michael_shermer's picture
Publisher, Skeptic magazine; Monthly Columnist, Scientific American; Presidential Fellow, Chapman University; Author, Heavens on Earth
Think Bottom Up, Not Top Down

One of the most general shorthand abstractions that if adopted would improve the cognitive toolkit of humanity is to think bottom up, not top down. Almost everything important that happens in both nature and in society happens from the bottom up, not the top down. Water is a bottom up, self-organized emergent property of hydrogen and oxygen. Life is a bottom up, self-organized emergent property of organic molecules that coalesced into protein chains through nothing more than the input of energy into the system of Earth's early environment. The complex eukaryotic cells of which we are made are themselves the product of much simpler prokaryotic cells that merged together from the bottom up in a process of symbiosis that happens naturally when genomes are merged between two organisms. Evolution itself is a bottom up process of organisms just trying to make a living and get their genes into the next generation; out of that simple process emerges the diverse array of complex life we see today.

Analogously, an economy is a self-organized bottom up emergent process of people just trying to make a living and get their genes into the next generation, and out of that simple process emerges the diverse array of products and services available to us today. Likewise, democracy is a bottom up emergent political system specifically designed to displace top down kingdoms, theocracies, and dictatorships. Economic and political systems are the result of human action, not human design.

Most people, however, see the world from the top down instead of the bottom up. The reason is that our brains evolved to find design in the world, and our experience with designed objects is that they have a designer (us) who we consider to be intelligent. So most people intuitively sense that anything in nature that looks designed must be so from the top down, not the bottom up. Bottom up reasoning is counter intuitive. This is why so many people believe that life was designed from the top down, and why so many think that economies must be designed and that countries should be ruled from the top down.

One way to get people to adopt the bottom up shorthand abstraction as a cognitive tool is to find examples that we know evolved from the bottom up and were not designed from the top down. Language is an example. No one designed English to look and sound like it does today (in which teenagers use the word "like" every sentence). From Chaucer's time forward our language has evolved from the bottom up by native speakers adopting their own nuanced styles to fit their unique lives and cultures. Likewise, the history of knowledge production has been one long trajectory from top down to bottom up. From ancient priests and medieval scholars to academic professors and university publishers, the democratization of knowledge has struggled alongside the democratization of societies to free itself from the bondage of top down control. Compare the magisterial multi-volume encyclopedias of centuries past that held sway as the final authority for reliable knowledge, now displaced by individual encyclopedists employing wiki tools and making everyone their own expert.

Which is why the Internet is the ultimate bottom up self-organized emergent property of millions of computer users exchanging data across servers, and although there are some top-down controls involved—just as there are some in mostly bottom-up economic and political systems—the strength of digital freedom derives from the fact that no one is in charge. For the past 500 years humanity has gradually but ineluctably transitioned from top down to bottom up systems, for the simple reason that both information and people want to be free.