The Evolution Of Everything by Matt Ridley is a book I really, really wanted to recommend. It deals with a vital topic: the importance of “bottom-up” thinking as opposed to “top-down” thinking, which relies on what people sometimes humorously call “sky hooks”. It promised to be a very capable treatment of such a topic; and for much of the book, Ridley fulfills that promise quite admirably –before things go horribly off track.
I first heard the term sky hook at age 19 when I worked briefly in a hardware store. As a hazing stunt against new employees, it was the custom for another employee to call the department where the newbie was working and, pretending to be a customer, ask about the availability of sky hooks (“in a brass or bronze finish”, my co-worker Joe specified when he called me). Never having heard the expression before, I assumed it was just a colorful term for some kind of hardware I was unfamiliar with; I did not assume that it was an item that bolted directly into the sky — which was indeed the idea. (After placing Joe on hold and figuring out I was being had, I picked the phone back up and said, “Sorry, sir, we have no brass or bronze — only raspberry.”)
The term sky hook originated among pilots in the early Twentieth Century as a tongue-in-cheek reference to some imaginary hook in the sky that held planes up and enabled them to maneuver under difficult circumstances. Metaphorically, then, it came to mean any theoretical concept that “held up” other concepts. (Subsequently, the label has been applied to other ideas, and even to real mechanical devices.) Or more broadly, any unsupported presumption that becomes the basis of policy or dogma. For example, the belief in a flat earth could be deemed a sky hook; from it was suspended the perception of how the entire cosmos looked and operated, and false notions about the limits of navigation. This is an example of top-down thinking; and it’s a good illustration of why it’s so counterproductive. (Still, top-down thinking has its uses in some circumstances; many people, for instance, who become very successful in their chosen field begin with a dream of where they want to end up and then figure out how to get there.)
The ultimate sky hook, of course, is God. Throughout the history of the human race, there has been a universal tendency to posit the existence of a supreme being or beings who control the universe. From this sky hook, other sky hooks have been suspended — creationism, for example — as well as many taboos, rules, customs and beliefs (many of which have been quite harmful). A sky hook, in other words, is a premise that people presume to be true in order to validate other things that they desire to believe — thus performing top-down thinking.
Human beings want to feel on the one hand that they are in charge of their destiny, and on the other hand that they are not responsible for bad things that happen. Religion fulfills both of these potentially contradictory urges: you can work miracles and achieve immortality if you are one of the faithful few, but along the way you may have to endure the trials and tribulations put in your path by the same God and/or by the forces of darkness.
In contrast to the arrogance of top-down thinking, which presumes to know the absolute truths and tries to make the world conform to them, bottom-up thinking begins with humble ignorance, and tries to build knowledge from the ground up through observation, experimentation and reason. In other words, it is the scientific approach — although really geometry might be the best example of pure bottom-up thinking.
Top-down thinking is exemplified by Moses. Bottom-up thinking is exemplified by Socrates. One might argue that in the cradle days of humanity, the former was necessary for unity and direction, since the latter had severe limits, given the knowledge and tools then available. But nobody has presented a compelling argument that top-down thinking as a social dynamic is still necessary today.
One analogy for bottom-up thinking is building a house: you start with the foundation and build up until you reach the attic, rather than vice versa. In reply to which someone insists that building a house, on the contrary, is a top-down procedure, since you begin with a plan rather than just launching into it willy-nilly. But that’s jumbling up the metaphor, confusing construction and architecture. True, houses are almost always constructed from a plan; but the actual act of building it still proceeds from the bottom up. Furthermore, architecture itself is a bottom-up undertaking: designing a house entails careful consideration, trial and error, corrections and adjustments, and incorporating the knowledge and skill accumulated by past architects — the foundation they have laid, if you will. Architecture might be considered a top-down discipline if some emperor decreed that all houses should follow a certain strict format. But the construction would still commence on the ground.
Top-down thinking includes religious fundamentalism, patriarchy and strict gender roles, theocracy, militarism, nationalism, capital punishment, castes and class systems, slavery, and monarchies and dictatorships. Bottom-up thinking includes secularism, mysticism, skepticism, egalitarianism, globalism, social justice, and various forms of democracy. By comparing these lists, you may notice a troubling pattern: while the progress of civilization has depended on bottom-up thinking, specific cultures and societies have almost invariably been dominated by top-down thinking.
Few things illustrate this better than the clash between science and religion — or more specifically, religious fundamentalism. Actually, “clash” is not quite the appropriate word; it’s mostly been just a one-sided smackdown. During the development of Europe and the Americas, religious dogma was awarded ultimate authority over the affairs of mankind, retarding progress by perhaps several centuries. Science was regarded as a servant of the church, and it was considered the duty of science to corroborate, by whatever means necessary, church doctrine. And that conflict is by no means limited to antiquity; it was only a century ago that a school teacher in Tennessee was placed on trial for teaching scientific fact that diverged from religious dogma. And even today religionists have enjoyed a considerable amount of success in having creationism hitch a ride on the coattails of science.
Matt Ridley clearly gets all of this, as substantiated in the following marvelous passage from the book:
It is a fair bet that the 21st Century… will experience mostly invisible progress of good things — change will bring us improvements that will make the lives of our grandchildren wealthier, healthier, happier, cleverer, cleaner, kinder, freer, more peaceful and more equal; almost entirely as a serendipitous by-product of cultural evolution. But the people with grand plans will cause pain and suffering along the way.
This is the central thesis of the book as a whole, and Ridley builds a rather solid case for it. (Bear in mind that “cultural evolution” sometimes needs to be nudged along by proactive endeavors.) So what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that he builds that case mostly during the first part of the book; and about halfway through, he abruptly shifts gears and goes off on wild and inept tangents. It’s as if the publisher somehow mistakenly grafted the first part of a good book onto the second half of an incompetent high school term paper.
One gathers from these ramblings that Ridley has some misguided contempt for what is so often sneeringly labeled “political correctness”. But his most embarrassing blunder is promoting, at some length, the myth that fascism is of liberal origin. He even cites Jonah Goldberg of the National Review as an authority on the matter — which is rather like citing Homer Simpson as an authority on bakery goods. All of which is enough to make the reader seriously question his competence to discuss his chosen topic, or indeed any other.
Still, you may find the book worth tackling if only for the first part. Just be warned that there is a huge jolt coming when it veers off the rails and into Fantasyland. You’ll know when it happens. And chances are, you’ll realize that the book has served its useful purpose, and the time has come to cast it aside.
For a more consistently readable, more detailed and more entertaining account of how civilization was constructed from the ground up, see Ryan North’s How to Invent Everything: a Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler. North takes you step-by-step through the evolution of just about every technology imaginable (“technology” encompassing a broad range of inventions, from language to computers) in such terms as you could duplicate the invention yourself, much more quickly than humanity did in the past. In fact, one of the more sobering messages of North’s book is that it took an inexcusably long time for the human race to come up with some of its inventions — in some cases ignoring for centuries potential innovations that were right in front of people’s noses. Perhaps it’s because they were too preoccupied with looking for sky hooks.