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The Rational Optimist

Matt Ridley

Harper Collins India

Pages: 453 Rs. 399

Ideas having Sex: Mankind’s quest to survive and excel

Via separate studies of evolution, two books — Matt Ridley's 'The Rational Optimist' & Tim Harford's 'Adapt' explore how experimentation & scientific development has improved our world, writes Aadisht Khanna.

Aadisht Khanna  16th Oct 2011

Both 'Adapt' (left) and 'The Rational Optimist' argue that innovation and experimentation can bring about effective ways to reduce global warming

hen the Iraq War first started to go wrong for the United States-led coalition, Donald Rumsfeld tried to explain the problems the alliance was facing with his famous aphorism about unknown unknowns. Rumsfeld had reiterated a problem that had perplexed philosophers dating back to the Buddha – what are the limits of human knowledge, and in the absence of perfect knowledge, how can humans hope to accomplish their goals? In the past year, two books have been published that grapple with this problem. Tim Harford's Adapt is by an economist who uses and refers to the techniques of evolutionary biology, while the other, Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, is by a writer of popular science books on evolution, and talks almost exclusively about economic and social matters.

Adapt is a self-help book for organisations. Its primary argument is that success is the result of experimenting with many different approaches and going with whatever works. The book asks its readers to make a major conceptual leap: seeing that evolution is not just a biological process, but a generalised problem solving process of which evolutionary biology is just one example.

The Rational Optimist also starts off with a chapter on evolution, where it suggests that after millions of years of human evolution taking place only biologically, it is now taking place technologically as well. Ridley's evocative phrase for this is 'ideas having sex'. Humans are now no longer exchanging only genetic information, but – thanks to commerce – are exchanging technological information too. Provocatively, he suggests that commerce is what has actually driven scientific progress.

Ridley’s evocative phrase for this is ‘ideas having sex’. Humans are now no longer exchanging only genetic information, but – thanks to commerce – are exchanging technological information too. He suggests that commerce is what has actually driven scientific progress.

From these similar beginnings, the two books go on slightly different paths. Harford sticks to the core concept of using evolutionary principles to solve problems. He provides a three-step evolutionary algorithm: seek out new ideas and try new things, or variation; when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure doesn't ruin you, or survivability; and learn from your mistakes and pick whatever hasn't failed on a small scale – or selection.

These seem obvious, but bureaucracies are very bad at them even so. Because they are designed to repeat what has already worked, bureaucracies are unwilling to conduct experiments. Even worse, it is possible that our brains are evolutionarily programmed to decide that one course of action is the best.

Meanwhile, The Rational Optimist explains how trade turbocharges the evolution of ideas. By encouraging specialisation of labour and knowledge, it creates variation, and creates incentives for selecting good ideas as well.

Where Adapt is a manual, The Rational Optimist is a panegyric. Ridley challenges the notion that capitalism and technology are causing misery or impoverishment, and that we are in fact living in a time of unprecedented environmental cleanliness, health, and nutrition. Dialing back technology would mean a return to slavery, child labour, slash-and-burn agriculture that would annihilate the Earth's forests, and skyrocketing infant mortality. Ridley targets panics and calamity mongers in general. His view is that as a species, we are instinctively pessimist – but rationality suggests that the future can only get better.

Both Ridley and Harford write about specialisation (or, to use the evolutionary metaphor, speciation). Harford explains that new species and innovations do not come up unless isolated from the status quo. Harford has probably not visited Delhi, where we have our own example of speciation – the urban villages that dot Delhi have all taken radically different paths: Hauz Khas has become kitschy and artsy, Munirka has become a ghetto for IAS aspirants, and Humayunpur has become a neighbourhood of North East Indian migrants. He does, however, mention another experiment in urban development: Paul Romer's plan for charter cities, or completely new urban spaces to be built in underdeveloped countries that can set up legal systems from scratch to experiment with a set of laws and policies based on what they think will work best. This is less radical than it seems: the cities of the Holy Roman Empire were founded on similar principles.

idley is even more lyrical, talking about how the equipment found on the mummy of stone-age dweller Oetzi shows that economic specialisation is older than history, and that prosperity can only come about from specialisation, not self-sufficiency.

Where The Rational Optimist insists that the human race has never had it better, Adapt goes on to suggest ways of keeping it that way and coming up with techniques to keep encouraging innovation and adaption. Harford talks about past approaches to rewarding innovation: the prize instituted by the British government for whoever could find a way to measure longitude on the high seas; and their modern equivalents: the X-prize to create an orbital spacecraft, Netflix's bounty to whoever could create an improved recommendation algorithm for their website, and the Gates Foundation's $1.5 billion prize to create pneumococcal disease vaccines.

Harford talks with dismay at the shift in research funding from prizes to grants in the nineteenth century, and the opportunities for patronage this promoted. Later, he talks about how the government can create entrepreneurial departments to carry out new projects, while acknowledging the difficulty of getting this done right – but it is possible, as India's experience with setting up the NSE and the NHAI show.

As attractive as the prospect of experimenting our way out of problems is, isn't it possible that there are some problems which are too large and too complex to be solved with tiny projects? Adapt and The Rational Optimist both acknowledge this, but warn that while controlled experiments may or may not offer solutions, blindly picking convenient solutions amounts to uncontrolled experiments, which will definitely not work. Sir Humphrey Appleby satirised this approach in Yes, Prime Minister as the politician's syllogism: "We must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do it." Neither Ridley nor Harford are completely starry eyed about innovation and experimentation. Harford is concerned about the complexity of the globalised financial system, Ridley about the prospects of African development, and both about climate change.

But even with these incredibly complex problem, they find room for optimism. After gently pointing out the problems with our current approaches to the problems of climate change Harford suggests that a change in approach is the way to go. Rather than insisting on a specific strategy to reduce emissions – such as renewable energy, or biofuels, a carbon tax would pass on the cost of carbon dioxide to consumers, leading producers to find practical alternatives to carbon-based energy. Ridley proposes the same approach, pointing out that while global warming is occurring, it is not necessarily catastrophic – humans have lived through even hotter periods in the past. Moreover, there are technological breakthroughs that promise a solution to our fossil fuelled lifestyles.

The world has been pretty miserable for a while now. We've panicked about the financial crisis, corruption, and terrorism. Adapt and The Rational Optimist offer perspective, and surprisingly, show that we're actually doing pretty well.

 
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