No One Plans Our World—and That’s a Good Thing

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“If there is one dominant myth about the world…it is that we all go around assuming the world is much more of a planned place than it is.”—Matt Ridley, The Evolution of Everything

For those fascinated by the cosmic gears that guide us forward, and for those who question how central humans are in the story of unfolding of change, a new(ish) book by Matt Ridley, The Evolution of Everything, offers a convincing narrative for just how far our planning brains are from being master and commander of the fast-paced world in which we now live.

Ridley’s book applies the evolution-centric framing of progress that fans of Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants will recognize, with sixteen chapters—each representing a new field to which one can apply his theory. The book is a dream read for aspiring polymaths, with far-ranging topics that span the evolution of the universe, morality, technology, the economy, government, religion, and a remarkably up-to-the-minute summary of the Internet (Blockchain fans rejoice!).

Human society isn’t planned by the human brain, Ridley argues, but is instead the result of emergent, bottom-up, and ultimately unpredictable forces of evolution. It’s a convincing narrative that aims to dispel the arrogance associated with humankind’s craving for—and belief in—our having control.

no-one-planned-our-world-4The book’s central argument is best summed up in a casually used quote Ridley offers from 20th-century philosopher Alain, who says that a bad boat design will result in that boat’s sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

Alain points out, “One could then say, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boat.”

Boat designs evolved over time from those who experimented with putting things in the water to see what could float and then copying and improving the best designs (that is, the ones that didn’t sink). These designs didn’t come formed inside anyone’s mind, ready for building. It’s our tendency to ascribe a clever boat schematic to those working on the designs of our boats but humans didn’t design boats—the water did.

This ethos is one of progress by trial and error in pursuit of a goal rather than top-down control. In biological evolution the goal is survival given environmental constraints; in boats, it’s not sinking, given the dynamics of water. The goal and constraints define the shape of progress and result in better designs.

It’s a mind-set now being adopted more widely within business innovation circles, as seen by the success of experimentation-based methodologies such as the lean startup approach. As Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, first proposed, businesses can radically transform their likelihood of success by reducing central planning and adapting a product to the needs of the customer in an iterative way over time. The customer’s needs become the core designer in building better products.

It’s also this intuitive understanding of trial and error that allows kindergarten students to consistently outperform the planning-minded brains of recent MBA graduates on the popular marshmallow challenge. Kindergarteners instinctively prototype towards an outcome rather than overthink and plan.

The sculpting prowess of evolution is now being used to build even our most advanced technologies as well. With recent advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, computer science is moving beyond the deliberately designed world of engineering to one where computers self-code to do things such as drive cars, recognize where a picture was taken, and solve centuries-old biology problems.

no-one-planned-our-world-31Machine learning is a way for programmers to assign a task to a piece of software, define what success looks like, and then sit back and wait for the code to teach itself through experimentation.

So what does this mean for us—a species who some argue reached our much vaunted place atop the animal kingdom through an ability to imagine outcomes and execute accordingly? It’s likely more nuanced than Ridley’s binary approach of central-planning is bad/bottom-up is good.

Though Ridley demonstrates a self-awareness for the one-sidedness of his arguments, they do push too far at times. Everything from World War I to the 2008 financial crisis is blamed on top-down problems.

Others, however, have convincingly argued that these two events were the ultimate of bottom-up disasters (for example, this amazing podcast by Dan Carlin profiles the calamity of unexpected horrors that plunged the world into the First World War). The book also ignores that top-notch central planning has resulted in good business strategy and, at times, good policy. For example, Apple, who do understand customer-focused design principles better than anyone, has succeeded through making their iOS environment a notoriously closed-source place. And as distinguished Singularity University faculty David Roberts often points out, the coordinated efforts by our world governments have addressed the depletion of the ozone layer with great success.

Things occur from a blending of top-down and bottom-up, and they aren’t always good or bad in the way that Ridley suggests.

The larger point of Ridley’s book is spot-on, however. Humans tend to reason that things are the result of coordinated efforts from people we assume are smarter and more qualified than we are. For Ridley, we better become a more bottom-up-based society—and fast. He thinks central planning is bad policy, bad for business, and bad for the citizens of the world.

The world does face a growing list of challenges, and Ridley’s magic pill is counterintuitive—namely that humanity ought to get out of its own overcontrolling way. Ridley’s practical guide might best be embodied by Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s do-less mentality for learning to surf. And that mentality may be too much to stomach for a control-thirsty species like ours.

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Aaron Frank
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Aaron Frank

Aaron is a writer and speaker at Singularity University and serves as Principal Faculty. His articles have appeared online in Wired UK and Vice’s Motherboard.
Aaron Frank
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Discussion — 11 Responses

  • Mark Plus March 24, 2016 on 10:04 am

    If the world faced a foreseeable existential threat, say, an asteroid impact, central planning to divert that asteroid would look like an excellent idea after all.

    • Sine Arrow Mark Plus March 25, 2016 on 5:25 pm

      Not really. Planning consumes time. Enforcement of a plan through social hierarchy consumes more time. Justifying the continual existence of such a hierarchy to wait for an asteroid encounter consumes yet more time.

      A better way to do the job is to promote sufficient freedom in exploiting asteroids that the equipment needed is already being manufactured for search, prospecting and mining purposes, and installed in useful places at the tops of strategic gravity wells, such as Earth/Moon Libration point #1, or the Earth/Sun Trojan points. Then, when a threatening asteroid is detected, the delta-vee needed to rendezvous with it and affect a change in its orbit is minimal compared to launching from the Earth.

      Sufficient freedom *today* is a far faster way to meet the challenges to industrial society that will come along in the future. It has the advantage that we need not divert funding to create new hierarchies. It has the disadvantage that getting to the top of a hierarchy, and getting the testosterone high from that, is one of humanity’s favorite pastimes. Freedom of action for others in a market network just doesn’t give us the testosterone jag that “being on top” does.

  • rtryon March 24, 2016 on 11:55 am

    As chief designer of a very successful effort to combine emerging print and computer technology with emphasis on dealing with 250 products in six main groups with10,000 individual orders per week (40% repeat and 20% with minor modifications on average one a year from 300,000 customers; I did most of the top-down 2 a.m. design; but always refined ideas with constant bottom-up feed back from the 600 that made it all happen. That is why as President, I was mostly out of office with a portable 1970s vintage belt phone to take my own calls and keep the information flowing.

    Aaron Frank is right and that is the way God wanted it to see what would happen! Who would want to invent a universe without chaotic change to see nothing but all the same? But, do not forget, Charles Darwin discovered Evolution, but God invented it to escape an ever expanding task to maintain the ever expanding need for maintenance in a changing environment! I have no fear of saying that God did not wish to make ever expanding work for God! Isn’t creating new enough?

    Those who think they can manage the Sun, the Earth’s speed of rotation,its somewhat unpredictable elliptical path around the Sun need to recruit a committee to go visit the Sun to negotiate a means of controlling these variables that do cause climate change and always have.

  • horseshoe7 March 24, 2016 on 2:26 pm

    “Those who think they can manage the Sun, the Earth’s speed of rotation,its somewhat unpredictable elliptical path around the Sun need to recruit a committee to go visit the Sun to negotiate a means of controlling these variables that do cause climate change and always have.”

    EXACTLY – or more simply and quickly, cut their own tax-thieving carbon footprints to zero immediately (find a nice high out-of-the-way bridge), and belay all the whining, lying, justifying and taxing those who actually contribute to LEGALLY produce useful products.

  • Michael Gullion March 25, 2016 on 1:06 am

    No one plans our world? Then what are we doing running around, stressed out, trying to get things done? This is just a thinly veiled argument for antisocialism. What makes us distinctly human is our ability to create an ideal mental representation for analysis and use that to change our environment to suit us. Language sets us apart from other species to the point where it becomes inaccurate to refer to us as animals, because in a very real sense, we predate our births via linguistic programming. We have memories that stretch back thousands of years because of writing. Natural selection determines our bodies, but words determine our minds, and that is who we are. That’s why creationism retains a kernel of truth. We are spoken into existence with intentionality, the work of countless people who took time to create us, who can easily be conceptualized as a general creative force or “parent” of us all, since what they installed in us did not originate with them but is more like a disembodied process continually repeating. It is beyond me why so many scientifically minded people are desperate for the nihilism of reducing a human being to the status of an animal, all of which are permanently bound to their habitats with no possibility of transmitting a growing body of knowledge to subsequent generations. We are unique. “Children of God” is much closer to the facts on the ground in underscoring that difference. God is not a space alien. It is a poetic way of conceptualizing the human condition, and it has everything to do with agency, creativity, planning and control. I doubt if mythology were not doing something incredibly important it would exist in every human society.

  • Sine Arrow March 25, 2016 on 8:21 am

    ” This is just a thinly veiled argument for antisocialism.”

    OK, …Let’s rip away the veil, …this is why so many who have experience in the highly productive worldwide networks of industrial society have always thought socialism was at best an academic crock! It is also notable that planning usually is enforced through hierarchies, while intercommunicating networks are usually the most productive way to organize the production of the wealth the keeps 6 of the 7 billion humans on this planet alive.

    “What makes us distinctly human is our ability to create an ideal mental representation for analysis and use that to change our environment to suit us ”

    And yet we find more and more species with tool-using ability to change their environment, and even culture, from prides of South African Lions to Japanese monkey troops.

    “Language sets us apart from other species to the point where it becomes inaccurate to refer to us as animals, …”

    I must regard this statement about Homo Sapiens Sapiens, a species of large obstreperously violent primates, as academic fixation on what academics use most often being the defining traits that make us human. It makes as much sense as my grandfather’s belief that all “real” humans’ had ancestors that came from North of the Alps, East of the Pyrenees, and West of the Vistula.

    “Natural selection determines our bodies, but words determine our minds, and that is who we are.”

    That contradicts, for instance, the differences between autistics like myself, and neurotypicals. No matter how much amelioration through words and experience a child has available, an autistic having 10 percent or less of the axons that go from the thalamic system at the base of the brain to the cerebral cortex will mean that the person’s social nimbleness will be lower. This is because, as we have known for over 50 years, social communication is done vastly more by emotional cues than by intellectual words. Evolution determined that, since humans needed to be sociable *long* before we ever got smart. So, without that bandwidth from the thalamic system to the cerebral cortex, autistics *will* react slower to those cues, no matter how much in words they are given to use.

  • Tober March 25, 2016 on 1:08 pm

    FINALLY SOLVED: BECOMING HUMAN / INTELLIGENCE / AI. NEW COMPREHENSIVE THEORY STARTS FROM THE END by establishing the working theory of functioning of the human brain-IQ. That is the only way to solve this puzzle and here is the only picture/story that makes sense. The human evolution ( 7 million years, 30 hominins ) must perform / accomplish the evolution of intelligence (to the achievement C+IQ / collective intelligence with ability the speak ), but I have found only “the evolution of emotions”. These three processes intersect at one point – baby / human infant that is incapable for independent survival for many years. That is not an evolutionary mistake, on the contrary, that is the key element of my research. By observing it’s mother’s behavior, a process called MSP /multi self-projection passively occurs in baby’s brain when child perceives guardians body as his own. MSP may be the most easily understood as a feeling similar to that of the apparent movement which we have when we are in a train that stands while we are looking through the window at another train that is moving. That way infant’s CNS immediately learns the shortest way to get something done, which enables the creation of many more similar thinking processes till the moment when a minimal number of thinking processes (Adam’s number) are required in order to effect of self-consciousness arise. To connect all that I have mentioned with a huge number of scientific data (Denisovans, Homo naledi, Scientific Adam, Mitochondrial Eve, autism, speech, pleasure in the presence of fire, dreams…) required membership in the Mensa organization… The biggest picture (the framework) for all scientific data (even A.I. because start, origin of original, in making SAI/AGI/HAL 9000 is crucial / what has been missing) is FEST theory.

  • Bourjoi March 26, 2016 on 3:55 pm

    Maybe, maybe not. Some believe they do. As long as they keep believing it, all that’s been evolving for million years, humanity included is doomed. As for technology it looks more like a form of uncontrolled cancer. ;-))

    • Sine Arrow Bourjoi March 30, 2016 on 7:39 pm

      “As for technology it looks more like a form of uncontrolled cancer.”


      We have gone from using wood as our primary energy and material source, chopping out whole forests and devastating the land, while polluting our lungs with whatever didn’t make it out the smoke hole in the top of the hut, to using up coal that is no longer a living contributor to the ecosystem, to using oil, that has less impact than coal, to using natural gas, that has even less pollution than either of them, all while forests have been regenerating and the 30º desert belts of the Earth have been re-greening. That is not cancerous, but is treating the destructive coarseness with which humans acted before the industrial revolution, and begun ameliorating it.

  • Quantium March 27, 2016 on 2:40 am

    The world is “planned” by the people in it. It is a network of neural networks.


    It was the unspooling of an unfortunate series of events involving artificial intelligence, human nature, and a very public experiment. Amid this dangerous combination of forces, determining exactly what went wrong is near-impossible. But the bottom line is simple: Microsoft has awful lot of egg on its face after unleashing an online chat bot that Twitter users coaxed into regurgitating some seriously offensive language, including pointedly racist and sexist remarks.

    I would comment that isn’t that exactly what people do when they concentrate children in play groups and schools? The children can be regarded as empty learning neural nets,, and they interact with each other and pick up behaviours and habits that mature into adulthood. Unfortunately we observe that the school environment, at present and in the past, has tended to favour, encourage or nurture bad behaviour. Maybe there needs to be some social engineering amongst social science people to introduce educational methods that circumvent this. Are not wars just an extension of playground violence?

    It is my theory that children are desperate for attention, subconsciously in order to acquire more knowledge about the world in which they find themselves. Bad behaviour, such as using non PC language or talking about non PC subjects, gets attention.

    This subconscious drive to get attention is so strong that even draconian punishments for bad behaviour will not overcome it. "Six of the best" in the head teacher's study was no more effective than is long periods of imprisonment or even hangings in the adult world. The present day news media just encourage negative behaviour by, for example, giving far more attention to atrocities by abusers of the world's main religions than positive stories such as advances in science and engineering.

  • horseshoe7 March 29, 2016 on 8:09 pm

    The more times I read this article, the more I realize it actually makes some decent points… I ordered THE EVOLUTION OF EVERYTHING today.