Evolution, the Economy, and Everything Else

October 19, 2018

The Viscount Lord Temporal Matt Ridley has had a long and varied career, beginning with a PhD in zoology, segueing into the role of a bank chairman, and, today, as a member for the House of Lords in the United Kingdom.

However, he has always been a writer, and his book ‘The Evolution of Everything’, described as his magnum opus by Forbes magazine, seems to draw all his experience into one eloquent package.

Viscount Ridley posits a ‘General Theory of Evolution’, as opposed to Darwin’s ‘Special Theory of Evolution’, which he asserts is ‘special’ only to biology. Darwin’s theory is quite well-known, describing the process of natural selection, adaptation and survival of the fittest. The General Theory of Evolution is the process of gradual incremental change in the world, and the story of how we move to the adjacent possible.

For example, the modern computer took over a hundred years to reach a stage of functionality. Englishman Charles Babbage conceptualised the ‘Difference Machine’ in 1822, and the first programmable computer emerged in the late 1930s, in the living room of German Konrad Zuse. It was not until 1973 however, that the first digital computer would be patented; in the United States.

Viscount Ridley and Professor Eric Beinhocker used a more approachable example in their speeches at the 2018 Mont Pelerin Society General Meeting: the bicycle. The bicycle was developed over many years, and improved upon incrementally at every stage, resulting in today’s extremely light, aerodynamic and durable products.

The three key steps stated were: variation (the presence of choice), selection (the ability to choose an option) and amplification. At its core, the process is one of continuous trial and error. We have options available to us, and we choose the best path forward. The successes are replicated, and the failures are not.

Thus, the process of innovation is created through an evolutionary process. The survival of the fittest, not animals, but ideas; that is, the procreation of ideas is subject to the same evolutionary principles as all living things. It is a fascinating insight from a student of zoological sciences that is applied seamlessly into the workings of the social sphere.

Ridley argues that “ideas have sex”, and reproduce. Of course, this is not in a physical sense. What he refers to is the spirit of collaboration and cooperation between people; even across time periods. In the same way that Zuse built upon the ideas of Babbage, and the modern bicycle was built by many people across different eras, future innovators and inventors will have access to a wealth of accumulated ‘ideas’ that they can build upon, and generate even more new ideas. Of these some will ‘survive’, and others will ‘become extinct’, but that in itself, as Ridley would put it, is the evolutionary process that drives innovation, the economy, and everything else.

Arka Chanda
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Arka was one of our 2018 Mont Pelerin Society Scholars.