Ridley, Matt, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Harper Collins, New York, 2010. 438 pp.
Matt Ridley is a well-known British science writer who, in recent years, has specialized in writing books for the general public on new research in biology … evolutionary biology, genomics, plus a biography of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA.
For well over a decade I’ve enjoyed his books and been very impressed with the quality of his writing, so “on spec” I put a library hold on Ridley’s latest without paying much attention to what it was about. That decision turned out to be a wonderful piece of serendipity. I’ve been reading about European “trading republics” (ancient and modern) for a few years, and trying to assemble an amateur theory about how economic dynamism and technological innovation follow, or are reinforced by, republican values. Whether Athens, Rome, Venice, Genoa, Antwerp, Amsterdam, London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Boston, or New York and Montreal, trade under republican regimes creates massive relative wealth and huge leaps in human knowledge and standards of living.
Now Matt Ridley looks at the innate human capacity for “exchange” … and how that unique capacity affected the course of prehistory, the introduction of agriculture and “civilization,” and more latterly, the shape of the industrial revolution and the modern world. Underlying the politics of republicanism, and individual freedom, we can see the human appetite for exchange creates persistent economic advantage. Trade flows from comparative advantage, in the words of David Ricardo, and comparative advantage relentlessly rewards more specialized use of the natural environment … from the labor of humans carrying sea shells inland for trade 80,000 years ago, to the labor of domesticated horse and sheep and dogs largely for human benefit, to the use of vast quantities of ancient vegetable matter (in the form of petrochemicals), to extend the efforts of humans out of all proportion. Our species is most prosperous when most specialized, when most dependent on the differentiated talents of thousands of others. We now can live lives like the Sun King, without a retinue of thousands.
In this book I have tried to build on both Adam Smith and Charles Darwin: to interpret human society as the product of a long history of what the philosopher Dan Dennett calls ‘bubble-up’ evolution through natural selection among cultural rather than genetic variations, and as an emergent order generated by an invisible hand of individual transactions, not the product of a top-down determinism. I have tried to show that, just as sex made biological evolution cumulative, so exchange made cultural evolution cumulative and intelligence collective, and that there is therefore an inexorable tide in the affairs of men and women discernible beneath the chaos of their actions. A flood tide, not an ebb tide. p. 350