An interesting looking piece of flint jutted unnaturally from a hard clay bank a little off the highway near Barstow, California.  Its sharp edge sliced me as I carelessly dug around it.  A young UCLA professor later confirmed that I’d discovered a crude, human-fashioned cutting tool.  I’m probably the first person to hold it since it fell from the hand of its maker over 10,000 years ago.  I’m certainly the most recent victim of its long-idle but still-keen cutting edge.

Punctuated but relentless, the accelerating rate of human progress is cause for optimism

Matt Ridley’s, “The Rational Optimist” is a viewpoint-altering book, full of big, provocative ideas.  It gets the Wegener Prize*.  I’ll return to its key points in future posts.

The book opens with the photo above.  Two tools, similar in size, sit on Ridley’s desk.  Each was designed to fit a human hand; each represents the technology of its time.  The stone hand axe was made by an individual, an early european, about 500,000 years ago.  The wireless computer mouse was made recently, the product of a web of exchange that tapped the expertise of tens of thousands of individuals, living and dead, from around the world.

Individuals made their own hand axes…made them, used them, discarded them.  That’s how things were done for 500 millennia.  Trade changed that.  Today it’s beyond the power of any individual to make a computer mouse–or almost anything else in our modern, built environment.  “Let’s see,…shall I drill a deep hole to find some oil to refine into plastic to make the molded parts first…or dig some ore to smelt into copper to extrude the wire first?…(I’ll tackle the integrated circuits last).”  Specialization and trade makes a computer mouse possible.

Offboard knowledge  The prerequisite capacity for progress, unique to the human race, is the ability to store information outside the body.  Human culture is the medium that captures and accumulates the ideas of each generation…storing them in language, songs, stories, art, customs, books, roads, cities.  Culture is the race’s long-term project; the slow-building coral reef of humankind.  You can see it from space.

Specialization and Trade  While offboard knowledge makes progress possible, Ridley asserts that trade, our most important invention, is the engine that drives human material progress and prosperity.  Using example after example, from earliest times to the present, Ridley builds a compelling case.

The book has turned my attention to ancient traders.  In Great Winter Ride–Day 5–Home,  I described the american southwest’s astounding demand for scarlet macaw parrots, cacao (chocolate) and loads of other stuff that fueled vigorous trade with distant central america over a thousand years ago.  In The Mound Builders, I wrote about the Ohio Hopewell Culture that two thousand years ago employed materials and products from up to a thousand miles away in every direction!  We all learned about Marco Polo, the trading empire of the Venetians, the British East India Company’s vast merchant fleet and the swift clipper ships that americans launched in response.  Nevertheless, we still fail to adequately appreciate trade’s cultural impact and contribution to human well-being.

Reason for Optimism  In the two hundred years or so since the beginning of industrial revolution, progress in human welfare has been remarkable.  Don’t watch this remarkable, five-minute video by Hans Rosling unless you want to be profoundly encouraged.   It graphically displays massive, positive and under-reported welfare gains that have occurred and continue around the world.  Ridley’s important book lays out the causes.

Previews of posts to come:

Trade Drives Innovation  Trade causes new stuff to appear.  Competition accelerates it.

Trade Facilitates Civilization’s Needed Course Corrections  Progress is the accumulation of goods and ideas that work and the sidelining of those that don’t.  Free exchange sorts out the value of these through the truest kind of democracy.

Trade Promotes World Peace  Trade was the enticement that helped our early ancestors overcome innate fear, suspicion and tribalism as objects and ideas were exchanged outside of close kin relationships. Today, country A often has commercial reasons to refrain from bombing its customers in country B.

I’ve now exceeded 650 words…just in this introduction.  I’ll return to the subject in future posts.

*Wegener Prize–My award for the discovery of a fundamental truth that finally explains evidence in plain view for for a long time.  Wegener’s continental drift theory was born from the obvious, though long-unexplained, jigsaw-like fit of the continental boundaries (please see post below)

Big Science From a Little Tent in a Snowstorm