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.…