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'The Rational Optimist': Review

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"In other classes of animals, the individual advances from infancy to age of maturity; and he attains, in the compass of a single life, to all the perfection his nature can reach: but in the human kind, the species has a progress as well as the individual; they build in every subsequent age on foundations formerly laid." Adam Ferguson - An Essay on the History of Civil Society

Blessed by an interesting and diverse professional career, Matt Ridley, whose claim to fame is as a zoologist, banker, journalist, and expert on evolution, is an author worth getting to know. In his latest book, The Rational Optimist, he invites us to adopt a positive view of the world, human capacity, and global trade.

According to Ridley, mankind has developed an unmatched capacity to resolve its most pressing challenges. Nevertheless, it is curious that in the last 200 years, the pessimists have dominated the discussion of the most important global issues. But, since Thomas Malthus, they have all failed in their forecasts.

In contrast to more pessimistic predictions, humanity has not collapsed, and, on the contrary, in the last 1,000 years, life expectancy has increased significantly, violence indicators have decreased, and average income has grown exponentially. In fact, humans are the only living beings that have been able to continuously increase their quality of life. No other species with a prominent brain such as dolphins, chimpanzees, octopuses, or parakeets have achieved this and clearly it is not a matter of brain size.

So even though the human brain has not grown in hundreds of thousands of years, how we have achieved all of this?

Ridley believes that what explains the unparalleled success of Homo sapiens is not just the size of their brain, nor their technology or language -- all of which are necessary but not sufficient. The evolutionary cause of this steady progress is the invention of trade, something that Neanderthals, with a larger brain, failed to replicate.

Thanks to trade between unrelated parties, humanity has developed what Ridley calls a collective intelligence, which benefits all its members. Thanks to this unique invention, individual brains are wired, with the result being that homo sapiens have been able to create a growing shared mind and gradually but endlessly multiplying knowledge and the quality of life.

How is this accomplished? Trade allows everyone's ideas, despite distances, to recombine, to have sex.

Ridley tells the story of how about 100,000 years ago through trade between remote communities, ideas started to behave like genes, reproducing, mutating, competing, undergoing a selection, and accumulating, speeding up evolution, not on a biological plane, but in the collective mind. In this process, natural selection occurs among ideas.

At some point in history, humans began to exchange goods and in doing so, knowledge became cumulative, and thus was born the idea of progress. "Exchange is to cultural evolution, what sex is to biological evolution," says Ridley.

Thanks to trade, the division of labor was born, which allowed for specialization in a task, for it to be efficiently developed, and for the production surplus to be exchanged for other goods. This is what Adam Smith based humankind's economic advancement in the Wealth of Nations.

Human experience has changed significantly in the past 100,000 years. Today we enjoy devices that were absolutely unimaginable just a century ago. But no individual (or company) could individually create any of the advanced instruments in which our specie's progress is based.

I only have to look around at what's in my office to realize this, noting the presence of a smartphone, an iPad, a flat-screen TV, DVD player, a Totalplay device, and a computer where I write and I surf the Internet. No single human being could individually recreate any of the above-mentioned instruments or the software that gives them life -- and this is just what exists in an office.

Specialization in production drove innovation, and this, in turn, led to the diversification of consumption, and the more people who joined this process, the greater was the average well-being that was achieved.

The great news is that, despite the attacks on globalization, this process is unstoppable. The author finds the arguments attacking progress and free trade on the grounds that "the past was better" to be baseless. This myth falls under its own weight. By any measure, the average human being has a better quality of life than a hundred thousand, ten thousand, or even a hundred years ago.

By the same token, as I noted earlier, it is fallacious to assume that self-sufficiency and economic independence are desirable. On the contrary, the nations that are most open to global trade are those that have achieved greater economic well-being. The clearest sign of prosperity is specialization among individuals, regions, and countries, and specialization cannot be achieved without exchange.

In contrast, the civilizations that have collapsed did so because their rulers bureaucratized, nationalized, and monopolized the production processes and hindered trade. The historical lesson is pretty obvious: free trade promotes prosperity, while protectionism and self-sufficiency only lead to poverty. In the history of mankind there are precious few examples of a country or region that has become impoverished for having opened its borders, nor is there a single nation that has made progress by closing itself off to trade.

Even in modern times, every country or region that opposed trade has failed. Latin America, under the intellectual influence of Raul Prebisch, closed its borders in the 1960s, and we are still paying the consequences of this absurd policy. The same thing happened in Mao's China, and North Korea under Kim Il Sung. All these are clear examples of a policy that only resulted in economic stagnation and desolation. In contrast, when these policies were reversed, all these countries and regions saw a spurt in their development.

Ridley believes that trade and human ingenuity will be able to resolve the most serious problems that threaten us: drought, famine, AIDS, diabetes, cancer, and even global warming and to achieve this we must put the best of our creativity to work. In this sense, I also declare myself to be a rational optimist.