s arguments to be very poorly thought out. Maybe his book comes across better than he did in the podcast.

Mark Crankshaw
Feb 23 2016 at 11:07am


This confusion is a natural result of the fact that libertarians often make political alliances with conservatives. Libertarians are the battered spouse in a bad political marriage with conservatives. Libertarians tend to consistently give conservatives their political support but get nothing back in exchange. Thus, the public identifies them with the right wingers they make alliances with.

That’s true except when it isn’t. Libertarians readily make alliances with liberals and conservatives where those alliances serve the libertarian cause. I’m not so sure what the “public” thinks, but the left-biased media usually does not (or will not) acknowledge the natural alliance of libertarian-ism and liberalism where such an alliances can be accommodated without sacrificing libertarian principles.

I watched the 2003 movie Luther recently, a movie that detailed the life of Martin Luther. It made me think about the Protestant Reformation and all of the political developments that occurred since that have made life within human society much more bearable. Where I depart from the leftist narrative is that I do not believe that life is better because of the political mechanism the West has chosen to resolve political conflict (that is, democracy) but rather because the West has chosen to narrow and circumscribe the political sphere whatever the dominate political mechanism chosen to resolve conflict. Life is better, in my view, only because the sphere of State action has been narrowed, the State has been restrained and the individual protected as a result.

I would much, much, much rather live under an autocrat who taxed me 1-2% of my income but otherwise left me alone to live as I please than under a democracy that taxed me at 60% and set about planning, dictating, and controlling every facet of my existence. The horror of Orwell’s 1984 (or Nazi Germany, the USSR, the GDR, etc.) was not the fact that Big Brother wasn’t an elected official, but rather that the State intruded upon the individual in a totalitarian manner, leaving no sphere of the human existence outside of political control. I am not of the opinion that democracy is a safeguard against totalitarianism. Totalitarianism and democracy are perfectly compatible if no effort is made to restrain the State or to narrow the sphere of political regulatory control.

So, with a view narrowing, restraining, and tightly circumscribing the sphere of State action, where can (and have) libertarians made alliances with liberals? For example, on issues such as the decriminalization of drugs, homosexuality, or abortion. Support for the abolition of State actions that curtail individual freedoms (Jim Crow laws, Apartheid, abolition of State support for churches). Support for the elimination of State action with respect to international belligerency, unwarranted surveillance, and empire building (the waging of wars and the subsidies for the vast military-industrial complex). All of these issues involve restraining political action (including limiting “democratic” action) and are framed as “negative liberty”, the freedom to left alone by the State (and even your “do-good” nosy neighbors through the ballot box).

So why does the Left insist on identifying libertarians with conservatives? I do not agree that “the public” in general does this–this is a political tactic of the Left. Because the Left only on occasion frames their principles upon “negative liberty” (and where they do, why not support them?). A large part of the Leftist agenda is framed in the pursuit of “positive liberty”, not the freedom to left alone but the “freedom” to demand goods and services from others without compensation and the “freedom” to control the behavior, property, and even the thoughts of others. And, of course, the pursuit of these “positive rights” just so happens to involve the massive expansion, enrichment and empowerment of the State and a corresponding diminution of the individual–the very thing libertarians quite rightly abhor.

Mark Crankshaw
Feb 23 2016 at 11:45am

@ GregG

No, evolution is “just” the best explanation we have so far of how organisms got the way they are today. It has been improved on since Darwin’s time and will likely enjoy further improvements in years to come.

On this I think we fully agree!


As an atheist, I find your assessment of the motivations of atheists unpersuasive. Being an atheist has two parts: 1) the rejection of all the world’s man-made religions and 2) the complete inability to conclusively “answer the universal probing questions”, as you put it.

Christianity, Islam, Judaism and all of the other religions that pollute world history are, to me, clearly man made (and by Stone Age minds) with their transparent purpose being the manipulation of the behavior of other humans for political and economic profit.

To claim that a “God” has “created” the Universe is a vacuous concept since you (nor I) can not clearly or definitely define “God” (who, what, or where is it?) nor can you (nor I) clearly or definitely describe the process of creation (by what mechanism or process is this “creation” accomplished?). Saying X did Y when X and Y are undefined is not very informative. Accepting the loopy definitions proffered by Stone Age man seems foolhardy. To me, being an atheist is simply just admitting that…

Feb 23 2016 at 12:28pm

So, I agree with several commenters here that I found Ridley’s arguments flawed in several key areas. Overall I found the idea of emergent order an interesting one, but lost enthusiasm when it was cast as a force for good compared to the evils of small group decisions.

The key point here is defining how emergence from small groups is different from emergence from large populations. Certainly scientific discoveries are almost all emergent from relatively small groups working on a similar topic. How would a small group working on theoretical physics differ from the small group that caused WWI?

At some point it becomes clear that the thesis being pursued, like almost everything in the world, is right some of the time, but is being oversold here to the point where contributions from brilliant people are discounted. One might argue that without Lincoln the Civil War period turns out completely differently, and perhaps we still have slavery…

But I wanted to finish with the discussion about why things shifted from a connection from social liberalism and free market in the early 1900’s to a new alignment between social liberals and “big government”. To me, the change is really obvious. How did social liberals manage to win their victories over slavery, civil rights, women’s rights, etc? It certainly wasn’t an organic universal acceptance from the grassroots, but rather from the utilization of a centralized authority to provide blanket protection. Without it, one would imagine there being only patchwork social progress.

If one truly believes in the social causes being championed, then big government is the only satisfactory solution. Tolerating regions of the country that refuse to acknowledge the changes is simply unacceptable if you believe that fundamental human rights are at stake.

Mark Crankshaw
Feb 23 2016 at 1:25pm


If one truly believes in the social causes being championed, then big government is the only satisfactory solution

Nonsense. All of those “social causes” required was a diminution of the very central authority that was responsible for the violation of individual rights (be they civil, women or human) in the first place. “Big Government” (and democracy) was being constrained–by not being able to pass laws, democratically arrived at or not, that violated civil, women’s or human rights. “Big Government”, that is, centralized political power, wasn’t doing the constraining, it was the very entity that needed to be constrained. Stating that big government (in terms of centrality) is necessary to check the abuses of big government (in terms of scope) is simply Orwellian doublethink. If the scope of government is sufficiently narrow to protect individual rights and liberty then the centrality of government is rather superfluous.

On the contrary, I contend that there was a long-standing wide-spread organic acceptance (though far from universal) that government best governs when it is limited and constrained that provided the fertile soil from which these protections of individual rights grew. Only after there was significant public support for limiting and constraining government (national, state, or local) in this particular way did the political class finally, haltingly and belatedly act at the national level.

One might argue that without Lincoln the Civil War period turns out completely differently, and perhaps we still have slavery…

One might also argue that the historical trend worldwide was towards the abolition of slavery by peaceable means. This trend was hastened by the elimination of the generous subsidy provided by European States to European slave owners for the purchase of slaves and for the maintenance of slaves. Slavery became economically unsustainable in Europe when European governments stopped financing the slave trade and stopped providing slave owners the return of runaway slaves at taxpayer expense. In short, European States were restrained (for moral, social and economic reasons) and European slavery simply withered away. Official European State legal “abolition” of slavery (and later serfdom) only occurred (where it did occur) after this bottom up social and economic change was nearly complete across the European continent.

Perhaps without Lincoln, the US could have had a peaceable compromise, as was the case through out the rest of the New World, and slavery could have been abolished without all the massive bloodshed and calamitous political upheaval that resulted from Lincolns’ rather unnecessary War.

David Nickum
Feb 23 2016 at 3:03pm

I didn’t enjoy this podcast because it felt too much like happy talk regarding evolution. This makes me think back to the podcast about the book – Sapien. There was no discussion about the negative impact Sapiens have had on the environment.
Here are a few examples from the book – “The settlers of Australia (started 45,000 years ago), or more accurately, its conquerors, didn’t just adapt, they transformed the Australian ecosystem beyond recognition. Extinction included a 450-pound, six-foot kangaroo, and a marsupial lion, as massive as a modern tiger, flightless birds twice the size of ostriches sprinted on the plains. Dragon-like lizards and snakes seven feet long slithered through the undergrowth. Of the twenty-four Australian animal species weighing 100 pounds or more, twenty-three became extinct.”
One more example from the book – “Sapiens colonization was one of the biggest and swiftest ecological disasters to befall the animal kingdom. Sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planet’s big beasts long before humans invented the wheel, writing, or iron tools.”
I must admit it does feel better to ignore man’s impact on the environment.

Feb 23 2016 at 3:09pm

All of those “social causes” required was a diminution of the very central authority that was responsible for the violation of individual rights (be they civil, women or human) in the first place.

So my point was more in explaining why liberals now favor big gov’t. Not in trying to defend the position so much. I agree that I could have worded it better.

Nevertheless, the statement above is rather stunning. I guess that the overall contention here is that if we did not have “big government” preventing women’s suffrage and enabling segregation or slavery, then all would have never occurred? Or perhaps the idea is that the central gov’t created conditions that unnecessarily prolonged this practices?

I think many have decided based on history, that the only way to provide blanket protection from these practices was through action by the central gov’t. This is my explanation for why “liberals” favor gov’t solutions for problems rather than hoping that things would “organically” take care of themselves.

There is a potential argument here that the central gov’t enshrines and thus prolongs antiquated traditions. One could probably make the same argument about organized religion. But this is perhaps a good idea – so that we don’t simply drift in the breeze of the latest fads.

Feb 23 2016 at 6:18pm

Another interesting podcast. Russ, for creating Econtalk, I am forever in your det.


– Lorentz was very close to relativity in 1889 but did not progress much from there. Einstein’s breakthrough of special relativity was in 1905 and it is not fair to say that Lorentz was independently converging on it as he died in 1904. Even then, it took years for Einstein’s special relativity to be accepted.

– I found Ridley’s discussion on religion to be as illogical as most other anti-religion proponents like Dawkins, Hitchens and others over the last few years.

Their common argument is to ignore all the good that religion does for mankind then reiterate a long list of specific evils for which religion is (justifiably) responsible. From this they assume the unknowable, that there is no God.

One classic reply is that in the 20th century alone, atheists murdered more than 100M people, possibly dwarfing all previous religious wars (including the current atrocities of extremist affiliates of the “religion who must not be named”). Was the lack of religion a contributing factor?

Without getting into the pros and cons, 50M babies/fetuses have been aborted since Roe v Wade, almost all for convenience. If there is a God, this recent moral emergence will make Judgement Day very interesting.

– The more we seek to understand the universe, either on macro or micro scales, the more we learn that it is infinitely more complex than we imagined (“or can imagine” – Feynman). Granted that many scientists and physicists come to the conclusion that God was not necessary to create this, but many others conclude that God is necessary. Both are unprovable and both require faith.

– Lastly, we just had a good podcast on how even with scientifically advanced randomized clinical trials, it turned out that we didn’t know what we thought we knew. Experiments in morality will have a much higher error rate.

Feb 23 2016 at 6:19pm

Mark Crankshaw,

To use your own words:
As an atheist, you have a “Stone Age mind” and your atheism is a “man-made” delusion that “pollutes world history … with the transparent purpose being the manipulation of the behavior of other humans for political and economic profit”

These (yours) are emotional statements, not debatable arguments. Of course, you are all free to believe whatever, but we cannot debate beliefs.

Feb 23 2016 at 7:19pm

Enjoyable podcast. Ridley is refreshingly undogmatic in his openness to counterarguments and different perspectives. He admits that the discussion, and his book, is an exploration rather than a revelation of truth, as some authors would prefer one believe. How often has a guest said “I hadn’t thought of that”?

Judeo-Christian ethics is not that revolutionary. Jainism, an ancient Indian religion, prescribes non-violence to all living things and truth telling, among other things. Buddhist ethical prescriptions are similarly concise yet more sweeping than Christian ethics: don’t lie or cause harm by your speech, don’t cause physical injury or kill, don’t exploit others sexually, don’t cause harm through your livelihood. In even more ancient Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion that may be the granddaddy of Judaism, morality is summed up by “good thoughts, good words, good deeds”.

Mark Crankshaw
Feb 23 2016 at 7:45pm


These (yours) are emotional statements, not debatable arguments. Of course, you are all free to believe whatever, but we cannot debate beliefs.

Using your own logic, atheism and theism, both being merely systems of belief, cannot even be debated. A (non) argument that leads precisely nowhere. What is a debatable argument is whether all sets or systems of belief are equally in accordance with reality as best the human mind can assess “reality”. I believe they are not. Any argument against atheism (a belief system) applies equally as well to any or all theistic sets of belief. There are no other options but belief with respect to the atheism vs. theism ‘debate’. I fully admit I have an emotional response towards the actions and beliefs of my fellow human beings (for obvious evolutionary reasons) and since I contend that all theistic beliefs are solely the product of the human mind, it would be bizarre if I didn’t have such a response. So, are you human or not?

Daniel Barkalow
Feb 24 2016 at 2:01am

I think he’s wrong to say the scientists and inventors are “dispensable”. It would be better to say that they’re replaceable; of the many people independently inventing the light bulb, as well as the many more people who were unable to get it to work but whose attempts contributed to making the idea ripe, all were scientists and inventors. If, for some reason, none of them had worked on it, it wouldn’t have gotten invented. It’s true that that’s implausible, given human nature, but I think a key aspect of human nature that supports the existence of scientists and inventors is the instinct that a Great Person can design the future. Just because the idea is inaccurate doesn’t mean having it isn’t important to the advancement of technology. Changing the world by yourself is an impossible task to complete, but it is the people who attempt it anyway who change the world as a group, which is why we bother to try.

Steve B
Feb 24 2016 at 8:11am

“Granted that many scientists and physicists come to the conclusion that God was not necessary to create this, but many others conclude that God is necessary. Both are unprovable and both require faith.”

Nonsense. Only to claim divine intervention requires faith.
What you and I cannot make claims about the origin and evolution of the universe outside of what we already have mountains of evidence, without providing superior evidence.

But you might be right, some scientists and physicists might come to a conclusion that a god is necessary. Which one is the correct one? Jesus?Jehovah? Alah? Buddhah? Ganesh? is it a specific protestant denomination? Orthodoxy? Are all the others are worshiping a false idol? How many billions have picked the wrong one?

The reality is you and I may make any claims about the origin and order of the universe by any such god as we see fit with exactly zero evidence, and it won’t matter one iota.

I suspect each is just catering and adjusting to whatever gets the best turnout for the next worship service.

Mark Crankshaw
Feb 24 2016 at 9:42am


I guess that the overall contention here is that if we did not have “big government” preventing women’s suffrage and enabling segregation or slavery, then all would have never occurred? Or perhaps the idea is that the central gov’t created conditions that unnecessarily prolonged this practices?

These contentions (as both are plausible) can be neatly illustrated in the Islamic World today.

In the West, there was a long-standing and widespread belief in the “Rights of Man” against unwarranted political and religious oppression. Thomas Paine penned a book of that title in 1791 at a time when the debate about unwarranted religious oppression, itself a product of The Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation, was already centuries old. By the late eighteenth century, Europe had already witnessed the deposition and execution of two prominent monarchs (in England and France).

The unlimited authority of The Church, The Crown, and The Empire was openly and violently challenged and the intellectual, cultural and social framework for the establishment for a limited form of government complete. The American Revolution was simply the embodiment of this long-standing political, social, theological and cultural trend. Central political and religious authority vigorously pushed back against these trends right up until the point they were unable to do so.

In the Islamic World all these trends were noticeably absent. There was no Enlightenment, no Reformation, no challenge to The Church, The Sultan, or The Empire. No intellectual, cultural and social framework for the establishment for a limited form of government was formed. There is indeed “big government” in the Islamic world, but there is no women’s suffrage (and, in some places in the Islamic world, not even democracy), there are few protections for the individual. Homosexuals can be (and are) hung, women’s rights are extremely curtailed, religious apostates can be (and are) executed. Slavery is still practiced in Islamic Sudan, and segregation (both racial, religious and sexual) is openly enshrined in Sharia Law.

My point is that “Big Government” only reflects deeper social and cultural trends, it doesn’t create them. “Big Government” can just as easily oppose human rights as protect them. It is neither necessary nor sufficient to have “big government” to respect human rights or promote liberty. “Big government” is necessary, however, for those rights and liberties to be systematically violated.

Ryan Marr
Feb 24 2016 at 11:45am

When discussing the apple computer and suggesting that if Steve Jobs had stayed in India that Dell today would be the height of design. I couldn’t help but think that there would be an obvious opportunity in the market to make a beautiful computer to compete with Dell, HP, Compact, etc. With no Apple, that vacuum would have pulled in some emergent designers.

Feb 24 2016 at 12:02pm

Thanks for another thought provoking discussion, Russ.

As an agricultural economist working in less developed economies around the world, the notion of emergent order is compelling. Although it concerns me that this way of thinking can just as easily lead to a fatalistic mind-set (e.g. ‘its just the way it is…it will take generations to change’).

The evolution of market systems is hindered in these contexts for many ‘man-made’ reasons, including but not limited to cultural and political factors, but I’m unconvinced that nothing can be done to improve the efficiency and equity of these systems more rapidly than the emergent order would seem to offer.

Russ – you suggest that market systems provide stronger (or at least faster) feedback loops than cultural or biological systems. In developed economies with (relatively) well-functioning democratic systems, I agree. But if we examine less developed economies where market failure is ubiquitous, these feedback loops are much weaker – information flow is slow to nonexistent, transaction costs are high, and innovation both in terms of technology and institutional arrangements become prohibitively expensive.

Why are less developed economies less dynamic? To a great degree, I agree with Hayek (who you quote, Russ) — that cultures exhibiting better cultural norms will dominate those without. The relationship here between culture and the performance of market systems cannot be ignored.

So, what if anything can policy makers do to nudge or facilitate a more rapid cultural evolution towards an enabling environment for markets that values the rule of law, competition, innovation, etc? It sounds as though Mr. Ridley would suggest the answer is, nothing. Perhaps, the Libertarian response would simply be for governments of these less developed countries to get out of the way. I acknowledge that is most likely part of the answer, but recognize that feedback loops in these contexts would remain weak(er) and slow(er).

If we accept the notion of emergence in social systems, is a fatalistic approach necessary until (if) an accommodating order emerges?

Feb 24 2016 at 12:27pm

@Mark Crankshaw

I think we’re reaching an agreement. You might want to read my post on that:

Can we also agree that atheism is a religion: ?

How about that Evolution makes no sense in a random (atheistic) Universe: ?

Butler Reynolds
Feb 24 2016 at 2:10pm

Great episode.

On the question of the importance of religion in history, I’m reminded of my Republican friends defending NASA.

They like to point out all of the technology spinoffs that have come out of the space program. They seem to suggest that we might not be enjoying personal computers, cellphones, digital photography, and a host of other advances if not for the government’s desire to fling things in to orbit and beyond.

It’s another case of the seen and the unseen. Would we still be living in 1950s technology if not for NASA? Who knows what all those dollars and brains would have given us if they had not been diverted towards the space race.

Likewise with the role religion has played in history. One would certainly hope that some positive things could be found in religion’s orbit given the enormous role that it has played.

Yet, one also has to wonder how things would have turned out had it taken a much less dominant place in history.

William Greene
Feb 24 2016 at 2:30pm

Thank you for another great podcast with Matt Ridley.

I would like to push back on one point made by Mr. Ridley near the end of the discussion. Mr. Ridley objects to his being labeled a “conservative” as he does not (in his mind) share conservative values on social issues. He uses gay marriage as an example of his non-conservative beliefs. However, I wonder what Mr. Ridley’s position is on the example of the florist who would refuse to participate in a gay wedding on the basis of his religious beliefs. My guess (which may be wrong) is that Mr. Ridley would hold that the florist should not be compelled to provide any service that he doesn’t want to provide, regardless of his (the florist’s) reason for electing to refuse. If so, that view would place Mr. Ridley firmly in the “conservative” camp in the minds of most observers of American politics. Similarly, I would be interested to learn where Mr. Ridley stands in regards to affirmative action policies at state-funded universities. (I’m putting aside the question of whether we should have state-funded universities in the first place.) If Mr. Ridley would hold that each university should apply its admission standards consistently across all ethnic groups (i.e. it should not apply lower standards to some ethnic groups than it does to others), once again Mr. Ridley would be (in my view) revealing himself to be a social conservative in the minds of most politically-minded Americans.

There are, of course, other examples I could appeal to, but I’ll stop there.

Feb 24 2016 at 4:36pm

Steve B,

You underestimate the universe. There may not be “superior evidence”.

We don’t know (and may never know) what happened before the big bang. We don’t know (and may never know) how big the universe is and what 95% of it is made of. We don’t know (and may never know) how quantum physics works (although we can use it very precisely). We don’t know (and may never know) how the photon gets to the other side of the slits.

These are not just examples of science that is yet to be discovered, there are strong theoretical arguments that they may be unknowable.

And we certainly do not know why the universe exists.

Yet with all of this scientific uncertainty, without the certainty of a specific religion, you reject the concept of God.

We don’t know (and may never know) if there is a God. Hence faith. Get used to disappointment.

Mark Crankshaw
Feb 24 2016 at 8:27pm


Can we also agree that atheism is a religion

We could indeed reach agreement that atheism can be held as dogmatically as any religion. Were someone to hold to the statement “There is no God” or “I know there is no God”. However, I contend that one can be called an atheist based on their belief that there is no satisfactory evidence of the existence of a “God”. Due to the inherent limitation of our human minds, we homo sapiens cannot preclude the existence of a “God” (whatever form this amorphous word might take) nor can we provide any evidence whatsoever for the existence of any particular conception of “God”. I concur with jw in the post above when jw states “We don’t know (and may never know) if there is a God.”

My belief that there is no satisfactory evidence of the existence of a “God” is informed by my belief in the limitation of human cognitive ability.

In my view, the human mind, like the human eye, has developed to provide homo sapiens the ability to adapt and survive. The human eye, however, is extremely limited: it can only perceive light from a narrow spectrum, it can not see with acuity objects too small, too big, or too fast. The human eye is restricted to seeing only in the present moment things that are fairly close at hand.

Likewise, the human mind is also extremely limited, bound as it is in the cranium of a primate that is both finite and temporal. Until the very recent past, the human mind was completely unable to peer into the boundless depths of time and space, the very place that the “truth” about “God” (whatever that were to mean) would exist. Today, even our best efforts to “view” the unfathomable depths of time and space remain feeble, tentative and inconclusive.

My belief is further informed by a facet of the human mind that can help “fill in” the darkness of time and space: the human imagination. The human imagination is not as bound by time and space as are our senses. As a homo-sapien, I am acutely aware of the power of the human imagination, since I have one. The human mind can (and does) produce images, feelings, and constructions that are every bit as real (and sometimes more so), in the mind of a human, as reality itself. Having interacted with multitudes of humans, my belief is informed by the alacrity that humans possess to insert their imagination into spheres where their knowledge in limited or lacking. Having fathered two children as I have, this very human tendency is extremely apparent.

My belief that all religions are man-made and false (a separate issue in my mind from the “existence” of a “god”) is a probabilistic argument akin to sitting on a jury and passing judgement on a defendant in a criminal trial. In this case, the defendant on trial are my fellow human beings, the sole source of my knowledge of religions. Do they have the motive to commit fraud? Yes. Opportunity? Yes. Do they have history of committing fraud? Yes. They appear to me as guilty as guilty can get. As in a trial, I will never know they are guilty, but the preponderance evidence clearly points in that direction to my satisfaction. I have “faith”, with near certainty, that humanity and their religions are a fraud (even if not always deliberately so).

To illustrate my conception of atheism, consider the Alps. I consider the Alps to be breathtakingly beautiful. Many religions would contend that being called “God” had deliberately and with purpose “created” those mountains for my edification. As an atheist, I reject all three parts of this assertion. I believe that the Alps were certainly “created” but I believe they were “created” through plate tectonics acting through a set of non-random order. However, plate tectonics is not, by my definition, a “God” and only in a very limited sense a “creator”. Plate tectonics is an impersonal and unthinking force that acts in stark contrast to the deliberative “creators” described by most religions. Where did all that order guiding plate tectonics come from? I simply don’t know. It is a mystery that may lead to a god or gods (whatever that may mean) or it may not.

I believe that there is no evidence that a “being” created the Alps, I believe that there is no evidence of a “purpose” to the emergence of the Alps, and I believe that there is no evidence that the Alps were formed with my edification or enjoyment in mind. I believe, with very high probability, that the ‘gods’ described by mans’ numerous religions had nothing whatever to do with the “creation” of the Alps. The evidence, as I judge it, points me to that conclusion. That, to me, is why I have belief that a “god” probably doesn’t exist, that the gods described by man’s religions almost certainly don’t exist, and why I then call myself an atheist.

Feb 24 2016 at 8:45pm


It’s true that we don’t know whether or not god exists. That’s the agnostic position – we don’t know!

Fine, but it’s also true that we actually can’t really “know” anything if we really think about it in a rigorous way. Adam Smith’s buddy Hume pretty much nailed that down for us.

So, if I’m truly agnostic about everything (not just god), I can’t know anything, because there are an infinite number of “possible” explanations for everything. And if I was to actually act on that general agnosticism I would literally die… which, in my view, is not a great outcome.

The solution to this problem is to restrict your beliefs to things which have explanatory power because that minimizes the number of assumptions you have to make in order to not die. And a belief in god does not have explanatory power for the same reason that The Matrix does not have explanatory… both just defers the explanation.

That doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t believe in god, there might be a lot of great reasons to do so. It just means is that, from the point of view of reason, the assertion that god exists is not the same as the assertion that god does not.

John T
Feb 25 2016 at 4:29am

Why is it that communists which are atheists believe in top down government and most Christians believe in liberty and bottom up government? You would think it would be the other way around i.e. no god, emergent order; god, top down (literally).

Daniel Leunbach
Feb 25 2016 at 7:09am

Thank you for another interesting discussion.

A minor point. At the end of the interview, Matt Ridley made the bold claim that we have solved the problem of distinguishing living things from non-living things. The truth is that there is very little consensus among biologist about what exactly life is. Nor should there be, in my own humble opinion, but that is a topic for another discussion.

Machery, E. (2012). Why I stopped worrying about the definition of life… and why you should as well. Synthese, 185(1), 145-164.

Feb 25 2016 at 8:23am

Real shame this conversation has ‘devolved’ into atheism vs. theism.

Abhi Bhargava
Feb 25 2016 at 8:59am

Surely the increase of the rate of change in today’s world due to the capability of a larger number of people being able to influence society, is evidence against the ‘great person’ argument. Therefore, in accord with Ridley.

Loved the history lesson about ‘right wing’ and ‘left wing’ thought and in them the distinction between economic liberalism and social liberalism.

Feb 25 2016 at 11:31am


Actually, it is key to a main topic in the podcast. Ridley’s theory of emergent morality seems to be based on an underlying belief system.

Keep in mind that I am not trying to prove that God exists (IMHO, no one can), only that the possibility exists.

Feb 25 2016 at 2:17pm

@Mark Crankshaw
You have to be more concise.
Ok, agreeing that atheism is a religion is a big step that keeps you honest. Western atheists generally disagree, although they have no problem recognizing Eastern atheists like Buddhists and Jainists as religious.
You say: “no evidence of a “purpose” to the emergence of the Alps”. Excellent! This is the essence of the argument: is the Universe random or does it have a purpose? Keep in mind that a combination of random and purpose is purposeful. Indeed, are your replies to my comments random or purposeful? Are mine? Does a fetus development from egg to human follow a recipe, or is it random? You cannot develop purpose (like your actions) from random without purposeful intervention. I see you haven’t read this:

“…restrict your beliefs to things which have explanatory power because that minimizes the number of assumptions” – your basis is still Belief (i.e. Religion). Reality is what it is, regardless of “explanatory power”.
“…point of view of reason” – you confuse Reason with Logic. We all agree on Logic, but Reason is individual due to its basis in Belief (Assumptions). Two perfectly reasonable people normally disagree on many things:

@John T
Because Communists try to replace God with the State and Christians reject the fake.

@Daniel Leunbach
Seems clear to me: Life is characterized by: birth from very similar parent(s), growth, death and decay, metabolism, survival struggle, and reproduction struggle. Also DNA/RNA “product specification”.

Feb 25 2016 at 2:35pm

Evolution has always been about atheism vs. theism. There is no practical value whatsoever to the theory of Evolution (if you don’t confuse Genetics with Evolution). Ironically, Mendel (a monk!) contributed real value to Biology while Darwin contributed only a confused philosophical argument. Always cracks me up when I hear the term “Evolutionary Biologist” – reminds me of “Building Engineer”.

Feb 25 2016 at 6:02pm

Ridley raises a question on the role of religion in producing positive outcomes that advance civilization. This book by sociologists Rodney Stark makes an interesting case for certain religious views being responsible for the emergence of science

Feb 25 2016 at 7:06pm

When Russ says: “It’s not as clear that feedback loops work very well in the case of culture.” I think he’s thinking too narrowly about typical economic markets.

The feedback loops in evolutionary biology are remarkably weak and slow. Mutations are rare, and when they do occur they are almost always either irrelevent or harmful. If a beneficial mutation does arise, the odds are quite good that the organism will die for unrelated reasons before it ever has a chance to pass it on. The fact that evolution works at all is remarkable, and a testament to the power of the combination of (1) weak feedback loops, and (2) large amounts of time.

Also I would point out, evolutionary biology doesn’t lead to “good” outcomes. It leads to outcomes that are “good for” a given environment, which may well be detrimental in a slightly different environment. In fact, organisms as a group can drastically hurt their own fitness by changing their own environment. On a small scale this happens with deer overgrazing an area, but on a large scale it can lead to mass extinction events ( This seems like a better analogy for religion than microeconomics, because religion (arguably) was essential to the development of modern culture, but in developing modern culture (arguably!) made itself obsolete. (I like overgrazing for racism).

Biological and cultural evolution both proceed by fits and starts, not by the smooth, progressive lines that I imagine Russ drawing on his econ blackboard.

Mark Crankshaw
Feb 26 2016 at 3:08pm


This is however contrary to our perception – we observe purpose and deliberate actions following other deliberate actions, if not everywhere, at least in most of our daily interactions with humans and other life forms.

True. But humans have a habit of often creating or seeing purpose where it does not actually exist. Say a primitive man is killed having been struck by lightning. His fellow tribesmen may mis-attribute the lightening strike to a purpose of some “god”. Perhaps, they may argue, the gods have “punished” this man for his “wickedness”. In my view, this tendency to inappropriately mis-attribute purpose that is the father of all religious thought.

While we can argue endless about whether the Universe is non-random (and therefore “purposeful” at some far removed level) this does not imply that the tribesmen are correct in their assertion that the man was struck as a “punishment” for his “wickedness” by a “god”. There could very well be “purposefulness” within the Universe, a “purposefulness” we both know absolutely nothing about, and those primitive men can also be absolutely wrong about the lightening strike.

As a modern (or non-religious) man, I simply do not see lightening as a conscious agent of a “god” that is used a means “punishment” for his “wickedness” (where “punishment” and “wickedness” are clearly human mental constructs). I see the man struck and killed as simply unlucky, he was simply in the wrong place at the right time, the victim of an impersonal force for a “reason” that I cannot ascertain.

If there is some “cosmic” and “universal” meaning to his death, some ultimate “purpose” to his death, I am completely oblivious to it (as I believe are all other humans). As oblivious to it as I would be if there were no purpose to his death at all. I could always create my own “meaning” to his death, which is what I contend religions are attempting to do, but I fully understand and I am aware that this “meaning” exists only in my head. I alone created it.

To me, atheism, as opposed to all the “other religions”, simply appeals to me on a psychological level. I simply do not want what the other religions attempt to provide. I don’t need forgiveness for my “sins”, I don’t want fellowship with other “believers”, I don’t need “love” from a deity, I abhor ritual, I don’t need the “hope” of “eternal life”. All the religions, past and present, offer me nothing I want but provide a lot of things I don’t need or want.

I am simply not seeking out communion with whatever it was that may have provided “purposefulness” in the Universe whatever form that may (or may not) have taken. I believe I will never know any “answers to the universal probing questions” and, to me, what being an “atheist” is all about is coming to grips with that fact.

Feb 26 2016 at 8:17pm

@Mark Crankshaw

Forgive me for insisting – I am just trying to understand and be understood. So you reject all practices and concepts in quotation marks (a lot of them!), and that’s fine. You’re also not a fan of “inappropriately mis-attributing purpose” which indeed may happen all the time.

However, your statement: “While we can argue endless about whether the Universe is non-random (and therefore “purposeful” at some far removed level)…” – is the part just doesn’t make sense to me. How can you argue for a random Universe??? If you do, then anything is random including your actions, mine, and everything else in the Universe. Otherwise, the Universe is purposeful, not quotation-marks-purposeful.

Even a mix of 99.999…% Random and 0.000…1% Purpose is 100% Purposeful. In other words, there’s no way to get from a Random Origin to the current Observed Purpose (your actions, mine, and everyone else’s) without external Purpose added to the system. Are you saying all your actions are random??? Sorry, this is not a question of Religion, Belief, or Reason. It is pure Logic – and we should all agree on Logic – if at least some of your and everyone else’s actions are not Random, then the Universe has a Purpose – no ifs and buts.

Mark Crankshaw
Feb 27 2016 at 8:54am

if at least some of your and everyone else’s actions are not Random, then the Universe has a Purpose – no ifs and buts.

Point conceded.

I have placed the word purposeful in quotations since the word is vague, carries no information and is, in fact, content-less unless we have at least some knowledge of what that “Purpose” is. But we have none whatsoever…which is why we could argue about the nature of this “Purpose” endlessly. In my view, Religions are a fraudulent attempt to define this “Purpose”.

It’s much the same as when religious people insist that the Universe was “created”. Unless one has at least some idea of how that act of creation was accomplished, saying that it occurred isn’t informative and doesn’t require of the assert-er any knowledge whatsoever about the subject they are asserting. Any 5 year old can mindlessly repeat this assertion without any knowledge whatsoever of they are talking about because such an assertion doesn’t require any knowledge.

Kent Trabing
Feb 27 2016 at 11:47am

Long time listener, first time goaded to comment. About 30 minutes in Ridley states: “Religions have been promulgators of morality in recent centuries.Before that they weren’t. Very few religions were saying anything moral, rather they were saying a lot of immoral things as well such as beat up your rival religion.”

This is an amazingly ignorant statement. How about the Ten Commandments have endured thousands of years. How about Leviticus 19:18 “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge ….”. How about the Sermon on the Mount, 2,000 years ago.

Ridley’s perspective relies on morality rising up from the common man, rather than from great men — ignoring that it is the ‘common man’ who is more in touch with his Creator, than society’s leaders.

Lastly he laments not being able to go back in time to conduct social experiments on morality, perhaps Ridley can spend a year or two in North Korea, which has driven religious literature, teaching, stories from the culture, and report back on their emerging rational successes.

Robert Swan
Feb 27 2016 at 7:04pm

Lots of comments already; I think Greg G’s were pretty good. Several commenters expressed disappointment. Not me; the title of the book is so overblown that I knew to keep my expectations low.

There wasn’t all that much to Matt Ridley’s thesis. I see evolution as a universal mechanism, almost like gravity. Any system involving the two drivers of evolution — variation and rejection — will evolve. That obviously includes commercial markets, but it also includes governments and religions. As I’ve commented elsewhere, central planning itself evolves.

This is where Ridley runs off the rails. It’s not a case of evolve vs. plan, they simply aren’t incompatible. The outcome is really a question of whether your variation generator and rejection evaluator are any good. The reason we have so much central planning is simply that it hasn’t been rejected (whether by ballot box, conquest, virulent disease or whatever). Not yet at least.

Matt Ridley does seems to have the knack of getting peoples’ backs up. Much fervour in the climate change talk, and much fervour again here — mostly on a part of the talk that lasted a minute or two. At least nobody’s mentioned Northern Rock yet — oops.

Most of the religious stuff I’m fine with, but I’ll briefly take up Nonlin_org’s comments.

How are “random” and “purposeful” at odds? I can deliberately toss a coin can’t I? It’s purposeful yet random. How about the penicillium organism landing on Alexander Fleming’s petri dish? That was random, yet served a great purpose. Or look at snowflakes: their hexagonal symmetry is very non-random. Does it have a purpose, or is it just the inevitable outcome of the shape of the water molecule and a chaotic buffeting in a cold, moist atmosphere?

There are flavours of atheism and I would be happy to classify Richard Dawkins as a tub-thumping religious atheist. Very distasteful. I much prefer Sam Harris’s cooler approach which I wouldn’t call religious. His take is that religion is “believing things for bad reasons”. It works well because, besides traditional religions, it covers the belief that the earth would be better without humans, or that deep devotion to exercise or diet is the key to eternal youth. It might even include the belief that central planning is in conflict with evolutionary forces.

Feb 27 2016 at 7:17pm


To your last point, one might add the “emergent morality” of combining European, currently majority secular but based on Judeo-Christian, morality with the sudden imposition of millions of Syrian and other Islamic refugees and immigrants with their own morality, one that is diametrically opposed to common Western ideas such as rape is bad, honor killings are murder, women in bilkinis are asking to be sexually assaulted, apostates should be killed and more. Millions of Muslims will say that this is not their morality but millions more do (and act on it).

I’m afraid that the open borders ideas of some libertarians (and as much as I respect DB’s other positions, Cafe Hayek) have just experienced a moral reality check by observing the current changes in liberal societies like Sweden, Germany, Italy, France, etc.

I am very pro-immigration, I think that legal immigration should be expanded but I also think that illegal immigration should be curtailed. Obama has openly stated that he wants to fundamentally change America, and is doing via open borders for illegals. I do not trust Obama to make moral changes to America (any more than the Germans have discovered with Merkel).


Any five year old knows as much as Hawking or any other physicist when it comes to how the Universe was created, which is nothing.

Sure, we can guess at the physics by rewinding the clock back to sub-nanosecond time (aided by a little mathematical sleight of hand in inflation – it works but only raises even more confounding questions), but we still have no idea how it was done.

Current theories like primordial foam, fine tuning and multiverses involve more infinities than God.

Feb 27 2016 at 10:04pm

It’s too bad that such an obviously smart man like Ridley is clouded by his illogical belief in New Atheism.

It’s just absolutely silly to suggest that mankind, without any religion or outside ideology, will lead to peace, love, etc. Most of human history is brutal and the most atheistic governments in history have been the most brutal of all.

There’s no guarantee that getting rid of religion won’t just lead us to more of that.

Brian Mason
Feb 28 2016 at 3:43am

Ridley’s claim that there is no evidence of religion improving human behavior is laughably false. In the last hundred years every human society that has suppressed religion (communists) or co-opted religion (fascists) has committed mass murder. That is wholesale slaughter of 1,000,000s of native captive disarmed citizens. All the killings by all the Muslim extremists are nothing by comparison.

Greg G
Feb 28 2016 at 8:40am

Religion can be, and is, used to justify all kinds of human behavior. Sociopaths use it to explain terrorist acts. Charitable people use it to explain charitable acts.

The problem with the “New Atheists” blaming religion for terrorism and intolerance is that evolutionary biology is based on the concept that people cannot be trusted to understand their deepest evolutionary motives. So then, genes disposing us towards infidelity have survived so long because the genetic diversity that results improves the genetic fitness of the population with those genes. But no evolutionary scientist expects a cheating spouse to think he cheated to improve the genetic fitness of the species. Why then do the New Atheists accept the explanation on offer every time a terrorist sociopath blames religion for his actions? When charitable religious people lose their faith they don’t become sociopaths.

Evolutionary biology handles the problem of evil easily. Usually acting good best promotes surviving and reproducing. But occasionally acting evil does. Evolution equips the population for both situations.

I am a non-believer because I find the explanations on offer by religion to be unconvincing and unnecessary. When you tell me we need to posit God to explain the creation of the universe you have substituted two things I don’t understand for one. Maybe I should posit a Supergod who created the universe creating God to solve this.

Even if you do think the existence of the universe requires a creator, there is no reason to think that creator needs to be all good or all powerful. In fact those additional qualities make the highly imperfect world we see harder, not easier to understand.

The fact that we cannot disprove the truth of religion or the existence of God is not evidence that they do exist. Famously, Bertrand Russell showed this by positing a celestial teapot orbiting the earth that no one has yet been able to disprove the existence of. This illustrates the principle that just because you can’t disprove something doesn’t give it equal standing with an alternative view.

Life is full of mysteries and total metaphysical certainty is not available to humans. So in that sense, we all need to act on faith in the best evidence we can find. That doesn’t mean it makes sense to call every belief system a religion.

Feb 28 2016 at 10:35pm

@Mark Crankshaw
There’s some big implications to you agreeing to a purpose – you should ponder whether purpose is compatible with atheism – I think not.
Perhaps your Mother Nature or Evolution (as in Evolution makes us…) or The Force or whatever is the same as my God or someone else’s whatever – kind of like “we describe reality in different languages”

@Robert Swan
You should read this: . First of all, it’s impossible to ever prove something as random. Second, you toss a coin for a purpose that has nothing to do with the coin toss results – the coin toss is a purposeful action, not random. Third, there was nothing random about the penicillin organisms on the petri dish – they multiplied because they found a good medium and they were around because they were coming from a non-random source in a non-random suitable environment. Furthermore, an intelligent being correctly interpreted the observation. “Do snowflakes have a purpose?” is an unanswerable question. What makes you or Harris a judge of “believing things for bad reasons”? Can you prove that you or Harris don’t “believe things for bad reasons”?

@Greg G
“…posit a Supergod who created the universe creating God…” – do you understand the concept of infinite? God is infinite – check your math: infinite + 1 = infinite; infinite + infinite = infinite; infinite – infinite = infinite; etc. There is no superlative of God (infinite). Now you understand? Besides, things are the way they are regardless of what you posit or not.
“That doesn’t mean it makes sense to call every belief system a religion.” – You would happily call Eastern Atheistic beliefs such as Ancestors Worship, Buddhism and Jainism religions. If you try to answer the existential questions, then you are a religion – there’s nothing wrong with that.

Feb 28 2016 at 10:52pm

Can any of you atheists explain Evolution defined as “random mutations acted upon by blind, mindless, and purposeless natural selection? …because this doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Is this even the preferred atheist definition of Evolution?

Greg G
Feb 29 2016 at 8:20am


God does not need to be infinite to create the universe. He just needs to be bigger and more powerful than the universe. You have no evidence that God is infinite. You are simply asserting that. I am no mathematician but I am pretty sure mathematicians accept that some infinities are bigger than others anyway.

Mutations are random in the sense that we can’t predict when they will happen. That doesn’t mean they have no cause. We do know that some things (radiation for example) increase mutation rates.

Selection is not directionless. It moves relentlessly towards whatever adaptations facilitate survival and reproduction in the environment where the selection happens. This produces a result that looks as if survival and reproduction was the purpose but it does not require a conscious designer.

This all “makes sense” in terms of explaining the commonalities and differences we see in the design and history of living things. It may not “make sense” in terms of answering your existential questions in a way you find satisfying.

You should consider the possibility the design of the universe may not be required to be satisfying to you.

Mark Crankshaw
Feb 29 2016 at 10:50am


Perhaps your Mother Nature or Evolution (as in Evolution makes us…) or The Force or whatever is the same as my God or someone else’s whatever – kind of like “we describe reality in different languages”

You might be confusing me with a hippy, granola left-of-center atheist type. I can assure you, I am not, sir. I don’t wax on lyrically about my love of “Mother Nature”. The Universe, as I see it, is cold, hostile, and impersonal. It is a completely “unloving” place, completely void of feeling and nearly oblivious of my existence (and that is presently neatly contained in the minds of a tiny number of humans here on Earth for only a brief time– but it will soon be completely oblivious to me for the rest of eternity).

If I ever say “Evolution makes us…” it would be in the same context as “Gravity makes us…” as in “if we jump from a tall building, gravity remorselessly and dispassionately makes us plummet to our deaths”.

Is this even the preferred atheist definition of Evolution?

Not mine. Evolution is merely an explanatory device that helps humans understand how the diversity of live has developed over the course of Earth’s history. This evolutionary development is a complex process, akin to gravity. Gravitational attraction seems to have but one observable “purpose”: gravitational attraction. It’s completely circular. No other “purpose” can be observed or implied. Likewise, evolution seems to have but one observable “purpose”: survival.

Why is there gravity, and why do we live in a Universe with it? I don’t know. Why do genes want to replicate and survive? To what end? I don’t know. That they do can be adequately described using an evolutionary process. I wouldn’t even say “best described”, since there may some better theory out there. But it’s definitely better than “God” willed it to be that way since I don’t know who/what this “God” thing is nor do I know how in any way at all it enacts its will.

Robert Swan
Feb 29 2016 at 4:25pm


I’m finding your reasoning hard to fathom; you seem to have a quasi-mystical view of randomness — that everything has determinism behind it. Do you really think the universe so dismal?

Anyhow, back to the topic at hand. What you’re missing is that the mechanism of evolution does not require random variation, any source of variation will do. Even Mendel’s pea plants varied and, given the appropriate selection pressure, could have been convinced to become 100% tall plants or 100% short plants. Variation and selection: that’s all it takes.

It is better if the variation is open-ended though, and this is where mutation comes in. Once again, the cause of mutation does not have to be random. If you don’t agree that mutation happens there’s little point in further discussion. And if you do agree that mutation happens then you’d better refine your argument against evolution. Variation and selection, where’s the problem?

You put your finger on exactly what I like about Sam Harris’s formula. Of course it’s open ended and subjective, but it’s democratic. Even if I think you might believe something for a bad reason, you’re free to go on believing it because you see the reason as good. And vice versa.

It’s a bit like my little mantra when I hear “God” come up in an explanation. I quietly substitute “we don’t know what” for “God” and I find I can usually agree. It all helps with getting on peaceably.

Mar 1 2016 at 1:22pm

Following up on Golabki

I found the whole discussion preceded from a flawed premise and just went on from there. For a materialist it also assumed a deeply human centric view of the world as if humans were “special”.

Let me expand. The first assumption is that because evolution led to humans evolution represents progress by emergent means. Looking around the world today we are “better off” than our fore bearers so a similar inevitable emergent “progress” brings us there. Both are false.

The biology is false as detailed above by others because evolution does not lead to “better” anything except at reproducing in a particular environment amid a particular set of competitors. Are mammoths or velociraptors more “progress”? Both are gone. Some day we may be gone and rats and roaches will survive – is that progress?

So the false assumption of biology leads to a false assumption about humanity and history and morals because we currently live in a time of material wealth. We also live in a time of widespread moral decay – but we can quibble about which morals. We may disagree. The only thing we can almost universally agree on is we are materially prosperous. But other civilizations have been prosperous. Were the Spanish a higher form of progress than the Aztecs?

If you are materialist that we live at the peak of civilization. If it collapses will that be progress? This post modern leftist idea that we always march “forward” is nonsense.

Mar 3 2016 at 11:38am

I am currently reading Ridley’s book, and find it very funny. He builds an army of straw men, and then proceeds to kill them by various methods with great satisfaction. Very amusing.

@Greg G
I assert from Belief just like you are – is this wrong? My evidence is the same as yours: Observation (we agree) and Belief (we disagree). Atheists claim “scientific proof” while others admit Belief. Since you don’t have “proof” (do you?), atheism is a religion – feel free to practice. Recognize your brain is limited and you can’t understand the infinite. Forget “should” and “needs” when it comes to God and the Universe.
You don’t know “Random” just by looking at a sequence of outcomes – you should stop using the word. Besides, once subject to a purposeful selection, randomness would go away anyway.
If Selection is not “directionless”, then it is not “blind, mindless, and purposeless” either, but atheist leaders make this (totally unsubstantiated) claim because otherwise the whole atheistic argument crumbles. They understand (but you don’t) that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
“…survival and reproduction was the purpose but it does not require a conscious designer” – again, you’re free to believe this, but your claim is not supported by anything at all. Look around – can you find an example of Purpose without an Owner/Designer?

@Mark Crankshaw
So what’s your definition of Evolution?
Isn’t “survival” meaningless in a random atheistic Universe? Is the planet Jupiter struggling for “survival”? How would you know it stopped “survive”? How do you know genes “want” anything? Do they also make Earth rotate around the Sun so they can get their wish?
You agree there’s a Will/Purpose out there – some people call that God.
“…it’s definitely better than “God” willed…” – what’s that “it”? Is “it” your definition of Evolution?

@Robert Swan
What does “quasi-mystical view of randomness” mean? Any mathematician would agree you cannot label a process “random” just from the sequence of outcomes.
“Variation and selection: that’s all it takes” – so why are atheists pushing “Random” so hard? Your problem is with Selection which is Purposeful, therefore done by God, or in your words “we don’t know what”. But the mainstream atheistic mantra is “blind, mindless, and purposeless natural selection” which is just a series of unproven claims. They do this to justify a “random Universe” – which really just doesn’t make any sense.
I have no problem whatsoever with Atheism as a religion. But when you claim “scientific proof” of anything, the burden is on you.

Mar 3 2016 at 12:04pm

@Robert Swan
To clarify, I am not saying mutations are not random – it doesn’t matter because Selection makes the whole process non-random anyway. All I am saying is: you have to substantiate your “scientific” claims.

Robert Swan
Mar 5 2016 at 4:34pm


I describe your view as “quasi-mystical” because it seems you think that whether or not randomness exists has some significant bearing on whether or not there is a Creator.

Randomness is a purely mathematical concept. So is a circle. There is no thing in the physical universe that is a true mathematical circle. Yet the mathematical analysis of circles has found quite a number of uses in this physical world. Likewise, the mathematical analysis of randomness (the field of statistics) has found many uses (quite a few misuses too) in the real world.

As I mentioned in my first comment here, religions evolve. Five centuries ago there were priests piously ordering soldiers to kill the heathens. That doesn’t seem to fall under the banner of modern Christianity where violence has subsided. Meanwhile, violence is increasing amongst Muslims. At the time of Jesus, the Romans had many gods and, rather cynically, added the gods of each nation they conquered to their pantheon. I suppose these religions metaphorically fought it out over a few centuries to see Christianity emerge as the religion of Rome. Evolution in action.

Odin, Baal, Vishnu, Jahweh, Jesus, Allah and many, many more have all been names of Gods. A believer in X from the list would consider the benighted followers of the others to be in error. It’s not such a great leap to think that the believer in X is probably mistaken too.

Whether or not that view is the “mainstream” atheist position affects me not at all.

Glad you’re enjoying Ridley’s book.

Mar 6 2016 at 6:10pm

@Robert Swan
Above your comment you can see my clarification on randomness. However, you don’t seem to understand that the atheistic argument hinges on perfect randomness. If you say it is just a concept and therefore not 100%, then do you agree that the difference is Purpose? If so, you have to admit God. If not, what is that difference?

So every single Change is Evolution? No wonder you see Evolution everywhere. What about Involutions like the decline of various empires? Do you see that anywhere?

Let’s not play the war blame – communists and eugenics promoters (many atheists) have killed too many people. However I am not blaming you – the blame is individual and should be assigned regardless of the stated reasons for the crime (if true or not).

Don’t get confused, there is one infinite God with different names. Read “If you were the Father of a family, one child may call you Dad, another Daddy, and another may not want to talk to you at all”.

“Funny” and “amusing” is not the same as “enjoy” or “like”. Ridley’s book is too nonsensical – here are some comments just on few of them:

Robert Swan
Mar 7 2016 at 5:27pm


I don’t agree at all that nonrandom equates to purpose. Like I pointed out several comments ago, a snowflake is far from random yet there is no purpose in its 6-way symmetry. You went all mystical on that point saying its purpose is “unanswerable”. Well, now I’ve answered it for you.

In any event, just as I cannot prove absolutely that a phenomenon is random, it is equally true that nobody can prove that a phenomenon is not random. Mathematics gives a small, but definitely non-zero, probability for a billion coin tosses to be all heads. There is no mathematical bar to a “perfectly ordered” universe being the result of an utterly random process. Now I ask you, is all this stuff about random and purpose getting us anywhere?

I have said several times what evolution requires and it’s not complicated: variation and selection. So weather and climate do change, but don’t evolve; religions change, and flourish or die out through selection pressures. They do evolve. Likewise modes of government. And plants and animals. And no, evolution doesn’t mean some sort of golden path to an ideal — selection pressure can push the evolving thing off a metaphorical cliff. It often does.

It is simplistic in the extreme to suggest that all religions share one “infinite God with many names”. That may be what your religion tells you, but some users of those other names through the ages would have wanted you put to death for suggesting such a thing. And maybe it is their God that exists and yours that doesn’t.

But let’s allow yours to exist for a moment; I suppose it, being infinite, is far beyond my (or your) understanding. That fits well enough with my continuing to treat “God” as shorthand for “we don’t know what”. So: what makes an apple fall? Gravity. What mechanism makes gravity work? God. But maybe in another fifty years there’ll be a bit more meat on this “gravity waves” theory and the God answer retreats down another rung. I’m afraid this mere “God of the gaps” is all you’ll get if you try to prove the existence of God by logical argument. Don’t you think your God would find simple belief preferable to weak sophistry?

Well, that’s enough (more than enough) from me on this thread.

Mar 7 2016 at 10:34pm

@Robert Swan

“a snowflake is far from random yet there is no purpose” – this doesn’t make any sense. What is “far from random” if not “purpose”? Random or purpose – one or the other – you need to find out.

“nobody can prove that a phenomenon is not random” – actually yes, but by other means than just looking at the sequence of outcomes (i.e. you weigh the dice and find it loaded). Regardless, do you feel that you write back to me purposefully or random? Because if your actions are not random, they are purposeful and therefore derive from a prior purpose (God).

“…all this stuff about random and purpose getting us anywhere?” – are you kidding? This is the essence of the argument: Purpose and Free Will (God) vs. Random and “no Free Will” (Atheism). This is the thesis of Ridley’s book and all other discussions.

” variation and selection” – another essential argument you don’t get: you cannot gloss over “selection” and you cannot have selection without someone selecting.

“maybe it is their God that exists” – I explained too many times that you have one Infinite, not one of many. No need to go in circles.

“maybe in another fifty years there’ll be a bit more meat on this “gravity waves” theory and the God answer retreats down another rung”. There’s no “retreat” as “gravity waves” don’t explain (let alone control) the Infinite – same as all past and future human discoveries. All we do is learn a bit more every time about God’s Universe. It’s still God’s electricity and God’s laws of physics, and God’s biology and so on – not yours and not mine and not Einstein’s.

Greg G
Mar 8 2016 at 8:36pm

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.–Econlib Ed.]

Mar 12 2016 at 8:04pm

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.–Econlib Ed.]

Earl Rodd
Mar 14 2016 at 5:30am

I think that Matt Ridley let his distaste for religion get the best of him – as I listened to this podcast, I realized that what he has done is build his man-made religion and then try to show us that it is “rational”. There are so many counter-examples to every thesis he mentions. Russ Roberts did a good job of raising counter-examples and he obviously could have raised many, many more. With religion, I think he started with the assumption that religion is a man-made artifact and then proceeded to demonstrate that it was a man-made artifact with mixed results. But this ducks the actual question of ultimate truth – that is why I say he has really built his own religion because he claims his “evolution of everything” is ultimate truth. The best part of the podcast was the discussion on economics at the end. This was more classic Matt Ridley.

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Podcast Episode Highlights
0:33Intro. [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 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:
2:20Russ: 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.
6:38Russ: 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.
14:46Russ: 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.
23:55Russ: 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.
27:48Russ: 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.
35:31Russ: 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.
46:26Russ: 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.
50:55Russ: 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.
55:55Russ: 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.
59:38Russ: 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.
1:02:10Russ: 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.