Matt Ridley, the Rational Optimist, Answers Your Questions
We recently solicited your questions for Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist. You asked a lot of good questions, and hardly gave Ridley a free pass. For instance: “So yeah. Please explain why the ecology of the planet will be better off in 100 years. Be specific.” You will be the judge if Ridley’s answer is satisfactory, and convincing. Thanks to all of you for participating and especially to Matt Ridley.
Specialization is a neat trick, but if human success was driven by this cultural innovation rather than by genetic changes, why didn’t Neanderthals pick up specialization during the thousands of years we lived in proximity to them and become at least as succecsful as we did?
Also, history is full of examples of civilizational decline; what is rational about believing that it won’t happen again?
– Chris in Baltimore
Good question, and of course I can’t be sure what the answer is: the evidence is too sparse. But here are two thoughts. First, “we Africans” — by which I mean people who lived exclusively in Africa until 70,000 years ago — had probably been getting into the habit of working for each other, and specializing, by our sexual division of labor. Broadly speaking, men hunting and women gathering. The archaeologists Kuhn and Stiner argue that there is no evidence that Neanderthals did this: they obviously hunted cooperatively, but they do not seem to have specialized by sex into hunting versus gathering. So the later habit of specializing between tribes – or trade, as we call it nowadays – would have been easier for us to invent than for them.
Second thought: later breakthroughs, such as agriculture or writing, did not happen to all people either, just to some. So it’s just as valid to ask: why didn’t Australian aborigines invent farming, or why didn’t Siberian reindeer herders invent writing? And those breakthroughs required no genetic change, no special new human trait-just serendipitous cultural invention. I think the invention of exchange and specialization may have been like that: just a product of local circumstances and opportunity, and once it happened, the Neanderthals were being bypassed.
One final thought. The invention of specialization among tribes or bands required “us” to surmount a huge obstacle-hostility to strangers. Male chimpanzees have only one attitude to males from other troops and it’s murderous. If Neanderthals had that, then however much we were demonstrating the possibilities of trade on the other side of some valley, it would have been a huge problem for them to suddenly start emulating us.
I’d like to be able to enjoy my own prosperity for longer than a few decades. When will the next major breakthrough in extending the life of humans come and in which field is it going to happen: genetics, robotics, computer science, etc? – Ryan
I don’t know! Examining the track record of futurologists has taught me humility. H.G. Wells sounds like Edwardian Britain with machines. Aldous Huxley sounds like 1920s New Mexico on drugs. Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov sound like 1950s geeks with obsessions about space. But if you hold a gun to my head, I will say this. Today, we are obsessed with the breakneck speed of change in communications technologies; it’s got a way to go yet; but some time during this century it will slow down and something else will seem like the most rapidly changing technology. The best guess is that it will be somewhere in the zone where biotechnology and medicine meet-anti-aging medications, for example. But it might be robotics, or it might be space, or it might be something I cannot even imagine.
So yeah. Please explain why the ecology of the planet will be better off in 100 years. Be specific. – nate
Okay, here is a specific example. If we continue to spread new agricultural varieties and practices-plus we make more crops insect-resistant using GMOs, irrigation less wasteful using drip hydroponics, and fertilization cheaper using nitrogen-use-efficient crops (all of these are now starting to happen)-then we can easily double average crop yields from each acre by 2050, as we have doubled them since 1960. That means we can feed more people (9.3 billion versus 6.7 billion) in 2050 from a much smaller acreage than we do today. That means we take huge chunks of land and return them to rain forest, to wetland, to prairie, to semi-desert. We can expand and connect up national parks and nature reserves, re-establish habitats and reintegrate ecosystems. Remember, in the 20th century we had to cope with a quadrupling of world population; this century, the population will grow only 1.5 times. It’s going to be a century of huge ecological restoration if we get it right.
I’m interested to hear about the negative cases: i.e., when “continuous innovation” does not happen, those long stretches of human experience where innovation did not occur. “Continuous innovation” looks great to us because we’re in the middle of a 500-year run of it. But there is probably a good 25,000-year stretch of modern homo sapiens where little or no innovation occurred… and plenty of parts of the globe where subsistence peoples remained in stasis (in terms of technology, cultural habits, etc.) for hundreds of generations. – M.M.
You’re right. Today, we are used to innovation running so fast that every time you turn around there’s a new way of doing things: my friends and I often end up telling each other about new websites, new products, new services. But that was not the case 500 years ago, when you could go your whole life without encountering a new product if you lived in a rural village. A thousand years before that, and you could probably go five generations without meeting innovation: same plow, same breed of ox, same religious services on Sunday. And if I am right that trade began 120,000 years ago, with the result that there was an explosion of innovation 45,000 years ago – that’s a very, very long gap. It was lightning fast compared to what happened to Homo erectus, but it would not have felt fast to people living through it! I think that what happens in these long gaps is you get bursts of innovation, e.g. around 70,000 years ago in southern Africa, then long periods of technological regress (much as happened in Tasmania after 10,000 years ago) as the population thins out or becomes disconnected. But this history reminds us just how unprecedented and just how disorienting modern innovation is, which perhaps explains why so many people are so unnerved by it.
I’m a fan of free trade and continuous innovation. However, often there are times where personal incentives lead to roadblocks — for example, when a politician will push for protectionist policies to protect his/her constituents so that he/she can get elected again. Besides voting for politicians that promote free trade and innovation, what can Joe Average do, on a micro level, to further promote free trade and innovation? – Jennifer
I’m not really enough of a political analyst to give advice here. But here is one thing I do, after researching this book, that might be of interest. When my friends sit around moaning about something that’s happening in the world, I try and look on the bright side. When they say: “These green beans came from Kenya – shame they could not be locally sourced,” I will reply, “These green beans came from Kenya – isn’t that cool! It means that a Kenyan has a decent wage, which means he can educate his kids and one day one of them might buy my book.” I actually complained in a restaurant recently about their policy of not serving genetically modified food. The waiter was baffled and my children were embarrassed, but I felt good.
Funny, I always viewed serious specialization as the result of us settling down into a farming society, and as such producing much more food per person (so not everybody has to work on food production) and having a larger population overall (so there’s a market for the increased output that specialization gives). Do you think that specialization would’ve been inevitable if we continued to exist as hunter-gatherers, or do you view the move to farming societies as some sort of inevitable human step? – Aaron
I think agriculture greatly increased the opportunity for specialization, mainly because it allowed for denser settlement. But hunter-gatherers did – and do – specialize, too. An Australian aboriginal tribe called the Kalkadoon specialized in making stone axes from a quarry at a place called Mount Isa. They traded with other tribes, including one called the Yir Yoront, which exported stingray barbs.
The author brings up lots of historical examples, and is a big free market advocate. I really like that. But the “disclaimer question” needs to be asked: is past performance indicative of future results? It also seems to be a fashionable trend to bash environmentalism. How is polluted water, dying species, and degrading air quality not an indication of regression? – Nemo
Of course, past performance cannot be relied on as a guide to future performance, but notice that the intelligentsia has been pessimistic about the future in every generation for two centuries. “On what principle is it,” wondered Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1830, “that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”
Air and water quality has improved dramatically in the U.S. over the past few decades – though they are still not as good as they could be. Species extinction rates have probably fallen since the early 1900s – though they are still too high.
I’d be interested to know how you explain the Dark Ages – a quite lengthy period where there was no innovation. What’s to prevent us from entering another “dark age”? – Robert
I write about the Dark Ages in my book. Basically, I see the cause as a collapse of Mediterranean trade, leading to a retreat to agricultural self-sufficiency. The Italian countryside, for example, was producing for export in Roman times and that ceased. An end to free trade would plunge us into a dark age again.
If I understand the argument of the book correctly, it is that human beings are where we are now because we trade goods/services/ideas and that leads to specialization, etc.. So are we the only species on the planet that trades goods/services/ideas? I think it would be harder to prove that other species can trade ideas but I believe some other species like Apes, Monkeys, etc., do exchange goods/services. Or even as Chris in Baltimore asks, why did we get the evolutionary nod when the Neanderthals who most likely exchanged goods/services/ideas did not? – Brian
Are we the only species that trades and specializes? Basically yes, but I need to explain more precisely what I mean. In the book, I discuss this at length, but here’s a brief summary. There is a kind of exchange called reciprocity – you help me now and I will help you in the SAME way LATER – that’s pretty common in the animal kingdom, certainly among primates. It does not lead to specialization. But the swapping of DIFFERENT things at the SAME time – which is what I mean by “exchange” – is confined to social species like ants, where it essentially only happens among close kin, family members. It also crops up within mated pairs of birds and insects that trade sex for food. But humans are the only species that exchange between unrelated individuals.
It’s never been observed in the wild in other apes. Sarah Brosnan, who has tried hard to get chimps to understand barter, has found they just do not get it. They, and monkeys, can learn to swap token for food, but they will not spontaneously offer one item they value for another they value more – yet we do that all the time. Chimps groom each other reciprocally all the time, but that is not the same as swapping different things.
As for Neanderthals, this was one of the exciting discoveries for me when writing the book. Two recent studies of Neanderthals have concluded that a) they may not have had a sexual division of labor in foraging strategy (Kuhn and Stiner 2006); and b) they used only local tools – which implies no trade between groups. For example in the Caucasus:
Stone outcrops in the near neighborhood of Ortvale Klde contain fairly high quality chert; but 100 kilometers away is a source for very high quality obsidian. The Neanderthal deposits at Ortvale Klde are 99.6 percent local chert and .4 percent obsidian; while the Modern human deposits at Ortvale Klde have between 5 and 7 percent obsidian, suggesting that Modern humans had a greater (or more frequent) access to the obsidian quarry…They speculate that the control was not necessarily increased mobility of Modern humans, but because there were more Modern humans, they needed and used social networks–a pool of people one knows and shares information with.
So yes, I do argue that modern human beings are the only species that somehow managed to get into the habit of full-blown exchange and specialization beyond the family. Or, as Adam Smith put it, “Nobody ever saw a dog make fair exchange of a bone with another dog.”
Why is it that some people cling so tenaciously to their cynical, pessimist viewpoints, to the point of veritable “denialism”?
(P.S. Those interested in Ridley’s very good book might also wish to know about 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) – Frank S. Robinson
Thanks, Frank. The tenacity of pessimism still puzzles me a bit. It’s mainly because good news is no news, I suspect. Strangely, people are not especially pessimistic about their own lives, only about the human race.
Do you see innovation and specialization as consistent with Constructal Theory? That is, the idea that systems that continue to exist inherently develop mechanisms to optimize their operation. Or stated more formally, “For a finite-size (flow) system to persist in time (to live), its configuration must evolve such that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it.” – Gary
I don’t know this theory, and from your brief description of it, I cannot comment. In general, I find evolutionary theories like mine, in which history matters and properties emerge without being pre-ordained, don’t fit well with these kinds of more “top-down” theories. But I may be wrong.
I have noted that some optimism assumes things will get better without any real meaningful change. For example, here in Toronto, our textile district lay underutilized because if was almost impossible to rezone those buildings for use as anything but a clothing factory. The assumption was that the clothing industry was just in temporary decline and would get better. However, the factories just moved out to the ‘burbs where transportation links were better. The neighbourhood turned around when rezoning was made easier and is now thriving. Flint, Michigan in Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me” seems to be the living embodiment of this type of thinking. When should the optimism of “things will improve” be traded for the optimism of “things will improve once we tear this all down and start over”? – Steven
Good point: I agree that far too much city planning and zoning seems to be “conservative” in nature and “picks losers.”
“How is polluted water, dying species degrading air quality not an indication of regression?”
There are plenty of places where air quality has improved and polluted water has been purified. He probably lists many such cases in his book (which I have not read yet). – Jayson Virissimo
I do. Lake Erie, for example. It was described as dead or dying in the 60s, its water snakes, studied by Paul Ehrlich, all but extinct. It is now clean, and the snakes are thriving to such a degree that there is talk of removing their protection.
Was it rational optimism behind the demise of Northern Rock? Or just old-fashioned incompetence? – william
There were many factors, fully discussed elsewhere and in my own testimony to a parliamentary committee, with my own share of the blame fully acknowledged.
Civilizations in the past rose quickly to specialization but succumbed to regional climate change. The dark ages were a time when the little ice age limited food production and many starved. Droughts and cold were the downfall of the past ages of civilization. Civilizations flourished in the warm periods and collapsed in the cold. Modern heating and cooling and the agri business for growing food will rapidly adapt to hot or cold. The adaptation to a colder world will be painful this time around, but cope we will ,and, with a new crop of specialists.
The civilization we have now is global, all but a mouse click away. Short of a green marxists take over, or a major asteroid strike we will cope with anything. That is our nature. – Wayne Job
I do agree that it was the cold, dry periods that hurt civilizations more than the warm, damp ones. The Akkadian cold spell of 4,200 years ago is a good example.
I echo Nate’s question. Why would it be in the interest of humans to maintain any of the original ecology of the planet when it might benefit us more to reconstruct it to our liking? Would all the creatures that aren’t cool, cute, or useful get the shaft? – Aviva C.
The evidence suggests we get pretty keen on preserving all species once we get past a certain level of wealth. The Chinese are reaching the sort of living standards where they are keen to spend money on saving habitats. Even the eradication of the last laboratory samples of the smallpox virus has been controversial. In 2002, the WHO decided against destroying the last samples.
Maybe ask him why, given his boundless faith in the wonders of unregulated markets, he was so quick to run to the government with a begging-bowl when his company went bust, at a cost of some billions to the British taxpayer. I have no criticism of Ridley as a gneticist, but it beats me how anyone can take him at all seriously as an economic / social theorist after the costly damage that his incompetent management has caused. – Mo
I don’t have boundless faith in anything, let alone unregulated markets. I have a balanced view: you will find very little about deregulation in the book, let alone of asset markets. It’s commerce that I praise, not a lack of regulations. What I write is not always the same as what others say I write!
Shouldn’t we as a society be more worried about unlikely and existential risks (environmental degradation, asteroids, etc) now that we are rich and likely to get richer, just as individuals become more risk averse as their wealth increases? – James
I think existential risks, like asteroids, are just as worrying (and just as unlikely) whether we are rich or poor. But you are right that we probably become more risk averse as we get richer.
Markets suffer if consumer optimism fails. And it’s a libertarian cliché that allowing the rich to get even richer makes everyone better off…..Do you feel it is adamant to convince your readers that you do not cherrypick findings to suit an ideological agenda? If so, what might be a good way to clear the stage? Or, if your main thrust is ideological, do you think it a good idea to be explicit about your stance, so that readers need not worry that they’re reading an ideological tract when they in fact is reading something else? –erlend
I pick facts to illustrate my arguments, and I make my arguments based on the facts I find – it goes both ways. Nothing is driven by an “ideological” agenda, though there is plenty of conviction behind my views – and I am very explicit about that. I often change my views on certain issues as I write, and this book is no exception. I started out thinking that many trends were mildly positive. I was soon amazed to find that most trends are hugely positive. As for the charge that I am “looking after the interests of a certain societal group,” nothing could be further from the truth. What commerce — exchange and specialization — has shown it can do again and again is to help all people raise their living standards. Just one example: the class that benefited most from the industrial revolution were the unskilled laborers. The class that benefited least were the feudal landowners. See Greg Clark‘s analysis in A Farewell to Alms.
Have you had a chance yet to revisit the baby in the Skinner box story? I’m reading Nature Via Nurture, got to page 190 and thought you should see Snopes on the subject. While you could say that Debby was allowed out of the box only for regularly scheduled meals and play times, that’s no different from the way any baby in North America who sleeps in a crib is treated. The baby sleeps in a crib, plays in a playpen, is in the constant company of her family, and is out constantly to eat, play, cuddle, interact, talk, walk, etc. – Lia
Thanks for the reference. I will look into it.
Will effective innovation and the analysis of the benefit of a particular innovation depend on cooperation, and will innovators cooperate?
Is there a better way to encourage brainstorming by individuals and to provide those individuals with financial benefit if an innovation or improvement pays off. (I am thinking of the numerous customer surveys companies offer or the recent BP site that asks for ideas about handling the oil spill; the companies are harvesting ideas that may benefit them – do they have any plan to pay for solutions they use?)
In the current economy, do elites disproportionately benefit from innovation because of access to accountants, lawyers, patent services, research, testing or other professional services? If so, is there a way to estimate the number of lost ideas or the proportion of innovation that is unrecognized or lost due to class differences, if any? – Ruth
Class differences were a much bigger barrier to innovation in the past than they are today. Roman slaves who came up with better ways to make glass rarely got to try out their scheme, let alone profit from it (I tell the probably apocryphal story in the book about a Roman who gets to tell the emperor that he has invented unbreakable glass, and gets his head cut off for threatening to devalue gold). The world is not equal, but it is a lot more equal than it was. Besides, the main beneficiaries of innovation are the users, not the inventors.
Communication between scientists and the general public seems to be choking. Look at the UK’s mistrust towards MMR injections in the media a few years ago, the unsupported fish oil pill boom, and the widespread denial of anthropogenic global warming.
The media do not seem to be doing an adequate job of informing their consumers. Is the quality of transmission of the exchanging of ideas under threat? – Lystraeus
I think this is one of those areas where we look back to a golden age that never was. The reporting of science was always terrible: go read the kind of things that newspapers carried about medications in the 1930s or 1950s. It has gotten a little better, but it’s still poor.
I found Ridley’s Origins of Virtue very fascinating and well-argued, though didn’t agree with all its conclusions.
Agree with those above who query whether innovation occurs (sufficiently) at all historical periods. Also does it occur for the benefit of all? No: far too many people are excluded from the benefits of modern technology. And with climate change the many may suffer disproportionately while the few whiz around in electric cars, fuel efficient planes, etc.
I hope Ridley can answer how, if the market is the main vehicle, we can get a sufficient pace of innovation for the very poor and marginalised. – Alex
By opening borders so that all people can access innovations. I tell the story in my book of the use of mobile phones by poor fishermen in India to decide where to land their catch – at a time when economists regarded mobile phones as a luxury of no relevance to poor countries. I tell of nitrogen-use-efficiency crops, which were developed in California but are being licensed free to Africa through charity so that poor farmers can grow good crops without being able to afford high nitrogen applications.
Codes of conduct in ethical and philosophical systems help humans smooth personal and social interactions. Thus Buddhism and Confucianism and several other meta-religions exist and fluorish.
But can major religions persist into the future? Certainly religion and religious differences drives most wars and encourages great evils in the world. What can be done to reduce their influence going forward? – Eric M. Jones
I share your concern that militant religion is on the increase and this dents my optimism a little: religious war and religious intolerance may yet disfigure this century and prevent some innovation. Generally, the countries that are most open to trade are the least militantly religious, whereas the ones that are most closed and feudal are also the most militantly religious. So fresh air is the best remedy.
Read Collapse by Jared Diamond – I am sure the easter islanders were optomistic too when they cut down the last tree on their island – “there must be more trees on the island” or maybe they though “we will figure something out we are the most innovative species on the planet” – or how about the greenland Norse – who went extinct, or the collapse of the civilizations in the southwest US, or maybe ancient rome or the babylonians – I don’t think this guy reads history very well… in fact the I believe there is no justifiction for “rational optimism” in fact that is what conisitently gets civilizations into trouble. – Dr J
Easter Island is a small and very isolated island (and the role of slavers in its collapse is a key factor that needs to be considered). The Greenland Norse died out mostly because they were cut off from Europe. These examples support my argument that isolation is the sure route to stagnation and ruin. Evidence suggests that the bigger the interconnected human population, the more it innovates.
I too enjoyed his other books especially The Red Queen
but regarding Northern Rock: how much money did he walk away with? – gary
Nothing. The numbers are in the public record. I lost more money in the collapse in the value of my shares (which I had bought at market value) than I made in total after-tax remuneration during the whole of my time as chairman. Rightly, I had no bonus, no pay-off and no pension. I have a lot else to feel bad about, but not that.