Matt Ridley has a new book out, "The Rational Optimist", reviewed by John Tierney. (Ridley is a very bright polymath, I recall he did a much better job than I did some ~15 years ago, as a fellow contributor of several chapters of a standard introductory biology text book - a hack writing for pay gig). Ridley argues in his grand theory that it was the invention of the exchange of one object for another, rather than increasingly big brains or cooperation and reciprocity, that started the explosive growth of civilization.
Adam potentially now had access to objects he did not know how to make or find; and so did Oz,” Dr. Ridley writes. People traded goods, services and, most important, knowledge, creating a collective intelligence: “Ten individuals could know between them ten things, while each understanding one.”
Rulers like to take credit for the advances during their reigns, and scientists like to see their theories as the source of technological progress. But Dr. Ridley argues that they’ve both got it backward: traders’ wealth builds empires, and entrepreneurial tinkerers are more likely to inspire scientists than vice versa. From Stone Age seashells to the steam engine to the personal computer, innovation has mostly been a bottom-up process.
“Forget wars, religions, famines and poems for the moment,” Dr. Ridley writes. “This is history’s greatest theme: the metastasis of exchange, specialization and the invention it has called forth, the ‘creation’ of time.”
Progress this century could be impeded by politics, wars, plagues or climate change, but Dr. Ridley argues that, as usual, the “apocaholics” are overstating the risks and underestimating innovative responses....with new hubs of innovation emerging elsewhere, and with ideas spreading faster than ever on the Internet, Dr. Ridley expects bottom-up innovators to prevail. His prediction for the rest of the century: “Prosperity spreads, technology progresses, poverty declines, disease retreats, fecundity falls, happiness increases, violence atrophies, freedom grows, knowledge flourishes, the environment improves and wilderness expands.”