It is commendable for the WSJ and Mr. Ridley to bring up two overlooked yet critical topics in his approach to evaluating institutions and spending policy on basic science and technology which Ridley assimilates roughly to public (government, Continental) in contrast with corporate (private, Anglo-American) perspectives and whose different natures had been established before, e.g., in TJ Allen’s Managing the Flow of Technology, MIT Press, which analyzes science (verbally encoded information) and “engineering” (physically encoded): one is the essential driver of economic development (as distinct from growth)—innovation; the other is the evolutionary quality of economic development.
Both, however, invalidate Ridley’s statement that “after all, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. and Britain made huge contributions to science with negligible public funding, while Germany and France, with hefty public funding, achieved no greater results either in science or in economics.” Assimilating “Germany and France” with Continental Europe, as seems to be Ridley’s thrust, it is remarkable that the crucial impact of innovation on development was expounded upon by Schumpeter in 1911, a German-speaking Austrian, while the evolutionary aspect of the economic process resulting therefrom by a Romanian, Georgescu-Roegen, in the 1960’s, with inspiration from A. Lotka, an American born and educated in Europe for the most part. While Ridley’s observations on the vagaries of the Nobel do apply to these three, it is also important to note that if they and Ridley are on the right track, the Solovian model may not be—for how can one describe evolutionary processes, with their qualitative changes, “successful monsters” (F. Jenkin, an engineer!, R. Goldschmidt, a German), hysteresis and entropic nature, with simple and well-behaved “aggregate production functions”?
Despite the effusive, fawning, pandering and hand-waving review by Shermer in WSJ 4-Nov, the simple-minded theory that there is “no planning necessary”, that almost all systems of importance “naturally” order and organize themselves is preposterous. That it goes against the law of entropy is one thing—that it builds upon Ridley’s self-serving interpretation and selective examples is another. The theory serves a certain political persuasion, in a kind of free-form libertarian tradition with some free-thinking scientistic fervency thrown in to spice the realization that he’s always spoken prose, or been a Modern and Enlightened Lucretian/Epicurean, or assume the mantle of Newton, no less, in questioning authority, or be a Greenblatt epigone, or something…
But it doesn’t even do justice to its main theme—evolution, announced modestly in the title: The Evolution of Everything. This theory of everything views “evolution” with the attitude of a 7th grader who, once told, tends to see it everywhere and (mis-)name it accordingly. And the conclusions are made accordingly and grandstandingly: the “evolution” of religion; the “evolution” of money: the “evolution” of the internet, etc. One then cannot but wonder why the obvious was left out—the evolution of evolution? If “evolution is happening all around us” then iwhy use the concept and not just call it “change”, as a much clearer thinker, Georgescu-Roegen, has already developed both topics almost 50 years ago. In that light, statements like “in all these senses evolution is far more common, and far more influential than most people recognize” are vacuous philosophically, economically and scientifically.
“Thus it [only] seems that generals win battles; politicians run countries; scientists discover truths; artists create genres; inventors make breakthroughs…gods make morality” and that Matt Ridley makes sense. I too, particularly on this occasion, have “noticed that human beings are surprisingly bad at explaining their world.” Particularly bad since Ridley’s much vaunted evolution couldn’t even take care of self-organizing the Northern Rock bank—indeed, a “spontaneous momentum” had to occur to save the bank from “gradual, incremental, undirected and emergent” bad decisions leading to its the first bank run in the UK in 150 years and its President resigning.