Matt Ridley is best known for his popular science books, including the excellent The Red Queen. As he says in the introduction to The Rational Optimist,
In the past two decades I have written four books about how similar humans are to other animals. This book is about how different they are from other animals.
How are we different? Ridley makes the point that we humans alive today are the ultimate specialists in production, the ultimate generalists in consumption. We earn our living by doing one thing and selling that thing, whatever it may be, to others who find it valuable. With our payment for that one thing, we choose from an enormous variety of goods and services to consume ourselves. And, the main thesis of Ridley’s book, is that this trend is accelerating through time, with startling results. For instance, comparing an average modern mother to Louis XIV in Paris in 1700:
You are far from poor, but in relative terms you are immeasurably poorer that Louis was. Where he was the richest of the rich in the world’s richest city, you have no servants, no palace, no carriage, no kingdom. As you toil home from work on the crowded Metro, stopping at the shop on the way to buy a ready meal for four, you might be thinking that Louis XIV’s dining arrangements were way beyond your reach. And yet consider this. The cornucopia that greets you as you enter the supermarket dwarfs anything that Louis XIV ever experienced. (p 37)
Ridley then describes the huge assortment of meats, vegetables, and grains available in the market, and the huge variety of styles in which they might be prepared for you. The same is true of clothing, travel, heating and cooling, lighting, communication, medicine, news, and entertainment. The net effect is that you have far more servants than Louis XIV ever dreamed of housing. Certainly these servants work for many others as well as you, but what difference does that make? They are there whenever you need them.
How did we reach this level of wealth? Ridley says we got there through trade, which he describes as the engine of innovation. In the same way that biological evolution was sped up immensely by the invention of sex, cultural evolution accelerates when ideas have sex, when they are able to combine in new and innovative ways. “The telephone,” Ridley says in a typical example, “had sex with the computer and spawned the internet.” (p 223)
There are many things to like in Ridley’s book. Like Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of our Nature, Ridley recognizes that nostalgia for the past is misplaced. Life today is safer, more interesting, and healthier than ever before. Pessimists have always gotten more attention than optimists, and yet the optimists have almost always been right in the end. As Deutsch points out, innovation and progress are the only way to avoid disaster. The best insurance against disaster is prosperity to fuel that innovation.
Ridley is a bit libertarian for my tastes. While monarchical and tyrannical governments of the past were undoubtedly parasites upon their innovators, I have to believe that modern, democratically-elected governments have at least a chance to foster rather than stifle innovation. I think of all the scientific achievements sponsored by government, including Voyager I and II and other deep space probes, the HMS Challenger and of course Darwin’s Beagle expedition, and the Large Hadron Collider. One might argue that these are pure science discoveries, unlikely to lead to innovation in any direct way. That’s true in the short run, but in the long term it’s unquestionable that the scientific discoveries of today provide the raw material for the innovations of the future. Even Michael Faraday’s discovery of electromagnetic induction seemed useless at the time, but there’s hardly a technology today involving any sort of motion that doesn’t incorporate Faraday’s great finding somewhere. What raw material will innovators of the future apply? We can’t know, of course, but it’s a good bet that it will involve scientific discoveries yet to be made. (And even Ridley says, “Government can do good, after all” (p 285) in his final chapter, when describing the creation of roads, canals, schools, and hospitals. I would add libraries and of course museums to that list. And the LHC.)
The biggest message to take from Ridley’s book, like Deutsch’s and Pinker’s before it, is that the future is ours to create. Standing still is not an option, and there’s no reason to do so. As Deutsch wrote in The Beginning of Infinity, any physical transformation not prohibited by the laws of physics is possible. All we need is to know how.
Ridley finishes by acknowledging the misery alive and well in the world today, and stressing that the only way out of that misery is the way forward, not the way back. It was precisely that misery that once convinced me that the world is a terrible, immoral place. Now I know better. Misery is not a by-product of our technology; instead, it is a sign that there is still work to be done. “The twenty-first century,” Ridley says, “will be a magnificent time to be alive. Dare to be an optimist.” I couldn’t agree more.