Who invented the Internet? Who is in charge of the English language? Where is the central committee of the world economy? Some of the most important phenomena of the human world are the products "of human action but not of human design," in the words of an 18th-century Scottish army chaplain turned philosopher by the name of Adam Ferguson
. They evolve.
In my new book, The Evolution of Everything, I argue that evolution is a central feature of human culture, as well as of biology, and that we remain in thrall to what are effectively creationist myths about how the world works. We give governments too much credit or blame for running or ruining the economy; inventors too much reward for effectively being in the right place at the right time; generals too much praise for winning unlosable wars; and gods too much obeisance for directing the world.
The word "evolution" means unfolding. It has connotations of incremental, inexorable, and undirected change, driven by random mutation and nonrandom selection, yet the great insight of Charles Darwin was that it is capable of building complexity, order, and function. The body of a bird is exquisitely designed — we have no other suitable word — to fly, yet that purpose has never existed as a plan or thought in any mind. It is, in the philosopher Daniel Dennett's words, a "free-floating rationale."
It took ages to persuade the world of this truth in biology, and in many places we have not yet won the argument. Yet we have hardly begun to tackle the same task with respect to human affairs: to persuade the world that just because the American economy (say) shows an exquisite capacity for delivering goods and services to those who want them in just the right amounts at just the right time, does not mean that it has had or needs a planner. Or that just because the Internet is a product of human action, does not mean it is a product of human design.
The Internet evolved in a very literal sense of the word. Its details emerged gradually by trial and error. Sure, it depends on particular inventions, like computing, communications, and packet switching. But there was an inevitability about these emerging when and where they did. Take search engines. When Google came into existence in 1996, there were already more than 20 search engines on the market.
Likewise, when Edison invented the incandescent light bulb in the 1870s, he was one of 23 different people who independently had the same idea. The progress of technology and science are inexorable. Even Einstein, had he been run over by a Swiss tram before thinking of relativity, was dispensable: Hendrik Lorentz would soon have discovered relativity. Patents and Nobel prizes give a false impression of how discovery works.
The same is true of the English language, which is changing all the time not because of linguistic inventors but by a form of trial and error. Words like "prevaricate" and "oversight" have changed their meaning in recent years. Words that are used frequently get shortened — watch how quickly "e-cigarette" shrinks to "e-cig" or "vape" in the coming years. This happens not because some obscure committee in London decides on what should happen to English, but spontaneously.
Or take money. The gradual emergence of standardized coinage to replace barter, of paper money to replace coins, of electronic transfers to replace paper, and (next, perhaps) of block-chain bitcoins to replace bank-certified money, is a process that nobody directs, commands, or controls. It evolves.
Yet we remain psychologically resistant to this message. Just as we are instinctively reluctant to believe that weather is random, that thunderstorms are not driven by malevolent deities punishing us for our sins (or for using fossil fuels), so we are obsessed with seeing top-down causes of bottom-up phenomena.
Even gods evolve. As the years go by, they change. The horny, petty, and vengeful deities of the Bronze Age gave way gradually to the omnipotent and omniscient beings of the first millennium, who are in turn yielding to immaterial, ethereal spirits of moral benevolence we know today.
An unfinished poem written in the dying years of the Roman republic by Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, is one of the boldest critiques of the tendency to see gods as the authors of all order and complexity, the top-down twitch. It is also very disrespectful of leaders for the same reason, and reads today as a refreshingly free-thinking blast. Buried for centuries by Christians as blasphemous, it reemerged in 1417 just in time to be a crucial influence on people like Galileo, Baruch Spinoza, Voltaire, and Erasmus Darwin in the enlightenment. Does this not contradict my argument? If Lucretius had such influence, is this not evidence of top-down direction of human thought?
Not really. The point is that bottom-up thinking itself evolved and emerged as an inevitable consequence of technologies like printing. The rediscovery of Lucretius fell on fertile ground: it did not so much cause the enlightenment as chime with it.
There is one respect in which evolutionary understanding has proved disastrous, but only because it was misunderstood. A horrible misanthropic streak runs through the history of Western Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, beginning with Robert Malthus's concerns about population in 1798, morphing into the eugenics movement of a century later and redesignating itself as the population control movement of the post-war years.
All of these movements had common ancestry and overlapping champions. The second two were explicit in their nod to Darwinian evolution as an influence. But they used evolution not as a description of what happened, but as a prescription of what should happen. They turned a bottom-up phenomenon into a top-down plan. The result was terrible cruelty whether in the Irish famine, the concentration camps of Poland, or the one-child policies of Deng's China.
This execrable history stands as another indictment of the human tendency to want to command and control things, just as the terrible suffering caused by Stalin, Mao, and their imitators (in North Korea, Eritrea, and Venezuela today) indict the foolish fantasy that economies can be planned rather than allowed to evolve.
In sharp contrast to the population policies that caused such misery, birth rates decline rapidly in free countries with no policies as soon as child mortality falls and prosperity emerges. This "demographic transition" is an evolutionary, unplanned phenomenon. It illustrates the fact that many of the good things that have happened to the world in recent decades — especially the general increase in world trade, world prosperity, and new technologies — were not the result of deliberate policies. They evolved.
By contrast, many of the bad things that dominate the news, and set back this evolving prosperity, were the result of deliberate policy. As Lord Acton said (long before Hitler, Stalin, and Mao), great men are usually bad men. I said earlier that we give governments too much credit or blame for running and ruining the economy. Not always. The Great Recession of 2008 is a case in point. It was caused by bad policies — an undervalued Chinese exchange rate, the Fed setting interest rates too low, and the U.S. government mandating that banks lend to subprime borrowers and that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac encourage such lending.
It is not entirely true to say that good things evolve and are gradual, while bad things are commanded and are sudden. But it's a surprisingly universal rule.