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26 November 2015

In an age where history is neatly divided, two new books take a longer view

The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley and Human Race by Ian Mortimer have, to put it gently, an abundance of ambition.

By Mark Damazer

Historians often take evasive action when confronted by well-meaning members of the public who believe that if you call yourself a historian you must know about the bit of the past they are interested in – if not all of it, at least some of it. But most academic history is now sliced and diced in ways that limit the scope of what can be reasonably researched, taught and learned. So you can, if you choose, leave most universities as a history student without having any idea at all about the medieval world or what happened, ever, on most continents.

Here, however, we have two studies of the past (and present and future, too) setting inhibition aside and aiming rather wider, with grandiloquent titles that suggest, to put it gently, an abundance of ambition.

Matt Ridley, the Times columnist and author of bestselling books on science, ranges across the planet, and from the beginning of time, throwing off ideas about every
conceivable discipline: biology and genetics as you would expect, but also morality, economics, philosophy, culture, technology and more. Ian Mortimer is almost timid by comparison. His focus is on the West and for a mere thousand years. Whereas Ridley sets out to explain everything, Mortimer’s task is only to judge which century out of the past ten brought the most change.

Ridley’s book is much the more readable, provocative and infuriating. He wants us to understand that Darwin’s theory of natural selection applies to all human activity. The world, in every particular, changes because of endless trial and error and innumerable small steps: it is self-organising. Nobody is in charge and nobody is responsible – certainly not God (there isn’t one), nor kings, popes,
politicians and officials. He deplores our need for “skyhooks” (a phrase he attributes to the philosopher Daniel Dennett): the notion that somebody or something is responsible for designing and planning outcomes. For instance, nobody is in charge of English or invented it, but it has rules that make sense, and can develop without a management structure ordaining changes.

Obviously, Ridley knows that many other writers have attacked the notion that individuals have a significant role in changing the course of the world. And he is not the first to suggest we are too keen to dramatise change – rather than giving credit to “cumulative complexity” or the recombination of existing ideas: the multiple and widely dispersed actions that lead to, say, the invention of a pencil. He draws a number of challenging conclusions. We should be sceptical about awarding Nobel Prizes or patents; no single person should claim intellectual property rights for what are collective, “bottom-up” achievements.

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Ridley’s relegation of individual agency in history does not stop him from telling us about his heroes, some predictable – Darwin, Mendel, Hume, Locke – and some not. His favourite is Lucretius, the 1st-century BC Roman philosopher and poet whom he loves for his eclecticism, hatred of superstition, love of pleasure and view of nature, “ceaselessly experimenting”.

When Ridley is on his central territory (physics, animal behaviour, Darwin’s science, genomes and the like) he is very interesting. Here he considers the relationship between genes and culture: “It is wrong to assume that complex cognition is what makes human beings uniquely capable of cumulative cultural evolution. Rather it is the other way around. Cultural evolution drove the changes in cognition that are embedded in our genes.” The relationship between culture and biology is contested but he argues his corner – that biology can and does respond to culture – with much erudition. Yet in his pursuit of an overarching evolutionary theory for every activity there are arguments and whole chapters that lurch out of control. Ridley the clever scientist becomes Ridley the political champion of a very much smaller state, Ridley the cheery optimist  about anthropogenic global warming, Ridley the libertarian. He makes a point, takes out an ideological hammer and smashes his own argument to pieces.

So, summarising Steven Pinker’s theories in The Better Angels of Our Nature about the long-term decline of violence, he asks us to see capitalism as the crucial beneficial cause of tranquillity. Ridley asserts that the ten most prosperous countries in the world are all firmly capitalist and the ten least clearly not. This is a glib assertion of cause and effect and somehow overlooks the United States, the most obvious emblem for capitalism, with its extraordinary gun culture and homicide rate. The US does not feature in either list but he does not appear to notice.

He dislikes state provision of most things, and chooses to contrast the fall in the price of clothes and food over the past fifty years with the big rise in state expenditure on health and education – which leads to a hopelessly airy summary of the state’s performance: “The quality of both [health and education] is the subject of frequent lament and complaint. Costs keep going up, quality not so much, and innovation is sluggish.” We read nothing here about, say, the rise in life expectancy; but by this point Ridley is in full-on polemical mode. He notes North Korea’s dismal productivity, frequent shortages, scandalous lapses in quality, rationing by queue and by privilege, and continues: “These are exactly the features that have
dominated Britain’s health-care debate over the past few years.” This is no longer interestingly mischievous, but silly and shrill.

Ridley was chairman of Northern Rock in 2007 when it went belly-up. The only problem, apparently, was too much pressure from the US government to lend to inappropriate borrowers. He is not the first to assert that; yet the passage reeks of complacency and self-interest. He is a fan of Bitcoin, or at least of breaking the state’s monopoly of printing money. The iconoclasm, though fun at times, becomes exhausting.

Mortimer’s approach is largely more conservative. He goes through each of his ten centuries and gives compressed accounts of the main events: the 14th-century Black Death (“by far the most traumatic event that humanity has ever experienced”), the 16th-century Scientific Revolution, the 17th-century wars of religion, the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century and much else. He also explores some rich themes, particularly the importance of population growth, climate change, transport, food production and literacy. He makes a spirited attempt at the end of each chapter to choose someone he labels “the principal agent of change”, an approach that Ridley would deplore. Winners of this accolade are two popes, an English monarch, three philosophers, a religious revolutionary, a scientist, an explorer and Hitler. It’s harmless fun.

After a largely conventional, chronological account, he ends up using Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to decide which century brought the biggest transformation of human experience in the West. The question is more a parlour game than an academic historical conundrum.

Both Ridley and Mortimer end with “the future”. They point in different directions; Ridley is sunnily optimistic (everything not only evolves but in a vaguely progressive way, too) and Mortimer gloomy, worrying about our fuel reserves and a consequent decline of individual freedom. Like most futurology, though, there is not much rigour in these books, so don’t take it seriously.

Mark Damazer is the Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, and a former controller of BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 18 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror