First published way back in 2010, Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist examines the ongoing financial crisis in the context of 200,000 years of human history and concludes that things aren’t as bad as they seem. It should be noted that Matt Ridley was in fact chairman of Northern Rock when it collapsed, so there is reason to doubt his rationality before even opening the book. Nonetheless, this is an extremely readable account of the evolution of human society and one which is premised on a supremely simple yet immensely seductive theory: that the advance of human civilization owes itself, more than anything else, to trade and the division of labour.
This is not as dry as it sounds. What the author is saying is that it was the human ability to communicate with other humans, and often with strangers, in order to allocate specialised tasks, that set us apart from our hominid relatives around 80,000 years ago. In other words, once our initial hostility to “the other” was broken down, we were able to exchange ideas and goods with one another, which in turn meant that we could dedicate ourselves to fewer specific jobs. The exchange therefore led to the ability to develop expertise in particular fields of human endeavour, such as hunting and tool-making. As a result, we, homo sapiens, were better at these things than everyone else.
Mr Ridley then proceeds to explain how modern human society sprung out of this mutually beneficial arrangement, albeit with multiple interruptions for ethnic and religious strife along the way. This is all very interesting from the point of view of history and economics, but what really captures the imagination is the original idea itself, one which the author explains in his first chapter entitled ‘When ideas have sex’. The genesis of ideas as a coming together of different perspectives is a profoundly interesting concept and one that is often overlooked as we seek to take credit for groundbreaking thoughts and theories. This is a book that reminds us that mutual understanding is the fundamental driver behind culture, economics and civilization in general.