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Evolution by Means of Death

Matt Ridley has a review in the Wall Street Journal of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. The book is among other things a deconstruction of a certain kind of “entrenched, top-down theorizing,” theory as an abstraction that carries the danger of blinding us to what’s really going on in front of our eyes. Real knowledge and discovery, argues Taleb, comes from trial and error, the willingness to let some eggs get broken — perhaps, the more eggs the better. There are economic implications to this way of thinking, but also, says Ridley, medical and biological ones.

Discovery is a trial and error process, what the French molecular biologist Fran�ois Jacob called bricolage. From the textile machinery of the industrial revolution to the discovery of many pharmaceutical drugs, it was tinkering and evolutionary serendipity we have to thank, not design from first principles. Mr. Taleb systematically demolishes what he cheekily calls the “Soviet-Harvard” notion that birds fly because we lecture them how to — that is to say, that theories of how society works are necessary for society to work. Planning is inherently biased toward delay, complication and inflexibility, which is why companies falter when they get big enough to employ planners. [emphasis added]

Processes that advance through what Joseph Schumpeter described as “creative destruction” are what Taleb calls “anti-fragile.” Ridley gives the example of evolution:

Biological evolution, too, is anti-fragile. The death of unfit individuals is what causes a species to adapt and improve.

Evolution advances by means of death (as opposed to the survival of the “fit”)? That’s a dark spin on Darwinian theory that I didn’t expect to come across in the Wall Street Journal.
Ridley should go back and look again at what he just got through saying about creativity as a process of “tinkering” and “evolutionary serendipity,” rather than “design from first principles.” His juxtaposition of evolution against design is surely not by chance — Ridely is an ID critic.
It’s interesting that design by “tinkering,” “trial and error,” an oblique path of exploration of countless creative possibilities — rather than instantaneous, top-down, once-and-for-all materialization of a design plan, as in creationism — is exactly the picture of biological history that ID theorists hold out. To say that such evolution seems also to be guided by teleological considerations, a goal or goals, doesn’t mean the source of the design did not take its or his time, perhaps savoring the process in a leisurely fashion as many human artists have been known to do.
It’s Darwinism, of course, that attempts to impose a preconceived idea — “entrenched, top-down theorizing” if ever there was such a thing — on the shifting phenomena of life’s history, a rigid interpretation conceived from 19th-century materialism that still blinds folks like Matt Ridley today.