Thursday, August 26, 2010

Matt Ridley is the Rational Optimist

Matt Ridley published a book earlier this year called, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. There's some good ammo in here for those futurists who are regularly accused of having too many starry eyed visions of what tomorrow holds—and for those who simply believe that the human condition is steadily improving.

Throughout history, says Ridley, the engine of human progress has been the meeting and mating of ideas to make new ideas. It's not important how clever individuals are, he argues, what really matters is how smart the collective brain is.

As an aside, and not that this is his particular argument, the notion of the 'collective brain' being superior to the super-enhanced human or artificial brain is an idea that's starting to gain some currency in futurist circles. Some argue that base intelligence doesn't matter. Rather, it's the collectivity of ideas that gives human civilization its power. I'm not quite sold on this premise, but it's certainly worth considering; I certainly recognize the realization that we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

Promo blurbage:
Life is getting better—and at an accelerating rate. Food availability, income, and life span are up; disease, child mortality, and violence are down — all across the globe. Though the world is far from perfect, necessities and luxuries alike are getting cheaper; population growth is slowing; Africa is following Asia out of poverty; the Internet, the mobile phone, and container shipping are enriching people’s lives as never before. The pessimists who dominate public discourse insist that we will soon reach a turning point and things will start to get worse. But they have been saying this for two hundred years.

Yet Matt Ridley does more than describe how things are getting better. He explains why. Prosperity comes from everybody working for everybody else. The habit of exchange and specialization—which started more than 100,000 years ago—has created a collective brain that sets human living standards on a rising trend. The mutual dependence, trust, and sharing that result are causes for hope, not despair.

This bold book covers the entire sweep of human history, from the Stone Age to the Internet, from the stagnation of the Ming empire to the invention of the steam engine, from the population explosion to the likely consequences of climate change. It ends with a confident assertion that thanks to the ceaseless capacity of the human race for innovative change, and despite inevitable disasters along the way, the twenty-first century will see both human prosperity and natural biodiversity enhanced. Acute, refreshing, and revelatory, The Rational Optimist will change your way of thinking about the world for the better.
The WSJ recently published an excerpt from his prologue:
To argue that human nature has not changed, but human culture has, does not mean rejecting evolution – quite the reverse. Humanity is experiencing an extraordinary burst of evolutionary change, driven by good old-fashioned Darwinian natural selection. But it is selection among ideas, not among genes. The habitat in which these ideas reside consists of human brains. This notion has been trying to surface in the social sciences for a long time. The French sociologist Gabriel Tarde wrote in 1888: 'We may call it social evolution when an invention quietly spreads through imitation.' The Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek wrote in the 1960s that in social evolution the decisive factor is 'selection by imitation of successful institutions and habits'. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 coined the term 'meme' for a unit of cultural imitation. The economist Richard Nelson in the 1980s proposed that whole economies evolve by natural selection.

This is what I mean when I talk of cultural evolution: at some point before 100,000 years ago culture itself began to evolve in a way that it never did in any other species – that is, to replicate, mutate, compete, select and accumulate – somewhat as genes had been doing for billions of years. Just like natural selection cumulatively building an eye bit by bit, so cultural evolution in human beings could cumulatively build a culture or a camera. Chimpanzees may teach each other how to spear bushbabies with sharpened sticks, and killer whales may teach each other how to snatch sea lions off beaches, but only human beings have the cumulative culture that goes into the design of a loaf of bread or a concerto.

Yes, but why? Why us and not killer whales? To say that people have cultural evolution is neither very original nor very helpful. Imitation and learning are not themselves enough, however richly and ingeniously they are practised, to explain why human beings began changing in this unique way. Something else is necessary; something that human beings have and killer whales do not. The answer, I believe, is that at some point in human history, ideas began to meet and mate, to have sex with each other.
Continue reading.

Ridley's recent TED talk:

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