Matt Ridley – Beyond The Rational
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[Matt Ridley – Beyond The Rational]
[Matthew White Ridley (7 February 1958)] Source: LYBIO.net
Well, I want to do something very irrational today. I want to talk about optimism. It is not actually irrational to be an optimist, but it is so unfashionable that it sometimes feels that it is. And the grounds for my optimism are a series of propositions about human beings and human society that are so counterintuitive that they, too, almost seem irrational. Just about nobody believes them actually when you ask them. In, essence, I’m going to argue that human society is a kind of Indian rope trick, that it is a perpetual motion machine and, yet, it is real. But let me tell you, first, why I’m an optimist.
As Jim O’Neill reminded us this morning, this is not a terrible time to be a human being, not for most of the world. It is in Europe. But for the rest of the world, this has been a fantastic decade, a fantastic five years. I’m not just talking about Asia, and I’m not even talking just about Latin America. How about Africa with 5% annual economic growth in recent years? More than it’s achieved in the decades before that. As we’ve heard, meeting
he millennium development goals on poverty ahead of target. Did you know child mortality fell by 5.9% in one year in Africa, in the whole of Africa
recently? That’s unprecedented. That’s almost an incredible rate of fall of one of the greatest measure of human misery. Did you know that global malaria mortality is 26% lower than it was 10 years ago? Did you know that India has just had its first year without ever a single polio case? The global inequality is plummeting. That’s because poor countries are getting rich faster than rich countries are getting rich. There is an evening-up going on. The recession has helped dramatically in that respect. Did you know that the number of people killed by droughts, floods and storms was 93% lower in the first decade of this century than it was in the 1920s? The number of people, not just the probability of being killed, the number.
That the past decade was one — was the one with the fewest deaths in warfare since records began? Didn’t feel like that here in the west because of Afghanistan and Iraq, but it was true globally. Did you know that it takes an American on the average wage less than half a second to earn the light to read a book by for an hour? Whereas, it took his grandmother, say, about eight seconds in 1950. That’s how long you had to work on the average wage to earn that much light from an incandescent bulb in 1950. And back in 1800s, the ancestor of that person would had to have worked for six hours to
earn that much light from a candle at the then-average wage.
The incredible, almost irrational thing about human beings is that in a period when population has doubled, roughly my lifetime, global average life span has increased by 30%. Income, real income, corrected for inflation, globally has increased by 200%. And child mortality has fallen by 70%. Irrationally, we now know that the way to stop population growing is to stop babies dying because then people plan smaller families. Irrationally, we now know that richer countries have fewer environmental problems than poorer countries, for example. Forest cover is increasing in rich countries and decreasing in poor countries. These are some of the reasons I’m an optist about the future, not in Voltaire’s sense of the word “optimist.” In those days, an optimist was someone who thought this world was perfect and it couldn’t get better. That’s what pessimists believe nowadays, environmental pessimists in particular. I’m an optimist in the sense that I think this world, as great as it is it for many people, is still a veil of tears compared to what it could be in the future. Okay. But how is all this possible? What is this thing called prosperity that we somehow seem to be able to achieve, at least partly? Well, when two people exchange goods or services, they can both be better off. That’s what I mean by the Indian rope trick. plus two plus two equals five. Synergy, emergence, call it what you will.
Counterintuitively we have become more prosperous as we have moved away from self-sufficiency. The more we work for each other, the better off we are. The more we rely on our own efforts, the poorer we are. That’s why we call it subsistence. “Self-sufficiency” is indeed another word for “poverty.” The story of human prosperity is that through the magic of exchange, we get more and more specialized as producers, more and more narrow in our work so that we can become more and more diversified in our consumption.
On my desk at home sit two objects, which are exactly the same size and shape. One is a Acheulean hand axe from half a million years ago of the kind used by homo erectus. The other is a computer mouse from a half-decade ago. They are identical in size and shape because they are both designed to fit the human hand.
But one was homemade, the axe. The other was made for me. And that’s, in a sense, the secret of human progress. Because compared with homo erectus, I am well off because I have thousands — nay, millions of servants. They club together to make me that mouse. There was a coffee grower in Brazil whose coffee was being drunk oil rig hand in Mexico whose oil was being turned into plastic in America whose plastic was molded into a mouse in Korea which was marketed here in Britain. They were all part of my support team, my staff, my backup crew.
[Matthew Ridley] Source: LYBIO.net
And yet do you know what? Not only did none of them know they were working for me. Not one of them knows how to make a computer mouse. Because there’s nobody on the planet who knows how to make a computer mouse. Quite literally. The knowledge is not in any individual’s head, because the man who knows how to drill the oil well doesn’t know how to refine it into plastic. And the man who runs the computer mouse company, all he knows is how to run a company. He doesn’t know how to make a computer mouse, and so on. That’s the incredible, peculiar, almost irrational thing about the modern world. It achieves things that nobody actually knows how to do. It’s run by collective, not individual intelligence. It’s run, of course, by the cloud. [ Laughter ]
And interestingly, that’s why arguments about IQ, for example, and race are irrelevant. Because a hundred stupid people who know how to collaborate are going to achieve far more than a hundred clever people who don’t. And of course that’s why central planning doesn’t work because you try and substitute individual intelligence for collective intelligence. All this magic is made possible by a unique human habit: spontaneous, eager, and diverse exchange. Swapping one object for another object. And despite Laurie’s wonderful experiments, we know that this simply doesn’t happen spontaneously in other species. And this leads to a counterintuitive, almost irrational conclusion, which is that exchange is also the source of innovation; that exchange is playing the same role in technology and economics that sex is playing in biology, because as a former evolutionary biologist, I can assure you that it’s sex that is key to biological innovation, because what sex does is it enables two genes to come together and to recombine to meet and to mate. And technology depends upon ideas meeting and mating in the same way that biology depends on genes meeting and mating.
My favorite example of this is something called the pill camera which you swallow and it takes a picture of your insides on the way through. It came about after a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided missile designer. Because when you exchange, you can get ideas not just from your local environment, but also from anywhere in your species, effectively. You can draw upon an invention that happened a long way away or a long time ago. That mouse contains ideas that happened to people who are long dead, and ideas that happened thousands of miles from where I live. No other animal achieved this. Not even the neandrethals, who had bigger brains than us and were extremely intelligent creatures. Probably had language, we now think. But they weren’t capable of coping with us Africans when we appeared out of Africa and displaced them from Europe because they only ever used local materials. We know that from the — whereas we were drawing upon materials from far away. If you cut people off from exchange networks, from trade, not only does their rate of innovation slow down; it can actually go into reverse. When Tasmania became an island 10,000 years ago it’s technology not only stopped advancing — for example, it never got the boomerang that was invented after that date in Australia, it actually went backwards. It actually dropped a number of technologies because the population was too small to sustain the specialization needed to keep such skills alive. Pacific fishing tackle before western contact depended, the more sophisticated it was, on the islands with the most trading contact.
[Matthew Ridley] Source: LYBIO.net
We have been crowdsourcing our solutions for a hundred thousand years. And it follows that the key ingredient for the innovation that brings rising living standards is the habit of widespread exchange. And we just made the exchange of ideas a whole lot faster thanks to the Internet. The search engine, in my view, is going to prove, in retrospect, to have been a significant invention as the steam engine. The Internet accelerates the rate at which ideas are having sex, and that’s very good news. [ Laughter ] [ Applause ]
Matt Ridley – Beyond The Rational. That’s the incredible, peculiar, almost irrational thing about the modern world. It achieves things that nobody actually knows how to do. Complete Full Transcript, Dialogue, Remarks, Saying, Quotes, Words And Text.