The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

My blog post is the title of a new book by Matt Ridley. His book has been getting a lot of attention, with high-profile reviews and with a cover article, by him, in the Wall Street Journal’s “Weekend Journal” on Saturday/Sunday May 22-23, 2010, titled “Humans: Why They Triumphed.”

The artwork accompanying the article shows a large light bulb, composed of hundreds of smaller light bulbs, reinforcing Ridley’s key message: innovation and human advancement comes from lots of small ideas, coming together. This is a rather old idea in 2010, with books on this topic extending back at least to Jim Surowiecki’s 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds and with a more recent flurry of books on how the Internet catalyzes “collective intelligence,” such as Linked (Barabasi), Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (Tapscott and Williams), The Starfish and the Spider (Brafman and Beckstrom), and my own book Group Genius. In Group Genius, my central message is that all innovation emerges from a long series of “small sparks” and that the belief in a blinding “flash of genius” is largely a myth.

So, what’s new with Ridley’s book that warrants so much media attention? My copy is still on order, but based on the extensive reviews I’ve read, and on his own WSJ piece, the new portion is Ridley’s emphasis on archeology and the fossil record, to support his claim that human advancement always happens where trade brings together more ideas from more people. (That reminds me of another recent similar book, The Medici Effect, where Johansson calls it “the intersection”.) Ridley argues that the key innovation in history was trade, and when humans started trading about 45,000 years ago, history and cultural change suddenly accelerated.  He rejects previous explanations of this sudden burst that appeal to individual-focused explanations, like a sudden genetic mutation that resulted in greater individual creativity, and argues that individuals didn’t change at all–what changed was social organization.

I agree completely, but that idea isn’t really new either. It’s long been a fundamental tenet of economics that trade makes everyone better off and accelerates innovation.

Ridley’s catchphrase seems to be “ideas having sex,” based on a good analogy with how the evolution of sex resulted in much more adaptive species, because it allowed the exchange of genetic material. But again, that’s not really a new idea; the analogy of human innovation with evolution goes back at least to a famous 1960 article by Donald Campbell.

So in the absence of apparently new discoveries or material, I’m left to conclude that the reason Ridley’s book is getting so much attention must be because it’s very well written, entertaining to read, and does a compelling job of bringing together existing ideas in a new package. And of course, I like the fact that his message is completely consistent with my own research! The book is certainly on my reading list.

3 thoughts on “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

  1. If Ridley’s very good book is on your reading list, you might wish to add my own book, THE CASE FOR RATIONAL OPTIMISM (Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 2009), which makes quite similar points and arguments, but develops the case for optimism over a rather broader range of subject areas. See http://www.fsrcoin.com/k.htm

  2. As a fan of your book and Ridley’s I find that in an increasingly competitive AND connected world one’s capacity to collaborate, especially with extremely different individuals around the sweet spot of mutual benefit is the surest way to innovate and attract support for that innovation along the way

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