Review: “The Evolution of Everything”

The thesis of this book is right. Spot on, in fact. Ridley incorporates Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things as a grounding aesthetic to discuss The Evolution of Everything — and that was a solid move. This book needed a bit of poetry. It was so (almost too) dense on historical accounting. It felt like he was practically bragging at times (“look how smart I am”). Nevertheless, after The Rational Optimist, The Red Queen, and Genome, Ridley’s earned that right. And this book is, in essence, the work of an intellectual celebrating the cerebral conquest of “everything.” It’s truly, however, in all seriousness, a great achievement for the history of science. And a terrific followup to The Rational Optimist.

Ridley shows how all systems operate through bottom-up phenomena rather than top-down control. Each chapter is a new subject, from language to money to the Internet and everything in between. At first you feel he’s rushing through subjects, connecting ideas and datum based on confirmation biases to prove his points. Once you get used to the format, which takes a few chapters, you begin to appreciate what he’s done.

Harping on the same chord throughout The Evolution of Everything, Ridley has a primal point he’s trying to elucidate, and he echoes it repeatedly in every way he can: there are patterns in nature, across time, which we can understand and gain insights from to better structure our own systems.

The chapter on religion was particularly interesting. He’s also bullish on a digital currency (me too). I find his prose and personality very British (not saying that’s a bad thing). He’ll eventually give a talk at TED or the RSA where he sums up everything in <20 minutes — so for the less prose inclined I’d recommend checking that out. Nevertheless, it’s fun to geek out on this stuff.