Matt Ridley: The promiscuity of things and ideas

On the evening of Wednesday, 19 May, 2010, author Matt Ridley gave an hour-long talk on his new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. He spoke at the New York Academy of Sciences, at its headquarters at the newly constructed 7 World Trade Center, which provides stunning views of Manhattan and, as Ridley pointed out at the start of his talk, represents the resilience and ingenuity he believes to be typical of human beings, and which informs his optimism about our future. The event was a part of the “Science in the City” series. About 100 people were in attendance, and the event was filmed for C-SPAN’s Book TV. Ridley is an engaging speaker, eminently clear, speaking at a measured pace in simple but elegant language, humor simmering just below the surface, coming up at just the right moments. He’s excited about his work, and he makes the audience excited about it too. He exhibited model form as a speaker, outlining his talk at the start, and sticking to his plan throughout. Its Book TV presentation is highly recommended; consult the Book TV or NYAS site for schedule information. Science in the City frequently makes podcasts or video footage of its events available on its site as well.

My aim here is to give readers rapid access to the central claims and arguments of the talk. Note that everything I say here is drawn from the talk rather than the book, although it’s reasonable to believe that the aim of his talk is to convey the book’s main ideas. I stay away from evaluating his claims, which I intend to do in a later post. Here I just want to give readers a clear sense of what Ridley is up to.

1 “Things are getting better and people are getting nicer”

Ridley’s central claim—his rational optimism—splits into to two: the conditions under which people live are getting better, and so are people themselves. “Things are getting better, and people are getting nicer.” His argument for this consists of a raft of statistics intended to measure quality of life and civility in society.

  • Life expectancy: up.
  • A statistic termed “World Product:” up.
  • Poverty: down.
  • “World growth:” up.
  • Air pollution: down.
  • Oil spills: down, the current Gulf fiasco notwithstanding.
  • US water-related illness, TB: down.
  • US deaths from cancer, cardiac disease, AIDS: down. Interestingly, suicide remains constant.
  • Homicide rate: down, since 1300.
  • Deaths in war: down, proportionately, i.e., as a proportion of the population, the number of people dying in wars has decreased, relative to deaths in war among our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
  • Inequality between rich and poor countries: down, using the “Gini coefficient.”

As the list above might suggest by reference to our hunter-gatherer period, the year 1300, and AIDS deaths, the set of statistics adduced by Ridley does not cover a single period of time or locale. Some apply to the United States only; others apply to the human species as a whole, throughout its entire history or periods lasting tens or hundreds of thousands of years. Ridley documented the source of each statistic in his slide presentation, indeed exhibiting mastery over them, explaining subtleties of each measure and producing from memory still more supporting statistics and references to their sources.

2 What took everyone so long?

The period in human history beginning 120,000 years ago bears special significance for Ridley: with trade, he believes, the human species began the felicitous trends Ridley believes we are seeing at present. This is the point at which people began to trade with one another, that is, the point in our history at which groups of people began to exchange goods with one another. Ridley conveys his sense of the importance of this event in his lively presentation of the evidence for this. Neanderthal tools are generally found quite close to the location at which they were fashioned; but starting at the milestone 120,000 years ago in human history, tools could be found widely distributed across the range of otherwise separated groups of humans. There is a kind of “networking effect:” one group, adjacent to one another, trades with the latter; subsequently, each groups trades tools it acquired from the other with new groups, not adjacent to those from which the tools came.

Ridley points to an intriguing paradox. Early humans and our relatives, the Neanderthals, he claims, had many of the same characteristics we now have that are often identified as the central differences between humans and the rest of the organic world. These include bipedalism, tool use, use of fire, imagination and spirituality, and language. Neanderthal culture apparently did not advance at all for the entire life span of the species, despite having all the traits just listed; and our species persisted for a long time without any advance that might be identified as an improvement in the quality of life. Only the development of trade occurs late enough in the history of our species to explain our meteoric rise to what Ridley calls “ecological dominance” and the increasingly rapid pace of advance within our species.

3 The benefits of trade

Ridley believes that David Ricardo’sLaw of Comparative Advantage” explains why trade is so important. Consider the following situation.

  • Person A can make a thing x at a cost of 10, and a thing y at a cost of 20. A needs 5 y’s.
  • Person B can make x’s at a cost of 20 and y’s at a cost of 10, and needs 5 x’s.

According to the “law,” rather than produce the needed items themselves, A and B will produce the items they don’t need, and will trade to get those they do need. For example, if A were to make 5 y’s, it would cost 100. In contrast, if A were to make 5 x’s and trade them with B for the 5 y’s, the total cost to A would be 50. The situation is exactly parallel for B. By trading, each can have more needs met at a lower cost.

In addition to being more efficient, trade, if understood in terms of the “law,” accelerates the rate at which efficiency increases. If A shifts effort to making more x’s, which A is good at doing to begin with, A will become better at making them. A’s ability to produce y’s will suffer, but A can get y’s from B, who is in the same situation. The relative amount of energy expended by each person to produce x’s and y’s will go down, so that they each get just as many as before, but have some left over to trade with others for other things. Trade encourages specialization.

Specialization and the increases in efficiency it brings are at the heart of Ridley’s explanation of human progress. He points to the example of a computer mouse: no one, he claims, knows how to make one. No one person can drill for the oil needed to make the mouse; design and print the circuit boards it requires; and design it so it fits comfortably in a human hand. Indeed no one person can do any of these smaller tasks required to make the mouse, each of which requires many, many people to accomplish. If each person applies his or her talents to a small part of the mouse manufacturing process while at the same time taking advantage of others doing so at other stages of the processes by which our needs for food, clothing, entertainment, and the like are met, the lives of all will be far richer than they would otherwise be. To demonstrate that this is happening at present in our species, Ridley calls forth another impressive array of statistics. He argues that, for instance, the amount of land required to produce a given quantity of grain has decreased enormously over time, and will continue to do so. “In general, we’ll do more with less.”

4 The promiscuity of things and ideas

Ridley employs a variety of explanatory techniques to make his point clear. Trade promotes “sex among ideas.” Just as sexual reproduction can promote a species’ longevity by mixing genes to make novel traits and improve existing ones, the admixture of artifacts and specialist knowledge resulting from trade promotes progress. The image of a “collective brain,” a phrase which Ridley uses frequently, suggests the way in which a collective of specialists can do far more than a single individual. Particularly nowadays, our species has at its disposal access to the knowledge of many thousands of people, operating real-time, in parallel. Moreover, we have the benefit of “vertical transfer”—the cross-generational transmission of expertise, called more commonly by the humble name “teaching.” A third vivid image invoked by Ridley is embodied in the phrase “everyone is working for everyone else.” This slogan compactly expresses the idea that, even though each person is working for his or her own ends, in doing so, he or she provides for someone else’s needs, and is in exactly the same situation as the beneficiary of others’ work “for” him- or her-self.

There is an interesting and, I think, significant parallel between the idea that everyone is working for everyone else and the notion of the extended phenotype. The extended phenotype, described by Richard Dawkins in his book of that name, is a phenomenon of the interaction of organisms in natural selection. An extended phenotype is a trait of one organism which has developed in response to the trait of another so that the fitness of the latter is increased. The most vivid example of this is the individual allele. On the one hand, one might think of an animal as carrying the allele, and view the survival of the allele as contingent on what the organism does independently of that allele. On the other hand, to adapt a phrase of Dawkins’, “an animal is an allele’s way of making more alleles.” By a process of natural selection for the allele’s effects on the organism, the organism has come to have certain traits, in addition to those due to the allele itself. The animal itself is an extended phenotype of the allele. This principle may be extended from one organism to another. Natural selection operates against parasites that kill their hosts, and for those that adapt to life in their hosts with minimal disruption of the host’s way of life. The host is viewed, from the perspective of the extended phenotype, as a phenotype of the parasite: the parasite species molds the host species in a way most favorable to it (the parasite).

Ridley’s idea that everyone is working for everyone else fits nicely with the idea of the extended phenotype. One person is good at making clothes; this skill is an extended phenotype of the person who wears the clothes, who wants to create conditions most favorable for obtaining the desired items at the lowest cost. This person does this by “working for” the tailor by performing some other task of value to the latter.

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