Matt Ridley: “The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge” | Talks at Google

Matt Ridley: “The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge” | Talks at Google


MATT RIDLEY: My
name is Matt Ridley. It’s great to be here at Google. I’ve spoken in Mountain
View before but I’ve never been here. But I gather this is much more
important than Mountain View. And I write books when I’m
not doing other things. I’m also a columnist
for newspapers. And I also have a sort of
part-time day job these days in the UK. I sit in a very, very
old-fashioned institution called the House of Lords,
which is a very powerless arm of the British government. But I can talk a
little bit about that, as well, if you want. And it might seem the message of
this book is very anti-elitist. So you might think that’s a
bit weird coming from somebody in the House of Lords. But I’ll explain as I go on. My last book was called
“The Rational Optimist.” I don’t know if
anybody here read it. It was chronicling the
amazing improvements in human living standards
over the last 50 years and the fact that the
average person on the planet is earning three times as much
as they were 50 years ago, that they’re living 30% longer. They’re burying
2/3 fewer children, the greatest measure of
misery anybody can think of. And on the whole, people are
wealthier, healthier, happier, cleverer, kinder, cleaner, more
peaceful, freer, and more equal than they’ve ever been. And what I was interested in
was why this is happening. What we’re seeing
around the world, this extraordinary
transformation, happening now much more fast–
much more rapidly in Africa than any other continent– a
continent that people thought was not going to
be able to catch up with the rest of the
world is now doing so. And the answer, of
course, in a word is innovation, which is
something you guys do here, I imagine. And where does
innovation come from? How does it happen? Why does it happen to us
and not to rabbits or rocks? And what drives it–
was kind of what I was interested in that book. And I’ve taken that idea quite
a bit further in this book because my answer,
essentially, is that innovation is about the combining
and recombining of ideas– that virtually every
technology we can think of is a combination of
other technologies. And so it’s just a matter
of combining technologies in different combinations to
come up with new technologies. And there’s an infinite
number of ways we can do that, because I’m not just
talking about objects. I’m talking about rules. I’m talking about
ideas, as well. And that is the fuel
that drives innovation. And that’s why
innovation happens where people can meet
and exchange ideas– or as I put it, ideas have
sex with each other so as to produce baby ideas. And that’s very similar to how
biological evolution happens. Biological evolution depends
upon the recombination of genes. Genes being thrown together
in new combinations through sexual
reproduction in particular is what is the fuel that
drives biological evolution. But of course,
there’s another stage to biological evolution,
which is selection, that it’s no good just
having random mutations and new combinations of genes. You, then, have to have
the environment pick out the ones that make
an organism more fit. And as a result of that, you
can build complex organisms from nothing, from the
bottom up, without a plan, without a designer,
without an end in mind. And that’s the
essence of the idea of natural selection– of
evolution by natural selection. And my argument in this book
is that human society changes in exactly the same way. It’s not even a metaphor. It’s precisely what’s happening. With any information
system, where you’re getting a
recombination of information, you’re going to get selective
survival– in this case because we choose the
ideas ourselves rather than because the
environment chooses them. And that is going to result in
progressive and constructive change of an incremental,
gradual, inexorable kind, which is essentially a
form of evolution– that evolution has jumped
into the technological sphere, as well. And that, as we look
around the world and look at how
we change society, we need to understand that
most of the important things that happen, in terms of changes
in human living standards and so on, are not driven top
down by plans and people who know how to get end results. They emerge from
the interactions of ordinary people. That’s why I say this
is an anti-elitist book. I think the idea of Darwinian
evolution by natural selection is one of the greatest
insights that’s ever happened to our species. Dan Dennett calls
it a universal acid. And what he means by that is
that there is no container you can hold this idea in. It eats through
everything you try and– you try and hold it in. It undermines all sorts of
ideas about the world because it gives you, for example,
complexity and order and fit between form and
function without design, without somebody knowing
in advance that that’s what they want to achieve. The human eye, for
example, is a complex organ which is designed for seeing. It’s pretty weird to think
of it in any other terms but having the
function of seeing. And yet, it came into existence
without anybody planning that it should be for seeing. It came into existence in a
bottom up spontaneous way. So I essentially
argue in this book that biological
evolution of that kind is the special
theory of evolution is just like the special
theory of relativity. And that the general
theory of evolution is that this happens in
systems without genes, as well. It happens in
information systems. It happens in technology. It happens in culture. It happens in morality. It happens in religion. It happens in music. It happens in government. It happens in all these
aspects of human behavior. And of course, natural selection
is– there’s a phrase for it, really, which makes
it much more clear, which is trial and error. Trial and error is actually
how we change society when you think about it. We don’t tend to plan one
goal and go straight for it. What happens is that lots of
people try different things, and some survive and some don’t. Some ideas persist and some
get left by the wayside. If you look at a technology
in the early stages of its development, there’s a huge–
there’s a ferment of different ways of doing it out there, some
of which get selected and some of which don’t. So for example, if you look at
the designs of early airplanes, there’s a wonderful plethora
of different designs– different numbers of
wings, different shapes of tail planes, different places
for the propeller, et cetera. For the first 20 years
or so of airplane design, there’s an enormous
amount of experimentation. And then it gradually
settles down into the best designs from that. So trial and error is much more
important in human innovation than I think we
give it credit for. And we tend to make the mistake
of thinking the world is a more top down place than it is. We did this for 100
years with respect to biological evolution,
too, of course. The intelligent
design movement still persists to some extent
in many parts of the world where people refuse to
believe that it’s possible that the complexity
of a human body or of a rain forest
ecosystem could have evolved without a designer. And we’re still struggling
to get our heads around that idea of bottom up
design in the natural world. And even more, I would
argue, in the human world do we tend to make the mistake
of thinking that someone’s in charge, someone designed
things, someone planned things, whereas, in fact, a lot
of it is spontaneous order that we’re looking at. Now my book is a little bit
what you might call procrustean, that is to say, I’m trying
to squeeze everything into my theory. And occasionally, I might fail. And I’ve got chapters
on the evolution of pretty well everything
you can think of. And some of them are more
persuasive than others. But that’s kind of my
point is to sort of push this idea as hard as it can go
and see what pushback I get. And people are saying don’t
be ridiculous, you know. You’re overdoing
the bottom up view of the world in
some of the reviews. And they may be right. But it’s– part of my purpose
is to try and challenge people into recognizing that things
are not as top down as we think they are. Talking of top
down and bottom up, I use a metaphor throughout the
book, which is the sky hook. A sky hook is a hook that
you attach to the sky in order to build the building
from the top down, which would be extremely convenient
if we could invent it. Maybe you have invented
it here at Google. And the phrase comes from a
First World War reconnaissance pilot, who was in an airplane. It was flying around,
and he was told to stay up there for an hour
because we’re out of action, and we’ll get back
to you in an hour. And he replied, this machine
is not fitted with skyhooks. And that’s, if you look
in the dictionary, that’s where the word originated. And of course,
skyhooks don’t exist. Dan Dennett uses
them as a metaphor for intelligent design. He says that,
essentially, when people say that the human
body or the human eye was designed by a creator,
they are essentially inventing a skyhook. It’s a kind of mystical
shortcut explanation to how things came into existence. And I think we seek skyhooks
everywhere in human society, and we need to
unlearn seeing them. Just a couple of examples to
give you what I’m– to give you an idea of evolution in human
affairs, think of music, for example. Music genres change over time. They change gradually. They change incrementally. They build on what came before. They take the previous
genre and twist it slightly. It’s a descent with
modification, as Darwin put it. You can see the family tree
of different musical styles. And you can see how two
different musical styles come together and breed, as it
were, to produce a new style. Gods evolved. Gods used to be vengeful,
petty tyrants, who got cross if you didn’t
do the right thing. Now, they are disembodied
spirits of benevolence. You can see that
change happening in lots of different
societies at different times. And they haven’t
finished evolving yet. They’re going to keep changing. It’s a bit cheeky to say
that gods evolve because gods are supposed to be the opposite
of evolution, but there we are. Governments evolve. Government kind
of always started, if you go back in history,
as a protection racket. It essentially was
one strong man saying, I will have a monopoly
on violence in exchange for which I will ensure
peace among you guys, as long as you give
me all your money. And you can actually
see governments– you can see the recreation
of that happening today. For example, prison
gangs– gangs in prisons are essentially imposing
monopolies of violence within prison, saying,
we do all the violence. Nobody else can do it. And that’s a sort of– that’s
a sort of incipient government, if you like– governance
arrangements within prisons. So obviously, governments
go on to do other things. They evolve into things that
have welfare states and justice systems and economic
planning functions and all that kind of thing. But that’s how they started. Cities evolve. There’s an
extraordinary regularity about the way cities develop. As they reach a certain size,
they get certain features into them. And there are scale economies
of cities that are surprisingly regular and predictable. Now, these are all
examples of things that are the result of human
action but not of human design. That’s a phrase that comes
from a Scottish philosopher of the 18th century
called Adam Ferguson, who said that a lot of things are
the result of human action but not of human design. And it’s something
we just don’t really have a word for, you know. We know that this
object is an object of human action
and human design, whereas the clouds from
which the rain is falling are neither a result of human
action nor of human design. But there’s lots
of things, when you think about it, that are
man-made but not planned– not directed by human beings. A really good example
is the English language. The English language
is man-made, obviously. It’s ridiculous to
say that it’s not or that it’s a
natural phenomenon. But it is– but
nobody’s in charge. Nobody started it. Nobody invented it. There is no central committee. There’s no chief executive
of the English language, thank goodness. And it’s an enormously
complex thing with huge amounts
of order in it– huge amounts of rules
and structure to it– rules that we’re not even
aware of and yet we use. For example, the rule that
if you use a word frequently, it becomes very short. And if– and that
you can’t change the meanings of
short words but you can change the
meanings of long words that are infrequently
used– those kind of rules. I bet you weren’t even
aware of those rules. I wasn’t until I did
some research on this. And so we’re obeying the
rules of the English language all the time. And yet there’s no
one enforcing them. There’s no law court
to prosecute you if you don’t use the
English language correctly, at least I hope not. So that’s the kind–
now, you know, that’s obvious for
the English language. I’m trying to say that
a lot of other things, like our moral sense, like
our religious behavior, like our technology actually
are of a similar character. I go right back 2000
years to the start of this to get inspiration from a
wonderful Roman poet called Lucretius, who wrote a poem
called, “De Rerum Natura,” “On the Nature of Things” around
the time of Cicero and Caesar. He died while writing it because
it seems to be unfinished. The poem disappeared
for 14 centuries because the Christians
didn’t like it. It was rediscovered in a
German monastery in 1417. And that the wonderful
thing about that poem, which expresses the
epicurean philosophy, is that it’s tremendously modern
in the way it sees the world. And it basically
says that the world consists of atoms and voids. Nothing else. There are no spirits or
gods or special features of living creatures as
opposed to non-living things. Living things are made
from atoms and voids just like non-living things are. Well, that’s right actually. 2000 years on, we know
that he got that right. And all that you do
to make new things and to make living creatures
is recombine atoms and voids in different combinations. And so he gets very, very
close to describing evolution by natural selection
2000 years ago. And the rediscovery
of “De Rerum Natura” was a fantastically
important event. It became terribly
influential on philosophers of the Renaissance and the
Reformation, as well as the Enlightenment. From Spinoza to
Thomas Jefferson, there were a lot of people who
were huge fans of this poem. And I think– I’m sort of
saying we should understand it today and move on with it. Adam Smith, in 759, wrote a
book called “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” before he wrote
his book– his more famous book, “The Wealth of Nations,” which
expresses this bottom up view of the world really rather well. And it’s a very
subversive book because it says that morality is something
we decide among ourselves as ordinary people by
calibrating our behavior against other people’s
reactions to our behavior. So essentially, you
decide based on how people react whether killing
is right or wrong, if you like, or whether theft
is right or wrong. And so it will come to
different conclusions in different societies
and at different times. But that it’s a sort
of consensus view that emerges among people about
what’s the right thing to do and what’s the
wrong thing to do. But it’s very subversive
because, essentially, he’s saying we don’t need priests
to tell us what’s moral. Priests are just telling it–
just reflecting back to us what we’ve decided among ourselves. But the priests keep
going around saying, if we didn’t tell you
what was right or wrong, you’d have no idea. And he’s saying that’s not true. People work out among themselves
what’s right or wrong. But, of course,
Smith then went on to write “The
Wealth of Nations,” which makes the same
argument about the economy, that essentially the economy
is not run by the government. It doesn’t matter
whether someone’s in charge of deciding who
trades with who, who makes what. What counts is that
people have the chance to negotiate among
themselves and supply and demand and the
price system will produce a surprising amount
of order and sophistication and detail without anybody
being in charge of it. And he famously put
it, “the sovereign is completely discharged from
the duty in the attempting to perform, which he
must always be exposed to innumerable delusions and for
the proper performance of which no human wisdom or knowledge
could ever be sufficient, that is the duty
of superintending the industry of private
people and of directing it towards the employment
most suitable to the interests of society.” In other words, if someone
tried to tell New York today how to organize
itself, how to feed itself, you know, how to get the right
amounts of food to the right– to everybody in
New York tomorrow, we would fail
dismally, you know. It would be a right
cockup if someone was in charge of feeding New York. And yet, New York
gets fed every day. Just the right
amount of food gets to the right amount
of places every day because of spontaneous order. So I’m making quite
a direct analogy here between economics and ecology,
between the way a rain forest comes into
being and functions and between the way an economy
comes into being and functions. Each species has its
place in the rain forest. Each business has its
place in the economy of a city or a country,
but not because someone has decided and planned
that each species should be in the right place
in the rain forest or which company should be in
the right place in the economy. By the way, this idea,
trying to extend evolution to cultural and social
and economic systems, is exactly the opposite
of Social Darwinism. That phrase, which was used in
the 19th century for the idea that we should understand
evolution and interfere in human reproduction in order
to achieve progress in society. That we should
actually tell people whether they can or can’t
breed, whether they should or shouldn’t be sterilized,
and whether they should or shouldn’t live. That’s essentially the
Social Darwinist idea. Because if we don’t
do that, society will deteriorate,
whereas if we do do that, society will progress. This is the exact
opposite of that. This is saying, evolution
is not happening within cultures and societies
irrespective of what we do to the biology of people. So that the great thing is ideas
can compete and, if necessary, die so that people
don’t have to die. So this is, I think, a far
more humane view of the world. There is now a very
sophisticated theory of cultural evolution. Rob Boyd, Pete
Richerson, and Joe Henrik are the main
protagonists of this. And it’s been
modeled very closely to understand how culture
evolves and whether it evolves and under what conditions it
will show natural selection. And it turns out
that these are really quite permissive conditions. In other words, you don’t have
to have a very close analogy to genetics, to
faithful replication, and to strong selection. You can have weak selection and
not very faithful replication of ideas and cultures. And you will still get
a natural selection, leading to a constructive
spontaneous order. We tend to walk around
assuming that someone’s in charge, as I said. And when we see
something being done, we assume it’s
either being planned or it’s being messed up by
someone, whereas it might be being emerging spontaneously. And this is a
manifestation of what’s sometimes called the Great
Man Theory of history. And it goes right back to
sort of deep instincts, which are that we tend to have
the intentional stance. When a thunderstorm–
when somebody gets hit by a bolt of
lightning, there’s a little bit of us
that says, oh, yeah, he must have done
something sinful in order to deserve that. Or there must have been
purpose behind that. We find it hard to believe
that the events are random in that sense. And that, I think, leads
us to credit people with too much credit when things
go right, the person in charge, and to blame them
when things go wrong. And it– sure, it’s true that
great men can take history by the scruff of
the neck and turn it in a different direction, but
usually in a bad direction. As Lord Acton said, great
men are mostly bad men. Hitler, you know, undoubtedly
had an influence on history. Hitler was not a
bottom up phenomenon. He was a top down
phenomenon and a bad one. Now, what does this mean for
technology and innovation and the kind of
business you work in? And it’s a little subversive. I’m here to say that individual
inventors, individual geniuses probably don’t matter as
much as you think– that it’s ordinary people interacting
with each other that produce the results. To give you an
example, Thomas Edison gets the credit for
discovering the light bulb. But if you go back and
look at history closely, there are 23 different people
who deserve just as much credit for inventing the light
bulb, independently around the world
in the same decade to roughly the same idea. I mean, there’s
obviously differences. In Britain, we say
Joseph Swan deserves the credit for the light
bulb, not Thomas Edison. In Russia, they say Lodygin
deserves the credit. And we’re not wrong. These people did come up
with the idea independently. It’s just Thomas Edison was the
best businessman among them. And what that’s telling you is
that the light bulb was ripe. It was ready to be
invented at that time. It was inevitable that
in that decade someone would invent the light bulb. And the same is true of
scientific discoveries. Charles Darwin came up with
the idea of natural selection because Alfred Russel
Wallace was threatening to pip him to the
post because he’d come up with the same idea. Newton came up with calculus,
so did Leibniz at the same time. Einstein came up with
special relativity. If he had fallen under
a bus, Hendrik Lorentz would have come up with it
when within a few years. Watson and Crick
discovered the double helix in the early 1950s. If they didn’t exist
or if, as Crick once put it, if Watson had been
killed by a tennis ball, what would have happened? Well, then, undoubtedly,
someone would have discovered the
double helix of DNA probably within a year
of that discovery. So in that sense, great
scientists and inventors are dispensable. I mean, somebody needs
to do the discovery. But it doesn’t
really matter who. And we tend to give too much
credit to the person who’s there at the time. Google is surely a
good example of this. When Google came into existence
in 1994, I think around then, it was one of many
search engines that were already out there. The search engine had to
be invented around that. I mean, it was–
by the way, I think it’s one of the great
inventions of my lifetime. I use it every day. We wouldn’t use the word
Google for searching today if Google hadn’t existed. But we would certainly
know the concept. And so– and that’s
characteristic of an evolutionary
system, that it’s moving under its own steam. The technology is choosing
its inventors rather than the other way around. You can see why this is a little
bit subversive and perhaps not terribly popular
with– I wrote some of this in a “Wall Street
Journal” article the other day, and elite scientists and
inventors don’t really like this idea because it
tends to take them down a peg. And I’m not saying
that they don’t matter. And I’m not saying that
we shouldn’t be investing in discovery and invention. Of course, we should. It’s just that we
need to understand that this is a system
with its own momentum that we need to encourage
and draw out rather than try and plan and decide
what happens next. Just to ram home the point
about simultaneous discovery, Kevin Kelly documents in his
book “What Technology Wants” that we know of six different
inventors of the thermometer, three of the hypodermic
needle, four of vaccination, four of decimal fractions,
five of the electric telegraph, four of photography,
three of logarithms, five of the steamboat, and
six of the electric railroad. And even if you go back
and look at Harry Potter, it turns out there
are lots of books about wizards who use owls that
come out around the same time. It’s really weird
some of the things that happen in that sense. The internet itself is
a really good example of a thing that is the
result of human action but not of human design. Now, you may say
people were involved in the inventions that
led to the internet and the design is part of it. But actually, if
you look closely, you know, someone
was bound to come up with packet switching as an idea
and all the other technologies involved in it. If DARPA hadn’t come
up with the ARPANET, it would have emerged somewhere. It’s impossible in
the state of computing and communications of
the 1980s and 1990s that computers wouldn’t
have got connected and some form of internet
would have emerged. And if CERN hadn’t employed Tim
Berners-Lee to invent the World Wide Web, someone else
would have come up something very, very similar. Actually, the origin
of the internet really lies in lots and
lots of ordinary people doing peer-to-peer networking. That’s the crucial–
that’s the hard work that was done to put the
internet together, people who you’ve never
heard of and people who are often involved in
the sort of sharing model. It’s very much a
bottom up thing. Actually, Steven Berlin
Johnson points out that the internet is
not even bottom up because that implies
that there’s a top, which there isn’t to the internet. Nobody’s in charge of it. There is no central committee
of it, thank goodness. People keep trying to get
in charge of the internet, as I’m sure you know. But long may they stay out
of it and long may it evolve. Where’s it going
next, the internet? I think the internet is
artificial intelligence, if you like, because human
intelligence is basically a collective phenomenon. We share ideas and
collaborate on things. And I think artificial
intelligence is going to prove to be a
collective phenomenon, too. I don’t think individual robots
is where it’s coming from. I don’t know where
it’s going next. But I do have my suspicions. And by the way, you
shouldn’t take this as gospel because nobody can predict
the future at all well. The block chain looks to me
like the most interesting thing that’s coming next
because of the ability that it has to
build trust, which is crucial to economic activity,
without a third party being involved, whether
it’s government or lawyers or other
expensive people like that. Where does blocked
chain come from? Well, we give one bloke
the credit for it. He’s called Satoshi Nakamoto. But luckily, we don’t
know who he is although we have our suspicions. But actually, even when
you go back to that, it could well be that Satoshi
Nakamoto is a combination of two people or three people. And the whole idea is
gradually now emerging through the interactions of
lots of different people. So I think that’s kind of
the future of the internet. It hasn’t– if it’s
evolving as I say, then it’s hardly
started its evolution. There’s an enormous
amount of development to go in the way the internet
is going to develop and change our lives. And just to end on a
sort of funny story about a friend of mine
in the House of Lords, who’s a bit too
elderly to get involved in some of these internet
things, as he calls them. Social media, he
recognizes, I mean, he finds it just
too difficult. He says I can’t be bothered
with social media. I don’t really even
know how to use it. I don’t know what’s
this Twitter thing? What’s this Facebook thing? But he realizes it’s important. And it’s part of life so
he’s got to understand it. And he’s got to–
so he’s decided what he’s going to do is to
do in real life what people do on social media. So he goes out to
people in the street and tells them he likes
them and shows them pictures of his
cats and his wife and tells them what
he had for breakfast and that kind of thing. And he’s working. He’s got followers. He’s got two policemen and
a social worker after him. So evolution is
happening to all of us. Thank you very much. I’m happy to take questions. [APPLAUSE] MATT RIDLEY: Yeah go
to the microphone. AUDIENCE: All right. MATT RIDLEY: Thank you. AUDIENCE: One of the things
that evolution tends to produce is hierarchy. There’s hierarchy in the
sense of our nervous system. There is hierarchy in the
sense of most governments are hierarchical in some form. The internet is hierarchical
in a lot of ways. Google may have arisen from a
bunch of competing products. But now, we are– you know,
the biggest search engine is run by a large hierarchy. How does that play in
with your overall thesis? MATT RIDLEY: Well, I would
challenge you slightly and say that it doesn’t produce
as much hierarchy as we think. So, for example, when the
genome was being sequenced, there were people saying, now
what’s really interesting, we’re going to find
out the master genes. Let’s work out what
the master genes are. And that idea just faded
away as people realized there are no master genes. The genome is a completely
paralleled network thing, you know. It’s ridiculous to say one gene
is more important than another. And I would say that
the internet’s still a pretty unhierarchical place. I mean, you say
it’s got hierarchy. Is that really true? It’s true, though. I think what you’re
getting at, and you’re absolutely right, is that
when we set up organizations, we tend to make them like
armies with generals and then colonels and then majors
and that kind of thing. And that has been the
fate of most companies. It’s not absolutely essential
that we do it that way. And I have a section in the book
on a wonderful company called Morningstar Tomatoes, which is
the biggest tomato processing company in the world, based
in northern California, which is completely
without hierarchy. Totally. There is no chief executive. There’s nothing. People negotiate
with their peers their salary and their job
description when they join. And you know, you can vote
each other out of the company. It’s an extremely
successful company. There are other companies
who are looking at that and saying, how do we do that. And every time people
get interested in it and go back to their
ranch and say, look, we should really try and
emulate this company, they run up against their
existing hierarchies, which say look, we can’t
possibly do that. So I think we haven’t
yet tried very hard in the corporate sphere to build
things without hierarchies. Now, again, you might
say this is a bit rich coming from a member
of the House of Lords. And you wouldn’t be wrong. I live inside hierarchies, too. I don’t think the nervous
system has much of a hierarchy. Again, we’ve tended to think in
terms of one bit of the brain being in charge of the rest. But it’s actually a misleading
way to think about the brain. It’s very parallel. It’s very flat in that sense. So hierarchy comes from
our top down tendencies rather than from
evolution itself, which is a much more bottom
up thing– would be my answer. AUDIENCE: So since you
brought up the House of Lords, this is off-topic
but can you tell us more about just House of Lords
and interesting things that go on there. More specifically, I guess,
what I’d be interested in is to what extent
do, I mean, it’s obviously very rare
for the House of Lords to do anything to
actually stop a bill. But there has to have been some
incident where there was– does each member research
a proposed bill to stall themselves
or you get told by the Whips or the
parliamentary equivalent, it’d be like, hey,
do something here? Or is it just so quiet
that you don’t even– just to show up every
once in a while. MATT RIDLEY: No, 10
days ago, we were in the middle of a huge
constitutional crisis caused by us overreaching our
powers and turning down a government money
measure, which hasn’t happened since 1911. And you know, the
television cameras were live watching us vote. And we, the government
side, lost the vote. And that meant
that the bill died. And this– there
were a lot of people saying this is outrageous. This is flouting the will of the
elected House of the Commons. So no, as it happens,
things have just got rather exciting in the
House of Lords in recent weeks. And that’s because
the government party is very strong in the House
of Commons but very weak in the House of Lords, as for
various reasons at the moment. How does it work? It’s the Upper House of the
British Parliament, in theory. But because it’s
unelected, it’s supposed to have very, very few powers. We don’t have a
written constitution. So what we do is we work these
out in terms of conventions, in terms of habits. And it’s been agreed
for about 100 years that the House of
Lords will never really stop the Commons
passing legislation. But it will insist on amending
it in kind of sensible way. So the question is,
what’s a sensible way? So we debate every bill that
goes through Parliament. We amend them. Often, we– our job is
to scrutinize and improve legislation. That’s the theory. We tend not to vote
purely on party lines, although there is– that’s
increasingly not true. Increasingly, it is
getting party line. But there’s a
balance of power held by so-called crossbenchers,
who are nonpartisan. Most people are appointed. Some get there
because they inherit the right to stand for
a [INAUDIBLE] election to get there. It’s really weird but this
is a temporary situation. That’s how I got there. So I mean, I’m going way down
into the details of the very odd British constitution here. But we are a democracy. We’re run by the
House of Commons. That’s where 90% of the
power lies in Britain. But the House of Lords is a kind
of revising chamber attached to the House of Commons. And we’re in the
middle of a crisis about its role at the
moment so watch this space. That was rather more
than you bargained for, I think, in terms of British
constitutional history. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]
as far as I’m concerned. MATT RIDLEY: But OK, just
one thing about how we’re hierarchical, every day when
I sit in the House of Lords, I look up and there
are these statues of men in suits of armor
around the– above the– between the windows. Those are the barons who signed
Magna Carta 800 years ago this year and brought in–
and now, admittedly, they were pretty elitist
blokes themselves. But they brought in
this idea that even the king must be subject
to the law, which was a totally new idea and
a very far-reaching one, and one that had an
enormous influence on your founding fathers,
et cetera, et cetera. Sorry, enough on that. AUDIENCE: Could you
talk a little bit about patent and copyright
law in light of the idea that ideas intermingle in
order to create new ideas and that the person
who came up with it isn’t particularly important
and that maybe they shouldn’t own that idea? MATT RIDLEY: Yes,
and I’m somewhat of an anarchist on this. I think we’ve gone
much too far in terms of intellectual property rights
and intellectual protection. I think, on the
whole, it’s beginning to stifle invention rather
than encourage invention. I think, on the whole,
the whole business of giving either a Nobel
Prize or a patent to somebody tends to be a bit unfair. Because although they’ve
done a brilliant job, so has the person one link
down in the chain or one link up in the chain. And so, that said, you know,
the purpose of a patent was to persuade an inventor
to publish what he’d done so that other people could use it. That’s what the word
means, to make it patent, that what you’ve
done– not to keep it a secret. And to some extent, you do
still find that that does help. The fact that people
are publishing patents does get information
out there that would otherwise stay secret. But increasingly, outside
the pharmaceutical sector where patents do play
a very important role because of the enormous
cost of safety testing before you bring
something forward so that there needs to be a reward
for people to doing that. But outside the
pharmaceutical sector, I’m bothered by the fact
that patents are increasingly used as tollbooths,
as barriers to entry, as ways of milking revenue
from– by suing companies for trespassing on your
property rather than as ways to help innovation in itself. Patent troll is the phrase used
for companies that do that. I think it’s gone too
far in that direction. A little bit of intellectual
property protection is a good thing. Too much is a bad thing. I think, particularly
in the US, it’s slightly too far to that side. Copyright. Well, as an author, you’d
think I’d defend copyright. Actually I don’t. I think it’s ridiculous that
for 70 years after my death, you will not be able to reprint
my words without the permission of my executors, except unless
you do a very small chunk. That’s completely crazy. I mean, I quoted a couple
of lines from the song, “What a Wonderful
World” in my last book. And I discovered
I had to approach three different owners of
the copyright on that– and why it was three. And I had to pay $250 to
each of them or something. That’s mad. I mean, this song was
written in the 1920s. Everybody knows the words. Yet if you print them, you have
to pay these– so Shakespeare didn’t have copyright. People wrote down
his plays hurriedly in the back of the theater
and then published them. Didn’t stop him writing plays. I think we’ve gone
far too far to assuage Walt Disney Company on this. AUDIENCE: So it sounds like a
lot of what you’re describing is like memes, as described
by Richard Dawkins, refined by Susan Blackmore. Can you comment on if you,
like, endorse their ideas? Or are you presenting
something subtlely different? MATT RIDLEY: It is and
it isn’t the same thing. I’m a great fan of
Richard Dawkins’ work. Generally, I think
the idea of the meme was a really useful idea. I think Susan Blackmore’s
exposition of it, as you said, was brilliant actually. And she made a very
persuasive case that, actually, this
is quite a useful way of looking at the world. But it slightly predates this
Pete Richerson, Rob Boyd, and Joe Henrik model of cultural
evolution, which essentially says that the stuff that evolves
doesn’t have to be particles. It doesn’t have to
be lumps, as it were. The meme is an attempt
to say, like a gene, you know, there have to be
units of information that compete with other
units of information. It can be much more
blurred around the edges than that theory implies. It can– the object
can expand and contract and include other things. And yet, you still
get evolution in it. So I think it’s a
bit restrictive, that way of looking at it. And while I think it’s
a huge contribution, I feel it’s moved on since then. AUDIENCE: Thanks for the talk. I have a question. So as we know,
evolution is the process by which things change
to fit their environment. And the ones that best fit
the environment continue. This doesn’t always mean
that those things are better for humanity or for us. It doesn’t mean that
they’re better in any way, depending on how
you define better. As you said before,
you know, Hitler can be seen as a
top down phenomenon. But I guess, he could also
be seen as a bottom up one because he was in an environment
that did produce such a person. So my question is if,
you know– how do we reconcile our own agency to
actually change things and plan things if we’re looking at the
world from this kind of not purely naturalistic view where
everything is kind of chaotic and happening? MATT RIDLEY: Yeah, I don’t
think everything is chaotic, by the way. I think the great thing
about natural selection is it produces non-chaos
out of chaos, if you like. And you’re absolutely right. There’s a bottom up nature
to the early 20th century dictators. There’s something about
the state of technology, the state of society in
the early 20th century that encourages the emergence
of demagogue dictators, you know, Mussolini,
Hitler, Stalin, you know. There’s plenty of them,
Franco, et cetera. And I think it’s radio. I think the invention
of radio was a technology that helped
demagogue populist dictators to come to power. And if you notice Oswald
Mosley, the man who tried to become
Britain’s dictator, the one thing he really
wanted from Hitler was money to help start another
radio station, you know. So I think the role
of radio in the 1920s and ’30s is, as it were,
a bottom up phenomenon driving dictatorships. So you’re not wrong there. And yes, bad things
can evolve just as good things can
evolve– computer viruses, cybercrime, you know. There’s evolution happening
in those kind of things. But as those two
examples, computer viruses and cybercrimes,
show on the whole the good guys will win because
the good guys can do it in the light. The bad guys have to
do it in the dark. And therefore, when you’re
doing it in the light, more people can join in. More people can
contribute to it. That’s one point. And the second point is
that the selection part of natural selection,
in the case of evolution of human
institutions and culture, is us ourselves. We’re choosing whether to
adopt a new technology or not. And if something is
really bad for us, we’re not going to choose it. And if it’s really
good for us, we are. So in that sense,
there’s going to be a bias towards good
things emerging from this process rather
than bad things, I think. That’s sort of my
answer to your question. That’s where agency
comes in– human agency– because humans are the agents of
natural selection in this kind of evolutionary system. AUDIENCE: Thank you. AUDIENCE: I was wondering,
do you think it makes sense to only rely on this bottom
up efforts to improve humanity and go forward in the future? Or do you think there is a
role for some top down efforts, as well? Like, just to give an
example– the Apollo program, very sort of top down effort. We haven’t had anything
really close to it since then because there hasn’t been such a
huge government emphasis on it. And a lot of people, me
included and certainly a lot of Googlers, would
say that getting into space is obviously a very important
future goal for our species– multiple baskets and
whatever– or eggs, yeah, don’t put all your eggs in one basket,
whatever that kind of thing. So what do you think about that? MATT RIDLEY: Yes, you’re right. Of course, there’s a role
occasionally for top down. It would be wrong to ban
anyone from ever doing anything in a directed planned
or top down way. The Apollo program
is a good example. But it’s probably an
example of something that, would it have emerged anyway
without government doing it? I suspect it might. I mean, going to the moon
would have been something that ordinary people
would have come up with and got together the
finance for by now– maybe not by 1969–
among themselves. It’s true that– but why
hasn’t it lead anywhere? I mean, given that we’ve got the
technology to go to the moon, why has it not been followed up? Partly, as you say, because
government has decided it doesn’t want to
keep going to the moon. It’s got better– or different
priorities for its money. And partly, because
we haven’t figured out a use for going to the moon yet. I think that’s the really
big, big difference. I think, yeah, I mean, I’m
perfectly happy to say, yes, occasionally, we should
do top down things, and to heck with
evolution, as it were. It doesn’t matter
that evolution doesn’t want us to go to the moon. Let’s try and go there anyway. I just think that
we need to recognize that an awful lot of the time we
solve our problems by allowing the evolution of the solution
rather than the imposition of the solution. And a really nice
example for me of that is China’s one
child policy, which is a very top down solution
to a problem of population. It literally came about because
a rocket engineer called [INAUDIBLE] went to a
conference in Helsinki in 1978 on control
systems theory, and there he came across a lot
of the population movement’s concerns about
population explosion and a lot of the writing
in the West, which was talking about the need
to compulsorily control populations. And he went back and
translated that into a policy, became very powerful, and
the whole policy took off. And we now know that it
wasn’t a great success. It was probably a failure
because the population growth rate in China had fallen faster
without coercion before it was brought in than afterwards. So it was a failure in
terms of its outcome. But it was also a
failure in terms of being a very inhumane policy. So that’s an
example of something where the bottom up solution,
the demographic transition whereby as soon as people get
a bit wealthier and healthier and better educated, they
will lower their birth rate because people like to
invest in quality of children rather than quantity–
that the bottom up solution would be better than
the top down one. But you’re right. There are other examples,
like the Apollo program is a good one. AUDIENCE: Thank you. AUDIENCE: In your theory
of general evolution here, have you formulated
any views on meaning and whether any
meaning can be left if everything is just
goalless evolution toward some unknown end? MATT RIDLEY: What’s
the meaning of life? 42 is the answer, isn’t it? [LAUGHTER] MATT RIDLEY: I was a great
friend of Douglas Adams. So you know, I think a lot
of his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” The computer comes up
with the answer 42. I, personally– and this
is where it’s up to you as a person– I, personally,
have no problem with the idea that life is in the
end meaningless, you know, that I’m the
product of a natural process. I find that actually
much more magnificent that for four billion years,
living creatures have gradually changed to produce
me– silly little me. You know, none of my
ancestors died young. It’s a weird thought, isn’t it? But it’s true. Most creatures die
before they get to breed, but none of my ancestors did. None of your
ancestors did, either. Because otherwise, they
wouldn’t have bred, et cetera. You know, I think there’s
true– as Charles Darwin put it, there is grandeur
in this view of life that gives it much more
meaning than any idea that we’re here with a purpose. So I’m quite happy to
abandon purpose and still find meaning in life. That’s not, I know, the way
everyone reacts to this. One more, good. AUDIENCE: So I
haven’t read the book. But you talk about sort
of the rate of evolution perhaps being connected to the
interconnectedness of people and as well as simply just
like the number of people, and perhaps how the
internet has certainly fueled innovation in that way–
but perhaps plans on, like, expanding. For example, going to Mars
and colonizing that as a path toward accelerating our
evolution essentially. MATT RIDLEY: Well
I really enjoyed that book, “The Martian.” And I enjoyed the
movie, too, but I suspect that’s a long way
off in terms of helping our evolution as a society. I certainly think
that, I mean, I argue that the meeting
and mating of ideas is what produces innovation. And that’s why
you get innovation in places with a lot of trade
throughout history, Renaissance Italy, [INAUDIBLE] China,
Fuji and Chinese people, Gujarat in India, you know. Wherever there’s
been a lot of trade, you tend to get a
lot of innovation. Victorian England, Holland in
the Golden Age, California, today– you know, et cetera. And so places where people
can meet other people freely and invest and be free to do
what they want and then change ideas are terribly important. And we’ve just created a
virtual one of those that’s global– or very nearly global. Almost everybody
is involved in it. And that has to be accelerating
the rate of evolution because a man in
Shanghai can swap ideas with a man in San
Francisco today– or sorry, a woman in San
Francisco can swap ideas with a woman in Shanghai today
just as in a millisecond. They don’t have to
catch a– get on a ship and go and meet each
other, et cetera. And even compared
with 20 years ago, the rate at which ideas
are meeting other ideas must be accelerating. And that’s why I’m slightly
puzzled we’re not yet seeing what my friends
at Singularity University say is going to happen,
this incredible acceleration of technology. And part of the
problem is we run up against diminishing returns
in certain technologies. So transport has changed
very little in my lifetime, whereas communication
has changed enormously. Opposite in my grandparents’
time, communication changed very little in the
first half of the 20th century but transport changed
pretty dramatically. So yes, I think we are
generating possibilities. I certainly don’t
think innovation is going to slow down. And if you look at the
growth of world GDP, it’s unbelievably steady. There’s one year
since Second World War when it was negative–
2009, by less than 1%. It grew by 5% the next year. So it was back on track. It’s just like
this straight line. But actually, when
you think about it, because it’s a percentage
thing, that straight line means it’s an exponential thing. Means it’s accelerating
all the time. And you extrapolate that
to the end of this century, and the average person on the
planet will be about 15 times as rich. No, sorry, will be
about three times as rich as the average
American is today. Those are unbelievable numbers
when you think about it. And sure, there’s a
lot could go wrong. And we could hit some
brick walls along the way. But if that doesn’t
happen, the potential for what we can do with
innovation for the human race is truly amazing I
think– which might be a good moment on which
to end because we’ve got three minutes left. And anybody else want to– AUDIENCE: You have
time for one more? MATT RIDLEY: One more. Go for it. AUDIENCE: OK, so the
question of hierarchy keeps coming up as a strategy. It’s clear that you–
correct me if I’m wrong– that you
think you’re saying we overestimate hierarchy. We see hierarchies in everything
because it’s a natural tendency to do so. Evolution has selected
hierarchical behavior as a strategy because it’s
successful, especially in social animals. MATT RIDLEY: Yes. AUDIENCE: So– MATT RIDLEY: Alpha males
in primates, particularly, yep, yep. AUDIENCE: Just as an
organizing principle so that you can mobilize
resources and actually accomplish things. So I’m curious to hear your, you
know– where you see actually these hierarchies being useful
as opposed to being encumbering things, like, for example,
they did make efforts to sort of standardize language
so that we can actually speak a common language,
even though that might have been a natural
process that it came from. There seems to be these
two forces of top down, us trying to organize
things, and then bottom up, things kind of happening. So my question is, how do you
kind of reconcile the two? MATT RIDLEY: Is there anything
top down about language? I’m– AUDIENCE: Sure, yeah, I mean,
there are opposing forces in language, right. There’s the natural linguistic
laws that shape language but then there are groups of
people coming together, saying, like, we’re all going to agree
to call this a chair and not a fafafa, you know, whatever. Because you guys over there call
it one way, we call it another. We have to agree– we agree
implicitly but also explicitly through, like, standardization
of how to call things. MATT RIDLEY: That’s
still pretty bottom up. That’s still ordinary people
kind of voting among themselves rather than any
hierarchical body. Now, it’s true
the French set out to standardize French
language and to extinguish non French speakers
within their territory, you know– force them, as it
were, to switch to French, as it were. And they still
have this committee that tries to decide
whether you’re allowed to stay “le weekend” or not. But it doesn’t get very far. And look at Esperanto,
that’s a top down attempt to create a language–
didn’t get very far. So I would challenge
you that there is really anything very top down
or hierarchical about language. AUDIENCE: Couldn’t it be both? Because it doesn’t have to be
the government or a large body. It could be a group of people
getting together and agreeing, though, saying that this is– MATT RIDLEY: Is that
really happening? I mean, when did
this meeting happen? AUDIENCE: Internet
standards, for example. You know, the
internet wouldn’t work if we didn’t all get together
and agree on certain ways that things were going to
communicate with each other. And that had to happen with
the organized group of people saying, like, this
is now– we’re going to agree on the truth. And this is going to go forward. MATT RIDLEY: Yeah, but I
would argue that even that– and correct me if
I’m wrong here– was some group of programmers
sort of putting out their standard and
either being rejected by the community at
large or accepted by the community at large–
much more than– I mean, ICANN, is it called? The Internet Committee for the– AUDIENCE: Assigned
Names and Numbers. MATT RIDLEY: Assigned Names
and Numbers, thank you. It likes to kind of
pretend it’s in charge, but I’m not sure it really is. In other words, I’m
sort of slightly saying to you that
I think you’re still falling for a top
down view, which isn’t correct of these things. But yes, standards
do have to emerge. There’s no question about that. But I think that the internet
standards have emerged rather than being imposed. AUDIENCE: Well, yeah. MATT RIDLEY: Correct
me if I’m wrong. AUDIENCE: We could say that
all top down systems have emerged because of
bottom up things, right. Like, governments have come– MATT RIDLEY: Yeah,
the one child policy. AUDIENCE: Because there’s
the ones that actually, like, survive, right. MATT RIDLEY: Yeah. AUDIENCE: Some
governments make it. Some don’t. Some systems make it. Some don’t. So my question is
kind of how do we, like, can we reconcile
these two views and say, like, well,
sometimes, hierarchies are useful if we
choose them wisely. MATT RIDLEY: Yeah, of course,
and you’re absolutely right. And you know, I’m not
suggesting we sack the president tomorrow– although you do
do that in next November, don’t you, and
appoint a new one. But I am suggesting we just
err a little too much or quite a lot too much in the
direction of thinking hierarchy is needed
when it’s not. AUDIENCE: Yeah. MATT RIDLEY: You
know, and it probably wouldn’t be much fun trying to
fight a war with an army which voted on whether to attack. [LAUGHTER] MATT RIDLEY: But then, I don’t
think we should be fighting wars, so that’s– that’s
a way out of that one. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. MATT RIDLEY: Oh, is it? AUDIENCE: Yeah. MATT RIDLEY: Well, they were
quite good at it, weren’t they? AUDIENCE: Yeah. [INAUDIBLE] MATT RIDLEY: All right. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. MATT RIDLEY: Yes, yes. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. MATT RIDLEY: Right. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. MATT RIDLEY: Right. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. [LAUGHTER] MATT RIDLEY: Yes. I like this, the way
this conversation has gone into some
interesting directions. Thank you all very much. Was one o’clock the time
I was suppose to finish? I don’t know, but anyway. [APPLAUSE]

19 Comments

  1. Robin Smallenbroek says:

    Sounds to me like prototyping. If you combine that with multiple intelligences it could explain that 'trials/ prototyping gives you a chance to experience an idea in a different way but it are individuals that create. Create from a urge originated in from interconnected energie. We always try to come to the center of that energie by meditating, sporting, searching for conflict, make love..

  2. Brandon Fouts says:

    corruption? Even playing field? justice? fairness?
    So far most everything in the sphere of life eventually go extinct. Some think humans causing the sixth round of great extinctions. So what could go wrong? So if we leave it to the psychopathic leaders – what do you really think will happen? Just look at how governments are doing now With technology we have the most productive of times.

    Who will win? Ordinary people or our elites? I don't know, but I'll try to make things better and I don't like what our corporate leaders are doing nor our political class and now even the cops and courts corruptions are getting out of control.

  3. Peter Joseph says:

    Yes. Appolo program would definitely emerge without the government doing it. LMAF

  4. Doodle Books says:

    Wizard + Owl = Harry Potter

  5. Dharmendra Rai says:

    wow ! this guy is SO wrong to such a great degree that it is a wonder he s alive

  6. h0ll0wm9n says:

    As necessary, Nature can opt for quorum (leaderless) type species/lifeforms (bees, ants). Bees don't really have a leader; decisions are made via "quorums.

  7. It's Matt says:

    I read and totally agree with the perspective in "The Rational Optimist" but I have no patience with dogma. Especially the dogma of the theory of evolution.
    Please, sir, if you would advance the cause of science, don't ever, ever again mention or even think about defending evolution or bashing ID or creationism. All three activities are political and dogmatic reactions, not science. Which ever theory is true will reveal itself in due time and the truth will stand all attacks all on it's very own, thank you very much. It doesn't need the pathetic attempts of a man to argue for it. What all three of these theories are sorely lacking (especially T.T.O.E.) is concrete support, not wishful thinking and speculation tied to speculation.

  8. Mike Watkins Jr says:

    Not a big science guy but I enjoyed the book, some of the ideas I embraced and some I didn't agree with however a great book introduces you to new things in amazing ways and this book did just that.

  9. Talents, young artists, music charts says:

    So why is there an evolution process at all (atoms -> stars -> planets -> life -> intelligence -> etc) ? Who/what designed the concept of a self-governing process so that it could exist at all ? Multiverse…. (an infinite amount of separate universes), so who designed the concept of that, if they exist ? Mankind is an extension of a natural intelligence which formed in an initial immaterial environment in the universe, and then transformed itself to the initial physical building blocks of the universe, with a vision/plan to create physical life. That's the reason why we can reflect on why we exist, there's no evolutionary reason to be able to do that without creating a mental purpose for our existence. Which isn't there if we are randomly/accidentally created, randomly created objects have no purpose, like the objects created in a car crash. If we were purely randomly created we would have "robot brains", mathematically/ logically intelligent but not capable of deeper existential thoughts. Restricted In the same way that we for example can not come to terms with why something exists at all, instead of nothing.
    .
    And he says that ideas form and then the best ones succeed, that science is "free" to decide in that sense with a pure sanity. It is not free, both politics (deciding what to spend money on) and traditional religion have a lot of influence over it. Example, windmills and solar panels will get dysfunctional / destroyed in the next ice age, there's no real future with these low level energy sources. And there's no reason to believe, with just a "free market of ideas" that someone would spend lots of money on technology to deflect/destroy medium sized asteroids. Which we now know must be done, otherwise we'll just follow the animal pattern, go extinct with a survival length of about 0.003 of the time the sun shines (the average for mammal species).

  10. BillyBob Bazooka says:

    Bad ideas emerge more successful than good ones. See Brexit

  11. TheVancouverJatt says:

    great talk, he is very wise

  12. Blair Macdonald says:

    45:00 I think the Apollo programme, while being Gov't lead, it was B U: it was very competitive, emergent, it evolved. May be the USSR were more T D.

  13. S L Filho says:

    33:28 HAHAH 'Can you tell more about the House of Lords?'

  14. Brandon Nelson says:

    unfortunately, some of these comments walk back some of ridley's optimism….

  15. gbiota1 says:

    I like Ridley, but I'm one of those folks who is skeptical of overly positive outlooks. This notion that progress is inevitable, because there were 20 some odd people who were poised to invent the lightbulb at the same time seems like it could be misguided. Just about everything Elon Musk has done looks like it could have been done decades earlier, yet it simply wasn't. I think Ridley may be describing some interesting phenomena that we are not widely aware of here, where the object we identify as progress is really more derivative than we think, but it seems he may be rushing to a much more hopeful conclusion than can be drawn as of yet with the evidence at hand.

  16. Arno says:

    His explanation for the eye at 5 mins… should turn everyone into a creationist because of the viciously flagrant way he says "…it was designed.. blah blah blah… for no reason… " complete absurdity

  17. guharup says:

    excellent questions btw

  18. This Person says:

    God Damn !
    33:17 is perhaps the best question I have ever seen.

  19. TheLeon1032 says:

    the subject matter at around 22.35 i think can be linked quite nicely on to morphic resonance theory by rupert sheldrake, what an interesting phenomena, "we think the same things at the same time" well to some degree when the subset of rules allows.

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