… is from page 146 of Richard Dawkins’s astonishingly and extraordinarily excellent 1987 book, The Blind Watchmaker:
The odds against assembling a well-designed body that flies as well as a swift, or swims as well as a dolphin, or sees as well as a falcon in a single blow of luck – single-step selection – are stupendously greater than the number of atoms in the universe, let alone the number of planets. No, it is certain that we are going to need a hefty measure of cumulative selection in our explanations of life.
In this passage, Dawkins explains that long periods of time, filled with countless genetic variations ‘competing’ for survival against the elements and against other animals and plants, are necessary to ‘create’ creatures such as swifts, dolphins, and falcons (and snails and whales and rats and redwood trees and humans….). But the logic applies also to human institutions, such as the law and the economy.
The society and economy that we inhabit today were not ‘created’ by any designer or by any committee of genius central planners. Nor were society and economy ‘created’ by chance. They emerged spontaneously, the unfathomably complex and mostly spontaneous results of gazillions of individual feedback-infused choices and actions by hundreds of millions, or perhaps now billions, of people each pursuing his or her own ends and each with access only to a teeny-tiny slice of all of the information and knowledge that is necessary to fuel the whole.
This lesson – so obvious to many people when it comes to geology and biology – is no less true for society.
The Blind Watchmaker is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read, by the way – as I noted in this post from 2005. (Were I to update this 2005 list today, Deirdre McCloskey’s 2010 Bourgeois Dignity would be on it. I exercise the privilege of rank here at the Cafe by not struggling now to say which book McCloskey’s would displace. The reader can be certain, however, that the displaced book would be neither The Blind Watchmaker nor Law, Legislation, and Liberty.) The Blind Watchmaker ranks, in my mind, up there with volume 1 of Hayek’s Law, Legislation, and Liberty. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the messages of the two books are surprisingly similar to each other.