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A specialist in behavioural science, British journalist Matt Ridley is the author, most recently, of The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge.

Handout

In this series, Rudyard Griffiths, chair of the Munk Debates, Canada's leading public-affairs forum, discusses issues and trends just over the horizon with renowned analysts and policy-makers.

Why do you think the laws of evolution can help us understand how human culture develops?

Well, my argument is essentially that human society evolves in just the same way that biological entities evolve – it changes incrementally, it changes gradually, it changes by dissent with modification. It's inexorable. It's internally driven. It comes from ordinary people interacting among themselves and not by brilliant people doing remarkable things. In sum, human society changes by a sort of undirected trial and error, and we don't appreciate enough just how bottom-up rather than top-down this process in fact is.

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Give us some specific examples of this process action …

The Internet is a beautiful example of something that's emerged spontaneously, has great sophistication and complexity, but didn't actually need anybody to direct it. In fact, it has no central committee. It has no general in charge of it. It is one of many examples of things changing in human society gradually and toward complex order but without anybody envisaging the end goal. There is a nice phrase by Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson, who said there are things which are the product of human action, but not of human design. I think that's true of an awful lot of human society – we don't really have a phrase for these entities and yet they're all around us.

What about Gates and Einstein?

If you examine the history of technology, the history of inventors and the history of science, you find that most of the great men or great women are actually dispensable, in the sense that, if they didn't exist, the idea would still have come into existence.

It was inevitable that the light bulb would be invented when it was. Similarly, we know of six different inventors of the thermometer, three of the hypodermic needle, four of vaccination, four of decimal fractions. This simultaneous invention implies we're wrong to give too much credit to whoever happens to register a new patent or win a Nobel Prize. Innovation is much more an inevitable, bottom-up phenomenon than we usually recognize.

What does this suggest about encouraging innovation today?

We should do our best to encourage people to meet, exchange ideas, to have the freedom to explore things – and then new products, new technologies, new ideas will emerge from that process, rather than government trying to plan the outcome. We're terrible at planning outcomes. When we try to pick winners, we usually end up picking losers. Instead, we need to be ready for serendipity. We need to be ready for the unexpected. And we need to not be too prescriptive. You just have to look at North Korea to see a society that doesn't function well when somebody's trying to ordain every outcome.

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Is it the case then that certain political systems are better at harnessing this evolutionary engine as it applies to human affairs?

It's certainly true that there's a parallel between an evolutionary view of the world and a sort of free-enterprise, free-market, free-speech view of the world because, essentially, both are talking about the idea of spontaneous order.

If so, why isn't the planet populated with more free and open nations?

We don't really believe in this evolution of society. It took a long time to realize that biological evolution wasn't a top-down phenomenon, and we're taking a long time to realize that social evolution isn't a top-down phenomenon. We still think the way to success is to order other people about and to get into positions of power yourself. In sum, the evolution of free societies runs up against the problem of people still having instincts of control and power themselves. And, yes, there has been a hesitant and partially successful liberation, particularly in the West over the last two or three centuries.

But it had a terrible setback in the early 20th century with the rise of totalitarian regimes and the disappearance of the liberal tradition in all but a few countries. It's now on the march again, and there are more countries with democratic governments in place and more countries which are free in economic terms, as well.

Is what holds us back from thinking in evolutionary terms the extent to which it suggests individuals don't matter?

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The theory of cultural evolution can be seen as disempowering, that people are just corks bobbing around on waves of social change. I don't think that's the whole story, however. Just because innovations emerge doesn't mean you or I can't be the cork that bobs to the top. There's plenty of room for human ambition and endeavour in an evolving society.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Subscribe to The Next Debate podcast on iTunes or visit http://www.munkdebates.com

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