Optimism is Realism

Originally Published in eFlourishing Issue 18, June 9, 2010

That three-word epigram has informed Nick Murray’s written and spoken work for at least twenty years, forty is more likely. Now, Mr. Murray recommends The Rational Optimist, Harper Collins, 2010. The author, Matt Ridley, earned a PhD. in Zoology from Oxford and, for several years, was the science editor at The Economist. In 1999, he authored, and I read, the best-seller, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. He is also the author of The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, The Origins of Virtue, The Agile Gene, and Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code. Qualified, he definitely is.

According to Ridley, the story of optimism begins roughly 200,000 years ago, when early humans discovered the catallaxy: the ever-expanding possibilities generated in a society based on specialization and the division of labor. (Ridley attributes the term catallaxy to Nobel Prize winning economist F.A. von Hayek, but justice requires me to add that Catallactics was first the life’s work and term of Hayek’s teacher, the immortal Ludwig von Mises.) Anyway, Ridley is a master teacher and storyteller. He calls upon a cosmic range of material from historical, anthropological, genetic, and economic research to construct an inductive proof of his thesis that – in Nick Murray’s words – optimism is realism.  

…did you know that 14,000 years ago, obsidian from Anatolia was being transported along the Euphrates through the Damascus Basin and the Jordan Valley? Seashells were going in the opposite direction.

…have you ever thought of farming as the extension of specialization and exchange to include other species than humans? Horses, oxen, and the genetic modification of wheat?

One of my favorite stories in the book is that of Borlaug’s genes. After WWII, utilizing the research of scientists like Cecil Salmon (on MacArthur’s staff in Japan) and Orville Vogel (Oregon State University), Norman Borlaug pioneered and promoted a genetically altered (the Rht1 gene), short-stemmed wheat in Mexico. By 1963, Borlaug’s varieties were 95% of Mexico’s wheat crop, and had increased Mexico’s wheat production six-fold in twelve years. Borlaug then lobbied for his new wheat varieties in Pakistan and India, two countries desperately in need of increased food supplies. By 1968, the wheat harvest in both of those countries exceeded storage and processing capacity. Grain was even stored in schools, and India issued a postage stamp to celebrate the wheat revolution. In 1970, Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize. (In those days, that prize was still awarded to people who actually deserved it.)

According to Ridley, since 1900 the earth’s population has quadrupled. Land under cultivation has increased only 30%, but yields have increased 400%, and the total crop harvest has increased 600%. Doing the math, per capita food production has increased 50% – thanks to genetic science and fertilizer derived from fossil fuels. (I’m not making that up; it’s in the book.)

Ridley goes on to tell how Bishop Wilberforce was aided in the abolition of slavery in Britain by the industrial revolution. He tells how (from 1750 to 1850) the entrepreneurial owners of British cotton mills overwhelmed the colorful calicos of India, despite paying a wage five times greater and shipping their wares over 13,000 miles. Even slave power couldn’t compete with coal-fired steam.

“The list of innovations achieved by the pharaohs,” Ridley writes, “is as thin as the list of innovations achieved by British Rail or the US Postal Service.” On the other hand, “…the Philistines invented iron; the Canaanites the alphabet; and their coastal cousin, the Phoenicians, glass.” Innovation and progress are the necessary and direct results of specialization and exchange, and the absence of overbearing government.

According to Ridley, the human desire to exchange ideas is genetically encoded; like nest building in birds. Unlike bird’s nests, though, ideas beget other ideas, bigger and better. There are no limits to what we human beings can achieve through the catallaxy, when left free to do so. Ridley offers some exciting and surprising possibilities for the 21st century.

Every investor, financial advisor, teacher, professor, journalist, and policymaker should read this book. So should every American concerned about the future. (359 pages of text and 59 pages of endnotes and references. Available at Amazon for $16.72.