Ridley describes how a wide range of phenomena are actually the result of cumulative bottom-up processes, and not the result of top-down human design. I think perhaps a better title for the book would have been The Emergence of Everything, as that seems to be more what he’s driving at—the whole does more than then you’d expect given the sum of the parts. Evolution and emergence are related, but I think subtly different; evolution is the process by which traits are built or accumulated in a particular member of a species, while emergence describes the broad consequences of the behavior of these particular members when they are operating simultaneously.
Ridley begins each section with descriptive claims of how systems (government, education, economies, religions) emerged/evolved without top-down direction from humans, and then moves to prescriptive arguments of why those systems should continue to be governed by bottom-up processes. Human meddling generally is damaging or impactful at best.
The descriptive claims are more interesting and convincing. The arguments for avoiding governance of bottom-up phenomena largely follow this pattern: “they evolved naturally, let them continue to evolve uninterrupted—it’s better”. I have a hunch that in many cases he’s probably correct, but his arguments are missing strong, explicit evidence for why it’s better to let them continue, or what tests have been run or could be run to determine if these claims are supported experimentally.
Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon actually seems to match the template I’ve set out here. He acknowledges that religion is a “natural phenomenon”, in that it evolved/emerged in many times and places across the globe, with similar features. He calls for a scientific investigation of religion, in order to see what happens if we were to experimentally turn some of the knobs of religious practice to understand their effects and to evaluate ways in which we could potentially harness positive aspects of religion while minimizing negative ones. His book doesn’t provide answers, but more sets a research agenda to answer questions and see if the natural, emergent religion is really the best, or if it could be enhanced by top-down meddling.
Many of the sections of the book are fantastic, and it’s all highly readable. I think that this book should be included in classes of biological evolution, so that people might get a better grasp of how the same principles/mechanisms that guide animal/plant evolution are not necessarily limited to living creatures. It helped me to think in those terms.
Ideas per Page:1 6/10 (medium) you’ll learn lots of tibits about history and various disciplines
Related Books: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett; The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore
Recommend to Others: If you are interested in evolution
Reread Personally: No
1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.