Matt Ridley Makes a Case for Optimism

Why are most intellectuals pessimists? Don’t they know that physical, economic, and social conditions have improved over recent human history, and those currently alive enjoy the highest standard of living ever attained? If they are aware of the history, do they really think this progress is about to reverse course?

Matt Ridley, a renowned evolutionary biologist and zoologist and author of three books on evolution and human nature, poses these questions in a provocative new book, The Rational Optimist.

That title is slightly misleading. Since optimism is a habit of mind, the word does not quite capture Ridley’s scientific conclusion that the conditions of human life will likely improve in the future.

Drawing on human prehistory as well as the whole of recorded history, Ridley traces the origin of economic growth to three principal factors: trade and specialization, the “external, collective intelligence” that developed to enable trade and the ability to harness energy. He argues that the well-known takeoff of the world economy after 1800 – when self-sustained growth is widely thought to have begun – was due to humans’ newfound ability to use technology to obtain services that could previously only be performed by other humans (mostly by slaves). Ridley’s thesis is that technology – the application of ideas to practical problems – has made human life easier and easier, with each technological advance building upon those that came before. He forecasts that despite many challenges, this tendency will continue and even intensify.

Chronicling trade through a scientist’s eyes

Much of Ridley’s wild romp through early human history in search of the emergence of trade and specialization is an attempt to re-teach Economics 101 using better stories. His thesis almost exactly parallels the familiar tale of how a pencil is made (“not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me”), which first appeared in a 1958 essay by the economist Leonard Read and was repeated by Milton Friedman in the Free to Choose television series. Ridley argues that an advanced economy is characterized by specialized production (each human produces a specific object or service) and diversified consumption (each human consumes many different products and services made by a large aggregation of anonymous people, each of whom only contributes one aspect of an object’s production).