An English-teaching robot stands in front of children at an elementary school in Daejeon, South Korea. © AFP PHOTO / HO / Knowledge Economy Ministry

Why evolution is better than design

Nature is smarter than people
October 14, 2015
The Evolution of Everything, by Matt Ridley (Fourth Estate, £20)

Evolution is descent with modification. Adaptations happen: some adaptations are advantageous and advantageous adaptations are replicated. In Darwinian natural selection, genes experience random mutation, a few of these mutations favour reproduction and those that do spread through the population. The insight that this process could produce complex and functional designs far beyond the capacity of any designer is a transformational idea in human thought.

Matt Ridley, the author of The Evolution of Everything, began as an academic biologist, then science editor of The Economist, and, notoriously, Chairman of Northern Rock. Today he sits as a Conservative peer in the House of Lords and tweaks the tail of environmentalists with a sceptical take on climate change and an antipathy to gloom merchants. His last book, The Rational Optimist, developed that stance.

In The Evolution of Everything, Ridley returns to the other principal theme of his writing: that evolution can be applied to many fields other than biology. In The Origins of Virtue, Ridley argued that conventional morality is the product of evolution. That is where he begins the present volume, but he goes on in subsequent chapters to discuss the role of evolution in culture, technology, education and religion.

Ridley pursues a reductionist approach to enquiry that seeks to find a scientific basis for social and natural phenomena. Using the vivid phrase of Daniel Dennett, the leading philosopher of evolution, he resists all offers of “skyhooks,” or arguments that ultimately derive explanation from some exterior authority. The most common skyhook has been religion, but the Darwinian achievement was to show how the natural world could be explained without God. In the words of the famous—if perhaps apocryphal—remark with which Pierre-Simon Laplace ushered in the Enlightenment: “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

This threat to religious doctrine was behind the resistance to evolutionary arguments in the 19th century, and is still the source of resistance in parts of the United States. The unwillingness to contemplate genetic explanations is also an unintended legacy of Adolf Hitler. Ridley describes how eugenics commanded wide intellectual and political support from the late 19th century through to the 1930s. But the repudiation of racism after the Nazi genocides was followed by desegregation in the US. Later the language of anti-discrimination extended to gender inequality and in due course to disability, age and sexual preferences.

For a generation, anything that seemed to give credence to the social effects of genetic selection was dismissed in politically correct circles. This was the era of the “blank slate,” the idea that we are born identical, and that everything that differentiates us as adults is the product of our environment.

That claim could not survive our growing knowledge of the mechanisms of inheritance and natural selection that followed the discovery of DNA. But while rarely a week goes by without a tabloid report of the discovery of a “gene for x,” anyone who uses genetic arguments to account for social as well as physical differences does so at great peril.

The entomologist EO Wilson, whose expertise was in how ants produced a cohesive social order, attempted to apply his vast knowledge more broadly; but after he published a book on sociobiology in the 1970s, a pitcher of water was poured over his head at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Even in 2006, Larry Summers left his role as President of Harvard University after suggesting that it was worth exploring the possibility of a genetic component in the under-representation of women in physics departments.

Evolutionary explanations are too often Panglossian—whatever exists must be for the best—but evolution favours what is good at reproducing itself, not what is good. Ridley describes the controversy over “junk DNA,” the elements of the genome for which no useful function has been discovered but which simply replicate themselves through the generations. Junk DNA has its parallels in the real world: meaningless rituals, parasitic corporations in finance and government contracting, oligarchic influence.

This is a difficult area to move into with confidence but Ridley makes a brave attempt. The book displays his wide and deep knowledge of many different fields. It is fast paced and elegantly written. Few readers will come away without fresh information and a challenge to their preconceptions.

Gaps in our scientific knowledge have historically been filled by appealing to the gods. Authority for moral prescription is derived from religious doctrine, or cults surrounding prophets, gurus or political leaders. As the power of religion has waned, the space has been filled by mysticism and environmentalism. The moral codes of established religions have been supplemented, or replaced, by a language of human rights.

This resilience shows how persistent our need for skyhooks is. Few parents, faced with an insistent “why?” from their children, have not had ultimate resort to “because I say so.” Ridley describes how, in his lifetime, intolerance of homosexuality has declined while that of paedophilia has increased. Indeed the shift is so extreme that it is now morally mandatory to be intolerant of intolerance of homosexuality and equally morally mandatory to be intolerant of any tolerance of paedophilia; lest there be any doubt, he emphasises that he approves of these requirements. What is interesting about this shift in thinking is that religious authorities have followed rather than led widely held public perceptions of the relevant moral values.

What has caused the shift? Perhaps there has been a change in values that opposes interference in consensual sex between adults and deplores abuse of children; but one needs to explain why these values were not widely held a century ago. As reductionism progresses most people reach for a skyhook, appealing to a notion of human rights from which these principles are derived.

There is something unsatisfying about the wide-ranging moral relativism that simply observes that some moral principles were generally held then but that we adhere different ones now. At this point the evolutionary explanation amounts to no more than a restatement of the observation that things change. Yet an account of how changed perceptions of morality co-evolved with other scientific discoveries and social and technological shifts is more compelling than the idea that there were universal moral truths our predecessors were too stupid to discern.

It is a weakness of evolutionary explanations that it is too easy to account for everything in evolutionary terms. Since we know very little about the lives of our ancestors, we can invent stories in which our experiences there hardwired us for what we do today.

"Adaptations are often intentional rather than random, selection not simply a matter of reproductive fitness"

It is easier to dispense with the skyhooks provided by the innovative genius or the great leader. Ridley emphasises how most practical innovations—such as telephones or televisions—were made by several people at about the same time. Nobel Prize-winners are often lucky to have pipped someone with an equally plausible case for the same award. Did Deng Xiaoping really change China, or was he the man who led China when those changes happened?

Yet in his anxiety to emphasise the ubiquity of evolutionary processes, Ridley goes too far. His concept of evolution is too broad. Adaptations are often intentional rather than random, selection not simply a matter of reproductive fitness. In Nature via Nurture, Ridley argued persuasively that the distinction between the two causal explanations is a false dichotomy, the effects of our genetic inheritance are largely moulded by our environment. In the present book he emphasises nature over nurture, denying that parental influence has any significant influence on child development. He is reluctant to acknowledge how frequently we observe co-evolution, in which social and economic practices and genetic traits evolve together. The elegant story told by William Durham of how lactose tolerance in adults and dairy farming evolved together where climatic conditions favoured that form of agriculture, is discarded in favour of a linear process in which the genes follow the technology.

Ridley’s anxiety to minimise the role of conscious direction leads to a denial of the role of government that at times degenerates into a right-wing tirade. His criticisms of the evolution—or often non-evolution—of educational practice, are often well made, and he is right to point to the success of private schools in countries with dysfunctional governments, but he does not mention that the most admired school systems in the world are the state systems found in countries such as Finland and South Korea.

Similarly, it is not tenable to claim that neither universities nor government play a role in innovation comparable to that of private efforts. The development of computing, antibiotics and nuclear power—perhaps the most significant innovations of the last century—were directly attributable to academic research and government funding, and without these they would not have occurred on any comparable timescale, or even at all.

Ridley’s provocative conclusion is that things that go well in human history are unintended, while things that go badly are the product of deliberation. Up to a point. No one intended the First World War, the Great Depression, or the 2008 global financial crisis. Yet there is something in Ridley’s claim; these disasters were the consequence of large decisions taken by people who did not really understand what they were doing, or the likely consequences of their actions. Evolution is smarter than people; or at least the collective wisdom that is accumulated through decades of trial and error is a surer guide to action and the shaping of institutions, than the direction of men (almost invariably men) who knew less about the world than they thought. The wise remark of Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Ferguson that effective human institutions are often the outcome of human actions but not human design, with which Ridley begins his book, bears regular repetition.