In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley, the New York Times-bestselling author of Genome and The Red Queen, makes the case for an economics of hope, arguing that the benefits of commerce, technology, innovation, and change—what Ridley calls cultural evolution—will inevitably increase human prosperity
For culture to turn cumulative, ideas needed to meet and mate
Sex is what makes biological evolution cumulative, because it brings together the genes of different individuals. A mutation that occurs in one creature can therefore join forces with a mutation that occurs in another.
The analogy is most explicit in bacteria, which trade genes without replicating at the same time –hence their ability to acquire immunity to antibiotics from other species. If microbes had not begun swapping genes a few billion years ago, and animals had not continued doing so through sex, all the genes that make eyes could never have got together in one animal; nor the genes to make legs or nerves or brains. Each mutation would have remained isolated in its own lineage, unable to discover the joys of synergy. Think, in cartoon terms, of one fish evolving a nascent lung, another nascent limbs and neither getting out on land.
Evolution can happen without sex; but it is far, far slower. And so it is with culture. If culture consisted simply of learning habits from others, it would soon stagnate. For culture to turn cumulative, ideas needed to meet and mate. The ‘cross-fertilisation of ideas’ is a cliché, but one with unintentional fecundity. ‘To create is to recombine’ said the molecular biologist François Jacob.
Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution
Imagine if the man who invented the railway and the man who invented the locomotive could never meet or speak to each other, even through third parties. Paper and the printing press, the internet and the mobile phone, coal and turbines, copper and tin, the wheel and steel, software and hardware. I shall argue that there was a point in human prehistory when big-brained, cultural, learning people for the first time began to exchange things with each other, and that once they started doing so, culture suddenly became cumulative, and the great headlong experiment of human economic ‘progress’ began. Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution.
By exchanging, human beings discovered ‘the division of labour’, the specialisation of efforts and talents for mutual gain. It would at first have seemed an insignificant thing, missed by passing primatologists had they driven their time machines to the moment when it was just starting. It would have seemed much less interesting than the ecology, hierarchy and superstitions of the species. But some ape-men had begun exchanging food or tools with others in such a way that both partners to the exchange were better off, and both were becoming more specialised. Specialisation encouraged innovation, because it encouraged the investment of time in a tool-making tool. That saved time, and prosperity is simply time saved, which is proportional to the division of labour. The more human beings diversified as consumers and specialised as producers, and the more they then exchanged, the better off they have been, are and will be. And the good news is that there is no inevitable end to this process. The more people are drawn into the global division of labour, the more people can specialise and exchange, the wealthier we will all be.
Rational optimism holds that the world will pull out of the current crisis because of the way that markets in goods, services and ideas allow human beings to exchange and specialise honestly for the betterment of all.