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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00:00:04welcome to Aecon talk part of a library of economics and liberty I'm your host Russ Roberts at Stanford university's Hoover Institution our website is econ talk dot org for you can subscribe comment on this podcast and find links and other information related to today's conversation also find our
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00:01:23that you'll find there now hear your favorite process from two thousand and fifteen number ten Canice Prendergast on how prices can improve a food fight and help the poor number nine Nicholas Vincent on the Magna Carta number eight Brian Nozick on the reproducibility project number seven Michael o'hare
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00:02:01lock on super forecasting and the number one episode for two thousand fifteen %HESITATION according to your votes your most popular episode was Matt Ridley and climate change which got about twenty percent just short of twenty percent of the vote so one in five if you put that in
00:02:17your top five so it is 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 or merge at welcome back econ talk Russ is great to be back on the show and
00:02:33I'm delighted to come out on top of that %HESITATION it's great that a Luke warmer can still be at the top you know %HESITATION lukewarm but you still generate a lot of enthusiasm the the extreme moderation my vehicle exactly now your book which is %HESITATION quite ambitious is
00:02:54about the evolution of everything which is about as ambitious as something can get I guess it's about emerging 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 a merchants and its evolution at
00:03:12well I would like to stop by %HESITATION %HESITATION acknowledging my debt to %HESITATION both Russ Roberts and %HESITATION bird road for the incredibly insightful blokes essays on costs and everything else which I've learned an enormous amount from over the years and as you say emergency is very much
00:03:30a theme %HESITATION spontaneous order is very much the the the theme of war works %HESITATION you you and don right about and %HESITATION so I hi I'm I'm right relentlessly plagiarize some of your best ideas in this book I'm sorry to say but then that's kind of the
00:03:47one of my arguments in the book if it were a little %HESITATION %HESITATION gradually adding to each other's ideas and the whole thing is cumulative and gradual rather than being %HESITATION going in the in the in the way of sort of jumps and so on thank you for
00:04:01that appreciation I have just like to say is standing on the shoulders of giants but as as my listeners I'm only five six but go ahead %HESITATION well %HESITATION I'm standing on the shoulders of intellectual John the gist of the book is that the theory of evolution by
00:04:22natural selection the emergence of complexity and %HESITATION sophisticated fit between form and function which the buyer and the young directed mechanism which child though when discovered in eighteen fifty nine applies to a lot of other things and just buy a biology class to a lot of other things
00:04:43than just genetics systems in the best way of describing how society changes culture changes how the economy emerges %HESITATION %HESITATION %HESITATION technology progresses and therefore what I'm trying to do is is %HESITATION direct a general theory of evolution to go along side the special theory of evolution that
00:05:04Charles Dow and came up with %HESITATION and if you like I you are the whole reach back further than dial in and say the whole in life project particularly when Adam Smith gets hold of it in seventeen fifty nine exactly a hundred years before don't get sold within
00:05:20eighteen fifty nine is to recognize that most of the important things happen in the world that happened will happen spontaneously and produce complex order and produce a fit between form and function but the we have made the mistake over many centuries all whenever we see something complex assuming
00:05:40someone in charge and assuming that it had to be designed by a central intelligence of some kind and Dutch suits %HESITATION I have to be a little careful I must be to procrastinate and try and fit absolutely everything in the world to my theory but I have a
00:05:57go at doing that I do not and and and in a sense what I'm saying is look let's see how far we can take this idea because of course there are moments when I have to pull back and say well yes you know if somebody did that Hitler
00:06:12had an effect on history he wasn't just a symptom of history he was also someone who changed history so %HESITATION you know I am because prepared to concede that that there is intelligent design %HESITATION on intelligent design in the case with the %HESITATION in the world but all
00:06:29full of water each week over estimate the impact of of centralized direction and I think now in general like I couldn't agree more although I found a number of things the book that %HESITATION I disagreed with we will we'll get to some of those but I want to
00:06:45start with the human side of the biological side is a lot more well known it on the human side we often talk about the economy being emergent but you go way beyond that and I I want to talk first about culture how was culture a merchant and to
00:07:02what extent does it get us steered or not well the theory of cultural evolution now which is really relatively sophisticated %HESITATION ro boy Pete Richeson injure and record of the the the main leaders in this field and and they have %HESITATION pointed out that %HESITATION actually the best
00:07:23way of describing how culture changes he's by talking about it being something that's gradual something that comes from the interactions of many individuals rather than the the decisions of two three need as any particular day mobile this and said look %HESITATION so long as people are %HESITATION %HESITATION
00:07:45copying each other with imperfections %HESITATION then you will get a form of sort of spontaneous evolution happening the each %HESITATION you don't have to have %HESITATION you know perfect digital bytes of information what you got in genomes %HESITATION you don't have to have %HESITATION very faithful replication of
00:08:08ideas for that to be an effective competition between ideas that ends up with some taking over from others and if you look at the history of culture is one of gradual change in which %HESITATION the the the people in charge of society %HESITATION are actually reflecting the mood
00:08:30of old me people rather than directing it that much more of them than we think let me give you a very concrete example because I've been speaking in rather abstract terms the last couple minutes %HESITATION and that is the changing attitudes toward say homosexuality now in my lifetime
00:08:48it's gone from being an illegal act to being because their us something that you can even have a gay marriage under the mole %HESITATION I would argue that it's pretty clear that every legal change every change that happened in politics weathers the legalization of homosexuality or the legalization
00:09:08of gay marriage was a reflection of the way society was changing not coals of the way society is changing was a symptom of of society road Michael's in other words you know tolerance of homosexuality emerged among ordinary people before allocations decided to act and make it much I
00:09:30think that's true of a lot of things %HESITATION racism would be another example %HESITATION correct that there are many here's the challenge I have for you which is overlaying your view of emergence as as I would say the quote the right way to think about most things and
00:09:49I agree with you there you often argue in the book that it's also a good thing that emergency is a good thing that this uncontrolled process leads to progress for example in economics which I I agree with but the problem I have is that in economics one of
00:10:08the reasons I think it leads to progresses at their these feedback loops that loss of customer satisfaction of freedom to shop where you want that help encourage suppliers to work harder do better in of eight and so on it's not as clear that those feedback loops very well
00:10:26worked very well in the case of culture so racism to take an example can persist for centuries millennia it's emergent no it's a charger it the ones in charge of the idea that that we should look down on certain skin colors or at the groups or religious beliefs
00:10:42or sexual practices but it's a merchant and there's nothing progressive about it in particular it's %HESITATION it of course at the time people thought it was %HESITATION not just benign but not just not a not harmful but the right way to think about things you think we make
00:10:57progress in morality and culture or %HESITATION is it merely just adaptive to the attitudes of its time and and swims around like like many species do well my own that %HESITATION goes back to my previous book which was the rational optimist where I I identified as terminal uniquely
00:11:17but I anomalous zeroed in on the fact that we have seen extraordinary Procris in human %HESITATION the economic situation blood in their living standards but also in culture and of course Steven Pinker chronicle this in respect to violence the the kind of violence over the last few hundred
00:11:37years so when you like to note the fact he is the progress has more often been a beneficial than the than a bad direction over the last hundred years or so now warranty is that why would I why would I claim that the that in evolutionary system is
00:11:52more likely to produce positive results the negative results you're absolutely right calls about racism that that the you know the we've seen periods of history where %HESITATION emergent phenomena have appeared which are bad things a minute to to your example of racism I would add for example the
00:12:07the period in the early twentieth century when a lot of countries drifted towards dictatorships I actually think with technology has a part to play in that because of the role of radio in an annoying demagoguery and so on %HESITATION so yes evolution can certainly go in about direction
00:12:25in human society why my claiming that cnet it it has tended to go in a good direction and therefore we should be not frightened of it and not %HESITATION and and and let it happen mostly rather than out frantically trying to jump on his back and and drive
00:12:43it in a certain direction by my claiming that well because evolution is a theory of mutation and selection of spontaneous change some of which get captain summer which gets rejected and it seems to me that we are the agents of selection as individuals in this process and you
00:13:07know if you think about is say whether or not %HESITATION %HESITATION you know the genre of art this is because people have selected have said yes we like that we don't like that so there is and and and there's no reason for people to select things they don't
00:13:26like in on the whole people don't like violence %HESITATION %HESITATION unpleasantness they they like nice things so there there is a bias towards us the good thing is I might have suddenly thrown away my %HESITATION believe in bottom up this and gone for a top down selection press
00:13:47here you know who were allowing lots of different ideas and trial and error and then we suddenly picking the things we like and things we don't like but whose Weenie and this it's everybody it's the great bulk of people it's an anti neatest message that I'm trying to
00:14:04deliver here a lot of the time in other words I think it's not the you know it's very hard to identify a case where a certain style of uncle music we came %HESITATION popular and assisted in human society because some rulers said he liked it rather than because
00:14:26decided they liked it I think that's what I'm saying another sale unit to a lot of this is quite Exploratorium unprepared to be to to have country examples thrown at me to make me rethink as I go along %HESITATION United in a dead and I'm not trying to
00:14:43have the very last word on this stuff in this book let's talk about language for minute which is an example you use example of use we talked about here in a Cantacuzino but the clever phrase %HESITATION and other people hear it in like it it can get repeated
00:14:59through word of mouth and it it can catch on and we don't really have a an understanding of who the first person %HESITATION who existed to use Google as a verb probably many people at once thought it was a useful thing and it just immediately but I suspect
00:15:16caught on to main %HESITATION used a search engine called Google or even often not search and call global became a generic term there's lots of things in English that would be nice to change %HESITATION just to take one a silly example the word debt D. E. B. T.
00:15:32it's probably better to spell it without the baby if I do that I look illiterate %HESITATION people's assume I made a typo and so a lot of things persist in English that are very flawed lots of duplicate words no homonyms confusing things grammatical weirdness is English is incredibly
00:15:49complicated and a not very good way of complex and yet they processed in to my view of English is it's it's pretty good it shockingly good given that it is and stared but I don't have any and there are some feedback loop so if I use useful clever
00:16:04phrases are shorter contractions people might use start using them without the approval of a of a committee or board of experts but it morality it's a lot harder and culture generally it's a lot harder to see where the feedback loops are they encourage us to do something that
00:16:23has an effect beyond me which is of course what we really are interested and not just the local changes that intraday benefit us that's we understand but the overall evolution of an entire culture in one direction or another you know whether it's the length of a woman's skirt
00:16:39whether men wear hats whether %HESITATION managed to talk their shirts and %HESITATION wear ties these are things that I'm not sure they're they're really useful feedback loops that help us move quote for it I don't know what for what is so I just a little skeptical in those
00:16:54areas well that does a lot of things I want to respond to in that and %HESITATION and it was a very very rich Austin is the road maybe more and also in a question but anyway it was a is a rich rich little %HESITATION %HESITATION piece of text
00:17:09you you just to live in the in the English language of course and and of course only what we're talking about goes back as you know better than almost anybody %HESITATION to Adam Smith here because not only did he write a very fine an important essay on language
00:17:22%HESITATION but he then rose a a ground breaking book on morality %HESITATION the %HESITATION moral sentiments and %HESITATION and and he describes them I would come back to language example in a minute but let me talk about on one side and and just on CO lost the last
00:17:41part of your question about morality he describes what I think is rather good feet feedback loop he talks about how the impartial spectator sort of stands full your in Miami discovery of how %HESITATION behave via %HESITATION is responded to by other people %HESITATION %HESITATION and in other words
00:18:03%HESITATION as I grow up on the calibrate my behavior according to what other people consider to be good or bad I find out that %HESITATION killing someone is disapproved open society and and by the fool try not to do that to put it at the plantation and and
00:18:27the cause was a revolutionary about and Adam Smith saying this up we got this from you actually is is that he's saying %HESITATION I she went on getting this stuff from priests recent just reflecting back to us what we've agreed all the rules of our moral behavior in
00:18:42society we're getting work which getting this from from literally are the reactions of other people to how we anyone society people can react by saying good for you you kill that man who looked at your wife %HESITATION that's an honorable thing to do that's a very moral thing
00:19:01to do when you learned that that's what morality is than in other societies you you you learn that no however badly someone is behave toward you you never kill an infection or not because if you do so don't go that way and so %HESITATION he would you know
00:19:20%HESITATION Smith is is talking about a a feedback loop into the way we respond to that produces a moral codes and priest friend come along and say actually any reason you're not getting people is because %HESITATION Jesus Christ told you not to kill people %HESITATION and %HESITATION and
00:19:38we go home isn't right we didn't realize that and I think that's a mistake will come on to the religious question writer I'm sure we can I just go back to the language point sure because you you you touched on this but didn't really into it and I
00:19:52think one of the most powerful ways of getting people to think about evolution as the right way of thinking about cultural change is to talk about language because he pulled into a category a which we don't have a good word and again I think I got this from
00:20:09you I'm just telling you what you what you've told me rose for us in the way when I can and and and Adam Ferguson contemporary Adam Smith came up with this rather nice phrase where he said there are things in the world that are the result of human
00:20:27action but not the result of human design and %HESITATION you know we it's it's very obvious that the ten is the result of human design of thunderstorms not the results of human design or action but the English language is a result of human action it's clearly man made
00:20:49in that sense and yet he's clearly not designed nor on the charger with known invented it a demerged from tennis and we don't have a good vocabulary to describe such things and yet they're everywhere when you think about it you know the economy is a good example as
00:21:04well but but languages abuse for gum is gonna fit between form and function is highly complex is got rules in the rules that you and I using language that we don't even know about %HESITATION use examples in the book to a common error would is the less likely
00:21:18it is to change its meaning %HESITATION the common or a word is the the the the more it's likely to shorten %HESITATION come abbreviated or vice versa the more it gets previous is the more likely we are to use it and you know so the the rules you
00:21:33and I are obeying the rules the whenever you know that there was no longer the wrote these rules we came up with these rules among ourselves through some kind of no it doesn't involve a price mechanism is your your right saying but isn't that the arms of your
00:21:51question that's where the feedback loops lines that were %HESITATION reactions among ourselves to the way we we we we let culture change well there are feedback loops I just think they're very %HESITATION in perfect an example would be the example I gave of debt dropping the B. I
00:22:09get a naked I get a feedback loop don't do that well yes but on that day that I I love that kind of example of because it's a living fossel a it's a vestigial form it's like you know the appendix in your in your %HESITATION intestinal canal over
00:22:27your little toe neither which nowadays have a function you don't use your little toe for grasping fruit in the trees %HESITATION in a way that %HESITATION yoke and systematic done %HESITATION but it's still there it's kinda left over and and there are things about the human body that
00:22:43%HESITATION mistakes evolution con get round because it left them in that so the fact that your retinas facing backwards the light has to go through the nerves to get to the light sensitive cells which is a mistake that's not repeated in %HESITATION for example the octopus but it
00:22:59is repeated in this is found in old bridge bridge and it's simply impossible to get rid of that so so the beat is a the billion debt is a %HESITATION %HESITATION is is is a living fossil it's it's it's a it's a sign that we're dealing with are
00:23:16we dealing with any relationship another designs if you designed it you wouldn't put right and we can't fix it we could fix it it just it is and it might get fixed over a few hundred years just like lots of words of some change their spelling but %HESITATION
00:23:31a bad up a vendor who sells rotten fruit doesn't last very long tickets weeded out by much more effective feedback loop that's part that's all I'm saying the more challenging today's the more challenging case that's not so important to start with now and it's that's one of the
00:23:48reasons it doesn't get fixed an extra B. is not a an enormous burden yeah mistake the bigger problem is that is that morality writ large and let's come back to that because I think it's it's more interesting %HESITATION morality writ large is much harder to fix at the
00:24:06global level so I'll give you an example and open up another %HESITATION I'm not sure whether it's a Pandora's box or can a worm she'll tell me when I'm done but you're very I like your Adam Smith point obviously because it you know as as you now what
00:24:20I'm I'm interested is math and Smith clearly is trying to show in the Terry moral sentiments that you don't need I should say you don't need Smith is trying to say and %HESITATION cerebral sentiments that our conscience our sense of right and wrong comes from ourselves meaning those
00:24:36around us not from necessarily from god not necessarily from our parents ours ours our upbringing and so but it doesn't answer the question 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
00:24:55okay to kill people in fact it's considered admirable in her %HESITATION working for all kinds of reasons and Smith has to fault not Smith because he doesn't write about this I think but high it does I against argue then that cultures that honor life span talks are a
00:25:09little bit I should say I should put a foot of their bed higher argues that cultures that have better rules about norms that develop that a merger going to dominate other cultures and that's kind of true but it's that's a very weak feedback loop not just because it
00:25:25takes a lot of time but because the competition between cultures between cities between nations between hemispheres it is not like the competition among %HESITATION retailers and say %HESITATION between Walmart and target it just it's it's not as yeah quote mistakes can easily be made in my need not
00:25:45even be easy to measure what is a mistake so that's that's the challenge I have their yeah it is in this may not be the point you're driving up but %HESITATION %HESITATION I I'm a reflection on that which is that there's a lot of debating biological evolution between
00:26:02groups election is and and %HESITATION individual gene selection and the the the idea guys that that some people have tended to say well actually what's happening in human beings is the group's live and die at the expense of other groups and that that's the real driver of evolutionary
00:26:18change taken the end and human beings and indeed in some other species to what other people say no your main rival is the guy within your own society who's just moving across the road and starting up a rival business it's not a Frenchman %HESITATION are when your engagement
00:26:35%HESITATION or Chinese man if you're an American or something and so in the the the life and death of whole societies at the expense of other societies does happen but it's a it's a very small or in rare %HESITATION affect than the life and death of the business
00:26:51family a %HESITATION an idea %HESITATION that the %HESITATION within a society in competition with other ideas within that society so I think it's important not to get sidetracked by the the problem of of whole society seven come and go and I think that was high X. mistake he
00:27:10he came in to this at a time when biological evolution is we're talking much too much about species competing with other species rather than individuals within a species competing with other individuals within that species will both are going on right it's just I just correct %HESITATION to borrow
00:27:28a phrase from Smith's the connection between quality and outcome between societal competition is quote loose Megan indeterminate it's not as a reliable and obvious and actionable as it is at the micro level so let's put that to the side me turn to a different question related to morality
00:27:46witches are your books relentlessly critical of religion and belief in god it's a sub theme that runs through it and although Smith argues that our conscience comes from those around us %HESITATION he doesn't rule out the possibility of god and I would argue that higher than other our
00:28:07modern champion of the ideas in your book %HESITATION was a believer that morality did have an enormous %HESITATION reliance on religion I'm going to quote him and and ask for your response %HESITATION because you view it as as a as a negative or at least day as a
00:28:23sort of non irrelevance in in what in the emergence of morality so high said 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 fire or verifiable are
00:28:40testable in the same sense as our scientific statements and which are certainly not the result of rational argumentation they did help their parents to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it and I'm continuing quoting high even those among us like myself who are not
00:28:58prepared to accept the anthropomorphic conception of personal deity ought to admit that the premature loss of what we regard as non factual believes would have deprived man kind of a power is powerful support in the long development of the extended order that we now enjoy and that even
00:29:14now the loss of these beliefs whether true or false creates great difficulties so your book is a is a counterpoint to that why do you disagree with it yep well basically because I think the case has not been made %HESITATION you know if that is a very very
00:29:32common view that %HESITATION that on the whole we would have become as moral as we are less rapidly if we hadn't had supernatural beliefs essentially context %HESITATION and that's an extremely widespread viewed to this that and the I think that and and and and and my problem with
00:29:54that is is is two fold one I simply don't see the the the dispassionate evidence for it I mean sure religions have %HESITATION being promulgated as of morality in recent centuries before that they weren't frankly you know very few religions were really saying anything more %HESITATION %HESITATION %HESITATION
00:30:16%HESITATION %HESITATION %HESITATION large chunks of history and I will rather was saying a lot of immoral things as well like %HESITATION you know %HESITATION beat up your rival religions and so on %HESITATION so you know it's possible that absent supernatural reason for believing in morality people wouldn't of
00:30:41%HESITATION dot that as quickly I'm just not myself convinced that the any good evidence for that because we've had we've had so many centuries when religion is taken the credits for morality %HESITATION relentlessly we count Randy get behind the veil and find it with that explanation is true
00:31:04no I will certainly concede that religion is a lot nicer now than it was in the top male testament in a ready to read the Bible %HESITATION or in the early years of Islam %HESITATION but I I also my view on this is going to look nice but
00:31:20nine since the turn of the millennium as I see religion being used to justify truly awful crimes again and again and again %HESITATION in this %HESITATION blush two decades %HESITATION one religion in particular move more than others and %HESITATION while I eat you know who %HESITATION I'm I'm
00:31:44from and at the same time I am simply motivated to to say well actually I also want to know whether the supernatural beliefs are true or not and if you go back to biology you find that these supernatural he's got in the way of seeing a spontaneous order
00:32:04explanation for the world and forty very few minute furiously and and and %HESITATION really quite %HESITATION intolerant plea for a long time and you know therefore I'm I'm inclined to the view that I want to give the the null hypothesis that we can do better with reason than
00:32:27with on reason and that we don't need %HESITATION religion to be moral %HESITATION I want to give that idea chunks it's not as if the past two thousand years of when when religion dominated almost every society owners have been wonderful peaceful ones we we'd be giving up I
00:32:48think we might be able to achieve greater peace and greater %HESITATION generosity of spirit without it I mean I I've gone to your question in a very sort of umbrella a big historical way but I could on street in different ways and drill down and maybe we'll we'll
00:33:02we'll get a child to that there's a lot we can spend up to three hours %HESITATION talking just about this issue because it's yeah it's so fascinating I'm I'm a religious believer I'm a religious Jew %HESITATION in the book is somewhat discomforting I I would say more strongly
00:33:19that we live in a time %HESITATION I can't 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 a it's fascinating to feel that I had to read that your book %HESITATION and of course
00:33:37I push back against it emotionally while I'm reading the book but just one comment on this point about morality and then I want to move on we'll be able will come back to religion I'm sure I've got a couple more points to I want you to to respond
00:33:50to but just as the good morality for a minute you suggested earlier that morality was a merchant that religion responded to moral %HESITATION trends in society or their toward sexual practices racism et cetera and yet no we go back to %HESITATION go back to the Bible love your
00:34:10neighbor as yourself is kind of a radical idea it's in the Old Testament it's wasn't I don't think the common view of people today so well I can see the ugliness of much of human history and certainly the many things have been done if the evil things a
00:34:27bit on the name of religion there many things in religion I think do wonder pan much of our modern morality whether I could prove that are not your satisfaction of course %HESITATION remains to be seen yeah well exactly that that would be my response is yes love your
00:34:44neighbor as yourself is a great invention as an idea but will need an invention of ordinary people trying to get along with each other was it ever an invention of priests saying because all you saw was %HESITATION %HESITATION ja wailed someone this is a a good way to
00:34:59behave %HESITATION that would %HESITATION I I suspect neither was could produce %HESITATION decent evidence to support a case %HESITATION %HESITATION to to support that I think you know with the with that that kind of question is lost in the mists of time %HESITATION which which means that %HESITATION
00:35:16yet if it's entirely possible that the way you and I able to get in a in a time machine and go back we could find really good evidence for your hypothesis I I doubt it but it's it's entirely possible it was a radical idea and I'm gonna use
00:35:32that as a segue to %HESITATION one of the more interesting parts of the book is your view of history in entrepreneurship history in technology history and innovation where you %HESITATION criticize the so called great man theory explain with that theory is and why you disagree that especially in
00:35:52regards to innovation or I think a lot of people are very romantic about that I'd probably put myself in that group so %HESITATION I found your book to be a a bit of %HESITATION %HESITATION %HESITATION examiner not know an educator I like I really like that part of
00:36:07your of your nature go ahead exactly well it just like you I I my my my emotional self wants that to be you know %HESITATION wonderful famous people who change history and invent things and discover things and %HESITATION you know %HESITATION sort of demi gods and I love
00:36:25reading stories about them and and you know I love reading biography and I'm fascinated by great figures of history but the the argument that the the raged in the eighteenth century and on into the nineties country between two schools of thought about history that the what the history
00:36:43was made by great men that leads me to the fact that they let women out of the story at that point %HESITATION %HESITATION on one side versus the theory that actually were over emphasizing great men of the great men all symptoms of the times rather than all of
00:37:01the changes in the future and %HESITATION in the eighteenth century Denny's Diderot in particular on the on the stars of the French enlightenment pulled back against this way of telling history is king X. did this to king why and you know such and such a priest came change
00:37:21the world center and said actually is not like that it's ordinary people who are driving historical changes unsure occasionally one of them emerges and becomes a need %HESITATION but %HESITATION he's as much the the effect as the coals %HESITATION and so the the example given the book of
00:37:37this is that if you're in the great encyclopedia that the French enlightenment Starz produced %HESITATION determined Dalembert in particular in the eighteenth century they refused to put any biographical entries in that whole book if you want to read Isaac Newton's biography and they have a very sorry they
00:37:56do have a very good biography Isaac Newton and is excreted but he's not listed on the news it's listed under willful which is for the minute she was born in and it is just a joke in a way that they're doing that but that's not making that they're
00:38:10trying to make a point Carlisle comes along in the in the in the %HESITATION early nineteenth century and said you've got to be joking come on look what the police thought was a great man %HESITATION you know you greatness and he's not miss are losing Marley great but
00:38:26he's saying you know a man who changed his influential enough to the twentieth century it's hard not to agree that the great man can influence history %HESITATION but lord Acton said great minimalistic Batman and we have some pretty good examples of that in the twentieth century %HESITATION and
00:38:43and I said so where the rubber hits the road for me on this is the the history of technology of discovery and invention and I'm very struck by something that I really got from %HESITATION %HESITATION Kevin Kelly's book %HESITATION %HESITATION %HESITATION will technology will show where he in
00:39:02introduced me to a whole literature on %HESITATION owned the simultaneous discovery for the pretty well every invention and discovery you you you mentioned as a code to two different people at roughly the same time possibly three possibly for %HESITATION my favorite example of this is the light bulb
00:39:24which in my part of the world man changes of swan gets the credit for inventing the light bulb in a terrible fooled cool Thomas Edison came along and %HESITATION ripped him off %HESITATION what if I live in Russia %HESITATION I give the credit to look vegan and I
00:39:37am equally cross with Edison but actually if you drill down into history in the eighteen seventies that are twenty three people in that decade alone who deserve independent credit for coming up with the idea of the incandescent light bulb he was an idea right to be discovered it
00:39:54was inevitable that it would be discovered in that in that in that decade announce true almost everything you know that undergoes famously you know who revolution itself the the idea of natural selection because the Wallace and Darwin at the same time and going has to rush into print
00:40:11to prevent himself being preemptive even relativity you know we tend to think Ron stone is unique and coming up with this idea that occur to nobody else and took the world by surprise and nobody believed in %HESITATION well that's true but if you look at what Hendrik Lorentz
00:40:26was doing at the same time he was well on the trail he'd have got that refined stunted been run over by a tram and the double helix of DNA credibly important discovery big race going on to find it the the technology to reach the point where we're going
00:40:41to find the genetic code around that time so business sort of complete dispensable sea of scientists and inventors really surprises me when you think about it now does that make mean that we we don't admire them in some ways with mother more because they were in the race
00:40:58and get that for us if you like and finally this doesn't apply nearly as well in the office so if if Beethoven had failed to write the night name nobody else would %HESITATION %HESITATION %HESITATION there are John Reno musical genres that with the match so %HESITATION so I'm
00:41:18I'm just trying to take the to to to to I think you know we put these people on such a pedestal it makes it hard for young people to think they could ever achieve is and what she read the biography of a great scientist or great general something
00:41:34you're gonna lose a lot of challenges and there's a lot of being in the right place at the right time %HESITATION that got him where it was a it isn't old onto his god like character %HESITATION so I'm I I'm very much coming down on the anti great
00:41:49man theory %HESITATION side of history though of course I can see that individuals can make a difference go head sorry okay yeah I was going to say but but but the general point the technology which would March along whoever's discovering it is I think a really interesting evolutionary
00:42:09one and if it makes makes technological progress seem almost inevitable and I and I get a little bit mystical in this part of the book to the to the fury of some people who you think that's the type of somehow in Butte technology with the with the spirit
00:42:24or something which is not my intention it'll because that would be stoked on exclamation no I really like your your observation that it's hard to think of of inventions or products that came well before their time %HESITATION I guess I had this condition someone just the other day
00:42:41and and he he said I've got a really good example of that wheeled suitcases and I said honey that for example I still talk to him when I looked it up I discovered actually they came about the right tone when apple's Copenhagen aluminium wheels go small eccentric before
00:42:57the war and and and portions became rat you know before that the one really much point in putting heavy wheels on the sick anyway into room that might otherwise be is for clothes a it's a it's a it's a trivial example but it's quite interesting actually %HESITATION you
00:43:13know the %HESITATION of the personal data assistant the so called pedia I think that's what he stands for %HESITATION the original Newton which was the apple product which was really the first hand held device was a failure %HESITATION but no one took that to mean that it could
00:43:33never be done and of course writes quote shortly after not so shortly but by historical standards very shortly after a whole group of products came into being the the smartphone %HESITATION the %HESITATION the palm pilot and other devices that were successful of years later was because they were
00:43:50designed better was that they were more timely I don't know but it is it was highly because because %HESITATION %HESITATION %HESITATION %HESITATION the density of chips and a trunk even further in the full order increase even further in the full %HESITATION you know the media had suddenly become
00:44:08really sophisticated enough to be useful or full that it was a pretty trivial device or whatever %HESITATION at one of the one thing that fascinated by by the way is the way in which in this this phenomenon of inexorably inevitable %HESITATION invention is clearest in the digital world
00:44:24I mean nobody genuinely thanks to the Google hadn't been born we would have no such as for example %HESITATION and 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 you know these awesome
00:44:39and soccer Bergen and gates and %HESITATION of course jobs end up with the sort of god like status is if they've changed the world dramatically words in fact in some sense the the the the the lucky one say I do sorry I didn't mean to to to to
00:44:55deny that this going again they were doing in competition with others which makes it an all the more impressive achievements but it's it's rather ironic that in an industry where where would just be inevitably discovering all these things we we we agree creating this almost sort of imperial
00:45:14Rome is demi god like status who %HESITATION %HESITATION businessman it's it's a fasting thing to think about I the way I was forced to think about it you mentioned Johnny I've been your book the apple designer if if Steve Jobs had say %HESITATION take a little more %HESITATION
00:45:32psychedelic drug a little more psychedelic drug use in as you 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 it's it is
00:45:47it's a little bit like evolution that why is it's not perfect it works really well for its circumstance but it be nice to have a more beautiful giraffe perhaps or more beautiful desk laptop computer and the mac is I think a lot more beautiful than a dell but
00:46:02yeah I quite agree I can remember where I was when I first soul which which apple product it was we know the one that was trying to look nice rather than trying to be functional and that that really yeah this is graceful this is not the right way
00:46:16to do things computers shouldn't be he did this frivolous way I did and I had some wind any sort of negative reaction to it which icon now understand some ask a tough question for a %HESITATION evolutionary optimist as you are %HESITATION why are our ideas and our meaning
00:46:35those 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 wire our reviews so unpopular why are we sweeping the world wise and free market capitalism %HESITATION the dominant economic system and I know
00:46:54you could you could say well it is but I'd say not really I mean the growth the government United States has been an actual over the last eighty years seventy years and those of us who think it should be a lot smaller should we just give up or
00:47:06we should we re examine our views because they haven't been adopted it's the same question as Darwin faced in other words when he said I don't think hold is exquisite between form and function that you get in the human body or in any other species or in an
00:47:25ecosystem comes from an intelligent designer everyone when what I owe you can't say that not only is the Roman numerals such a stupid thing of course the must be designed you know these these objects are beautifully designed so that must be a designer %HESITATION it's sort of that
00:47:44same question and and people people didn't just fine find it unpersuasive they found it morally repugnant in some way really understand why but I think Dan Dennett gets closest to you cracking the cynic but when he talks about the intentional stance so we we we have a reflex
00:48:08assumption when we see something that it was designed created all planned rather than the merchants and spontaneous and we actually go too far in this direction we think that's on the storms of vindictive things for example %HESITATION you know who we are the you know the witch doctor
00:48:29has organized for lightning strike my house %HESITATION %HESITATION just %HESITATION you know the world is a phrase my father used to use are greeted his %HESITATION with a hammer or something you would say I hate the vindictiveness of inanimate objects comma where that comes from but it's a
00:48:45it's a quote from someone and do you know what I mean if you I'm sure you know the experience the the U. R. J. you make my life so difficult engine when you install or whatever it is so we in view agency to things that have agency we
00:49:03in view intentionality to things with nearly count of intentionality why do we do this well probably because it's better to %HESITATION in that direction than in the opposite direction back in the Pleistocene stern age if you get hit on the back of the head by a stone %HESITATION
00:49:23to to say %HESITATION well things happen you know %HESITATION that's just the way the world is not necessarily a sensible is to turn around and say who through that stuff %HESITATION do you see what I'm me and so I think that's where it comes from the the we
00:49:41we %HESITATION free market people are coming along saying actually you don't need to put someone in charge %HESITATION you don't need to %HESITATION %HESITATION for the trip planned this problem will get solved if we let people free to come up with solutions %HESITATION that it goes against our
00:50:06belief that the world is on the whole a plan in order to design place but of course it also gets in the way human ambition I mean you and I are effectively saying to someone then put me in charge to make me the %HESITATION lives are in charge
00:50:20of policy on this area %HESITATION because I won't be able to do any good %HESITATION whoever said that you know if you got that you'll be off of the czar job in Washington with a very large salary in the log stuff working for you in that big corner
00:50:32office who's gonna turn that down to the modern version of the intentional stance is to is to have a sort of believe that politicians can fix any problem yes and we do like thinking were important and powerful and certainly here I'm like being loved in lovelies Adam Smith
00:50:51would say release loved %HESITATION I'm gonna read a longish quote from the book %HESITATION which is very provocative and an initial question about it %HESITATION you write the following bad news is man made top down purposed stuff imposed on history good news is accidental unplanned a merchant stuff
00:51:14the gradually involves the things that go well are largely unintended the things to go badly %HESITATION largely intended let me give you two lists first the first World War the Russian Revolution the recite treaty the Great Depression the **** regime the second World War the Chinese revolution the
00:51:29two thousand eight financial crisis every single one was the result of top down decision making by relatively small numbers of people trying to implement deliberate plants politicians central bankers revolutionaries and so on second the growth of global income the disappearance of infectious diseases the feeding of seven billion
00:51:47the clean up of rivers and air the reforestation of much of the rich world the internet the use of mobile phone credits is banking the use of genetic fingerprinting to convict him mills and quit the innocent every single one of these was a serendipitous unexpected phenomenon supplied by
00:52:01millions of people who did not intend to cause these big changes I love that passage but when I step back I have to I have big problems with it and the first problem I have is that the first World War or the right side to repeat even the
00:52:17Great Depression does her I see those as a merchant also there the confluence of all kinds of influences and trends and schemes of individuals which often intent created the opposite of what they intended just to pick one Woodrow Wilson example %HESITATION how should I think about those things
00:52:39why do you how my able to have a taxonomy with those is being so separate from the so called good things well disagree just simply on the on the other historical evidence and and the vessel was quite fresh in my mind as writing this book because it was
00:52:56the twenty fourteen Centenario of it and and what was emerging from me from the books I was reading Margaret macmillan and other people was was how a relatively few people in the chancel reserve viewer of made religion review decisions that led to a complete catastrophe that nobody was
00:53:15expecting and that the people were polled by you know in the the British people for example were completely focused on a sort of nasty situation in our lives right up until the end of August nineteen fourteen at which point they suddenly discovered that the leaders had drag them
00:53:32into a war on in continental Europe %HESITATION based on some commitments they made in some treating with the French and the Russians against the Germans and the Austrians and that if if %HESITATION you know who's a redwood gray and said something different to count on mold her on
00:53:52some such occasion we wouldn't be that articles famously if if %HESITATION about his name the assassin at Sarajevo hello Prinsep thank you governor Prinsep had not %HESITATION %HESITATION you know taking a wrong turn in the streets of Sarajevo and found himself right next to it was the it
00:54:11was around prince to to the wrong turning yeah exactly but anyway %HESITATION %HESITATION is to I I really did feel at that time the the that and indeed the Great Depression based on the thank you decision essentially central bankers in that case %HESITATION where where relatively few to
00:54:30many decisions rather than many to fear %HESITATION and I came up with those lists quite easily now of course you can list country couples you know their %HESITATION they're all from owner in the world to come from the many to the few with a bat and there are
00:54:50from the many to many if you like %HESITATION and their %HESITATION you know your incredible individual decisions that resulted in good outcomes %HESITATION 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 study provocatively
00:55:12as you spoke to %HESITATION %HESITATION the the most of the good things that happen in history tend to be %HESITATION planned %HESITATION wears many of the bad things tend to be plant %HESITATION I'm impressed by how easy it is to defend the point I guess the side have
00:55:31is that none of the people most chancery support for war one intended World War one they actually thought they were either making their country safer leading to peace and so I think they I think were one was very unplanned but I do know that %HESITATION sorry yes that's
00:55:44a good point yes I am told that yes I do see that they were smaller groups and the idea decentralization is a really good idea as a general idea %HESITATION related point I think is this some you don't directly talk about this but in a couple places you
00:56:02remark on the irony of someone being called right wing you mention high %HESITATION can you could mention yourself you could mention me I've been called right wing and I'm sure you have %HESITATION what is that yep yeah right and well deserved is a fascinating historical trend here in
00:56:21that I mean I did I I I'm very interested in the fact that in the in the the late eighteenth early nineteenth century %HESITATION if you are a an economic liberally believes in the free markets you're also a believer in the abolition of slavery and the %HESITATION this
00:56:37establishment of the church and and all these kind of things %HESITATION %HESITATION and and and and so you are very much a liberal in in every sense of the word you know you dislike the big states you decide monarchs you dislike a powerful church and in society and
00:56:55and and right through the first half of the nineteenth century that's true that the economic liberals are also social liberals by the time you get middle of the twentieth century something different as and on the whole %HESITATION %HESITATION social liberals who won't societal change you know worried about
00:57:15Corning but that %HESITATION by then believes in a big state now how did that come about what point does does relaxed if you like because that's what we're talking about suddenly say they want a big state noticeable and I think it's mostly marks is for an admittedly I'm
00:57:35available the great man theory in the old will run amok let at se mugs is the symptom of McCauley but anyway %HESITATION you know there's a moment when suddenly the left says actually in economic terms we want a big state we wonder and the means of production of
00:57:53salt and you're left with these fascinating relics of people like Saddam movie in Britain %HESITATION %HESITATION a man named Otis Spann etcetera %HESITATION there other American examples of of people who %HESITATION real old traditional liberals who are on the left socially but they're also on there also free
00:58:14marketeers %HESITATION and they kind of Peter out the strange death of liberal England was a book written about this phenomena and when free markets %HESITATION free enterprise re emerges eighties championed by people who are basically social conservatives Ronald Reagan Margaret Thatcher and the only way they can get
00:58:35a hearing full freedom and liberty in economics is by appealing to the conservatism %HESITATION there on social issues %HESITATION %HESITATION a large chunk of the audience and %HESITATION you know I have arguments with my good friend and colleague turn the comer in the times about this he says
00:58:53let me you libertarians I never gonna get a majority by rich and less you ally with some social conservatives and that seems to be a pity because I don't want to be a social conservative I want us to approve gay marriage to analyze %HESITATION so in in in
00:59:11in what sense you know in it to an eighteenth century philosopher to describe rush Robert so Matt Ridley as as right wing because they believe in freedom of people to not just believe and think and speak but trade to what what right wing right wing surely means you
00:59:32believe in centralized authority %HESITATION but somehow that school got changed just want to pick on to a two same said that I think I 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 of
00:59:49the enlightenment the dark side of the rise of rationality in science this belief really a a form of idol worship that human knowledge is a supreme I can solve all problems %HESITATION rationality is deity I think that's part of what we're talking about in the last twenty minutes
01:00:11and I think the other part which I think we have to confront on our side which we I think often ignore is that too many people unfortunately conflate are being pro free enterprise with pro business so whenever I can and I like to emphasize that I'm not pro
01:00:27business %HESITATION I am in favor of the system that allows businesses to compete and I think people are skeptical of our views and our worldview or philosophy are say well in your view which allows freedom that just means that businesses are going to be free to exploit us
01:00:47they either don't appreciate the power of competition or they don't think opticians very pervasive and I think that latter concern is a legitimate one I don't agree with that but it's a legitimate concern that we don't do a very good job answering and I think it causes us
01:01:03to be lumped in with the %HESITATION crony capitalist to or to my horror completely agree with everything you just said and and and wouldn't be able to improve on it in in a sense %HESITATION and %HESITATION you know the idea that yeah I mean I so I sometimes
01:01:21use the phrase to describe myself I'm a free market anti capitalist glossing I want is B. capital to be in charge of the world %HESITATION that's essentially a monopolistic or way of approaching it and you know when it is a lot of these barriers to entry to new
01:01:36competition come from they come from essentially government %HESITATION doing the bidding of big business %HESITATION and %HESITATION it's very hard to get that across because I think most people I blame the education system that that most people are not given a free and %HESITATION %HESITATION exposure to this
01:02:00notion that actually %HESITATION you know that Adam Smith was the ultimate anti business problems like anti big business I want to close with a philosophical thought your book is really about pushing what I would call the materialist a reductionist approach that is implicit in science to a much
01:02:23wider array of phenomena %HESITATION and is as results incredibly provocative book there are things that you learned whether you want to or not or things that you agree with the things you don't agree with bristling with ideas which I think is a mark of book of a great
01:02:37book but one of the I think challenges of the philosophic of these he's been of the a materialist reductionist approach is a loss of of mystery %HESITATION I was wondering your book I was thinking of %HESITATION Tom Stoppard in Arcadia when he says the ordinary size stuff which
01:02:57is 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 was trying to convey there is that there are
01:03:12things beyond our understanding and to some extent your books pushing idea that's nothing's beyond our understanding and I want to ask you want to challenge you in modern philosophy people like David Chalmers and Thomas Nagel have suggested not suggested a market very forcefully that consciousness itself is not
01:03:31amenable to the physical materialist reductionist approach it's not just chemistry that we will not understand it and that our current theories about she can't explain it %HESITATION your thoughts on them well I I II and strongly reject the view that not understanding things makes them more wonderful than
01:03:54understanding %HESITATION more inspiring than understanding them and %HESITATION you know that character in %HESITATION but in Arcadia Bernard inevitably but the as some of the great lines %HESITATION and it's a wonderful place and I love it %HESITATION makes that point right very well but %HESITATION you know Richard
01:04:15Dawkins in %HESITATION waving the rainbow takes on exactly that and and says when keeps criticizes Newton for on weaving the rainbow and telling us that %HESITATION it's actually made up of different wavelengths of light duty really make it any less wonderful any this or inspiring to now say
01:04:32it's a rainbow nickel account it was not %HESITATION and in fact quite the reverse science tells you you know that there is no we have deep geological Tommy a full billion years of history on this planet that we have a billion billion stars in the galaxy that you
01:04:47know these are these are formal mine building and %HESITATION inspiring ideas than we've got a black dome over ahead with points of light which are being moved around by man with a white beard colds years you know I just don't find that is excited explanation if you like
01:05:05okay I'm reducing the absurdity that's a little bit ten minutes so so my view is that science and I've I've made this the %HESITATION mean I I I have to end up in addition quotations for this one day because I've been saying it for twenty years and I
01:05:23thank you Stuart I probably stole it from someone else science is in the business note of getting rid of mysteries but of creating your mysteries %HESITATION you know every time it understand something it creates a run off to you extraordinary problems to understand they create crates pommel questions
01:05:42than it does on quantum mechanics for example you know we've got to the point of realizing the quantum mechanics must be true but boy does it vocal %HESITATION mines and can we really understand it so %HESITATION so I would say that we realist rationalist reductionist dreadful people are
01:06:04in the business of making one well the end of %HESITATION it will further along I think 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
01:06:20other I think the nice way to agree with what you just said is that the Venetian proverb that nas and Talib 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 mysteries keep
01:06:37keep going but what about this consciousness thing give any time well in this isn't I think it's missed school mysterion isms the idea that the consciousness may be too difficult for the human brain to understand can exercise it but it doesn't necessarily mean X. understand %HESITATION %HESITATION and
01:07:01Francis Crick who spent the last twenty years of his life trying to understand consciousness %HESITATION very you know took a walk through relentlessly reductionist approach and he said he said look when you look at an optical illusion and it switches from one view to another you know you
01:07:19know those kind of things where you can either see it one way or we can see is another some things changed in your brain when you switch from one to the other don't read doesn't move too you know near on and change place but a pattern of firing
01:07:33of 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 our consciousness now you never succeeded and no one else to succeed it %HESITATION but if we do get to the
01:07:49point where we succeed in that way we can say aha I can actually see a pattern of activity in the brain the days different when not when you know when you change the image of someone looking at but when we change their understanding of the image as it
01:08:07was %HESITATION them well then I have we removed all the mystery and excitement from consciousness no I don't think we have have we %HESITATION do we think that %HESITATION we'll never get there I doubt it we thought life was good and we couldn't get our heads around life
01:08:26you know right up until the mid nineteen fifties people say what what what what is the difference between living things in the living we I mean I can't imagine any maybe it's called some critics people started setting and then along comes Watson and Crick and suddenly it falls
01:08:42into place digital credit information is what makes life different from nobody nobody predicted that came completely out of there we only came from an area of science that was told to be completely irrelevant to the subject it's the same could happen in consciousness but I certainly wouldn't bet
01:09:02against us being able to understand consciousness at some point in your %HESITATION my laptop my guest today has been Matt Ridley his book is the evolution of everything man thanks for being part of a come talk thanks for having me on the show this is econ talk part
01:09:23of the library economics and liberty for mori contacted econ talk dot org or you can also comment on today's podcast and find links in readings related to today's conversation sound engineer free Cantacuzino yet I'm your host Russ Roberts thanks for listening talk to you on Monday

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