The Rational Optimist
The Rational Optimist

The Rational Optimist

To argue that human nature has not changed, but human culture has, does not mean rejecting evolution – quite the reverse. (Location 100)

But it is selection among ideas, not among genes. (Location 102)

And so it is with culture. If culture consisted simply of learning habits from others, it would soon stagnate. (Location 121)

Specialisation encouraged innovation, because it encouraged the investment of time in a tool-making tool. That saved time, and prosperity is simply time saved, which is proportional to the division of labour. (Location 132)

Rational optimism holds that the world will pull out of the current crisis because of the way that markets in goods, services and ideas allow human beings to exchange and specialise honestly for the betterment of all. (Location 164)

Averages conceal a lot. But even if you break down the world into bits, it is hard to find any region that was worse off in 2005 than it was in 1955. (Location 216)

The poor in the developing world grew their consumption twice as fast as the world as a whole between 1980 and 2000. (Location 228)

The 1950s were a decade of extraordinary abundance and luxury compared with any preceding age. (Location 237)

The average British working man in 1957, when Harold Macmillan told him he had ‘never had it so good’, was earning less in real terms than his modern equivalent could now get in state benefit if unemployed with three children. (Location 247)

Chronic illness before death is if anything shortening slightly, not lengthening, despite better diagnosis and more treatments (Location 268)

dying. Take stroke, a big cause of disability in old age. Deaths from stroke fell by 70 per cent between 1950 and 2000 in America and Europe. (Location 270)

Besides, by a strange statistical paradox, while inequality has increased within some countries, globally it has been falling. (Location 280)

This is what prosperity is: the increase in the amount of goods or services you can earn with the same amount of work. (Location 332)

Even the most notorious of capitalists, the robber barons of the late nineteenth century, usually got rich by making things cheaper. (Location 338)

And, once again, notice that the true metric of prosperity is time. (Location 360)

Two papers were published in 2008 analysing all the data, and the unambiguous conclusion of both is that the Easterlin paradox does not exist. (Location 383)

Rich people are happier than poor people; rich countries have happier people than poor countries; and people get happier as they get richer. (Location 384)

the same age, human hunter-gatherers have consumed about 20 per cent of their lifetime calories, but produced just 4 per cent. More than any other animal, human beings borrow against their future capabilities by depending on others in their early years. (Location 428)

So long as somebody allocates sufficient capital to innovation, then the credit crunch will not in the long run prevent the relentless upward march of human living standards. (Location 455)

It comes from exchange and specialisation and from the resulting division of labour. A deer must gather its own food. (Location 477)

Self-sufficiency is therefore not the route to prosperity. ‘Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month,’ (Location 479)

In 1900, the average American spent $76 of every $100 on food, clothing and shelter. Today he spends $37. (Location 492)

You are consuming others’ inventions, too. A thousand entrepreneurs and scientists devised the intricate dance of photons and electrons by which your television works. (Location 555)

The point of all this cooperation is to make (Adam Smith again) ‘a smaller quantity of labour produce a greater quantity of work’. (Location 560)

This is the diagnostic feature of modern life, the very definition of a high standard of living: diverse consumption, simplified production. Make one thing, use lots. (Location 566)

In truth, far from being unsustainable, the interdependence of the world through trade is the very thing that makes modern life as sustainable as it is. (Location 601)

Where every other species needed its niche, the hunter-gatherer could make a niche out of anything: seaside or desert, arctic or tropical, forest or steppe. (Location 621)

Maybe it was not a lifelong camping holiday after all. For violence was a chronic and ever-present threat. It had to be, because – in the absence of serious carnivore predation upon human beings – war kept the population density below the levels that brought on starvation. (Location 630)

After Jebel Sahaba, forget the Garden of Eden; think Mad Max. (Location 640)

human consumption is already driven by a sort of pseudo-spiritualism that seeks love, heroism and admiration. (Location 651)

The cumulative accretion of knowledge by specialists that allows us each to consume more and more different things by each producing fewer and fewer is, I submit, the central story of humanity. (Location 658)

the metastasis of exchange, specialisation and the invention it has called forth, the ‘creation’ of time. The rational optimist invites you to stand back and look at your species differently, to see the grand enterprise of humanity that has progressed – with frequent setbacks – for 100,000 years. (Location 661)

across three continents making the same one tool. During those million years their brains grew in size by about one-third. Here’s the startling thing. The bodies and brains of the creatures that made Acheulean hand axes changed faster than their tools. (Location 688)

There is a single twitch of progress in biface hand-axe history: around 600,000 years ago, the design suddenly becomes a little more symmetrical. (Location 693)

Its brain was almost as big as a modern person’s. Yet not only did it go on making hand axes and very little else; the hand-axe design sank back into stagnation for another half a million years. (Location 695)

Most species do not change their habits during their few million years on earth or alter their lifestyle much in different parts of their range. (Location 699)

Evolutionary change happens largely by the replacement of species by daughter species, not by the changing of habits in species. (Location 704)

On average death rates matched birth rates. Starvation, hyenas, exposure, fights and accidents claimed most of their lives before they were elderly enough to get chronically ill. (Location 712)

Certainly, by at least 160,000 years ago a new, small-faced ‘sapiens’ skull was being worn on the top of the spine in Ethiopia. (Location 738)

Genetic evidence suggests human beings were still rare even in Africa, eking out a precarious existence in pockets of savannah woodland when it was dry, or possibly on the margins of lakes and seas. In the Eemian interglacial period of 130,000–115,000 (Location 743)

but no great explosion. There may have been a collapse of human populations. (Location 759)

Only well after 80,000 years ago, so genetic evidence attests, does something big start to happen again. (Location 760)

This time, however, some of the L3 people promptly spilled out of Africa and exploded into global dominion. The rest, as they say, is history. (Location 767)

sucking human beings into deserts in wet decades and pushing them out again in dry ones, would have placed a premium on adaptability, which in turn selected for new capabilities. (Location 770)

Rather the reverse: living in large social groups on a plentiful diet both encourages and allows brain growth. (Location 774)

Human beings had started to do something to and with each other that in effect began to build a collective intelligence. (Location 792)

Barter is a lot more portentous than reciprocity. After all, delousing aside, how many activities are there in life where it pays to do the same thing to each other in turn? (Location 808)

Economists see barter as just one example of a bigger human habit of general reciprocity. Biologists talk about the role that reciprocity played in social evolution, meaning ‘do unto others as they do unto you’. Neither seems to be interested in the distinction that (Location 826)

The extraordinary promise of this event was that Adam potentially now had access to objects he did not know how to make or find; and so did Oz. (Location 831)

Her chimps preferred grapes to apples to cucumbers to carrots (which they liked least of all). (Location 834)

True barter requires that you give up something you value in exchange for something else you value slightly more. (Location 838)

cooking also predisposed human beings to swapping different kinds of food. And that maybe got them bartering. (Location 850)

hunter-gatherer society that dispenses with cooking. Cooking is the most female-biased of all activities, the only exceptions being when men prepare some ritual feasts or grill a few snacks while out on the hunt. (Location 858)

The two sexes move ‘through the same habitat, making strikingly different decisions about how to obtain resources within that habitat, and often returning to a central location with the results of their labour.’ (Location 864)

In terms of nutrition, women generally collect dependable, staple carbohydrates whereas men fetch precious protein. (Location 889)

65,000 years ago, or not much later, a group of people, numbering just a few hundred in all, left Africa. (Location 926)

They were very good at wiping out not only their distant cousins, but also much of their prey, something previous hominid species had not managed. (Location 963)

was that human population densities were growing too high for the slower-reproducing prey such as tortoises, horses and elephants. (Location 969)

As they adjusted their tactics to catch smaller and faster prey, so the moderns developed better weapons, which in turn enabled them to survive at high densities, though at the expense of extinguishing more of the larger and slower-breeding prey. This pattern of shifting from big prey to small as the former (Location 979)

(Incidentally, given the obsession of ‘show-off’ male hunters with catching the largest beasts with which to buy prestige in the tribe, it is worth reflecting that these mass extinctions owe something to sexual selection.) (Location 984)

Without trade, innovation just does not happen. Exchange is to technology as sex is to evolution. It stimulates novelty. (Location 1001)

Which only raises another question: why did economic progress not accelerate towards an industrial revolution there and then? Why was progress so agonisingly slow for so many millennia? (Location 1022)

Human beings have a deep capacity for isolationism, for fragmenting into groups that diverge from each other. (Location 1023)

the capacity for innovation. Specialisation would lead to expertise, and expertise would lead to improvement. (Location 1037)

Ricardo’s law has been called the only proposition in the whole of the social sciences that is both true and surprising. (Location 1059)

Evolution has discovered Ricardo’s law and applied it to symbioses, such as the collaboration between alga and fungus that is a lichen plant or the collaboration between a cow and a bacterium in a rumen. (Location 1062)

The more you do something, the better you get at it. (Location 1072)

According to the anthropologist Joe Henrich, human beings learn skills from each other by copying prestigious individuals, and they innovate by making mistakes that are very occasionally improvements (Location 1085)

Conversely, the smaller the connected population, the greater the steady deterioration of the skill as it was passed on. (Location 1087)

This had an important consequence. It meant that there was a limit to what they could invent. (Location 1089)

for the simple reason that both the production and the consumption of tools require a minimum size of market. (Location 1090)

Around 4,000 years ago they came up with a horribly unreliable form of canoe-raft, made of bundles of rushes and either paddled by men or pushed by swimming women (!), which enabled them to reach offshore islets to harvest birds and seals. (Location 1109)

The most difficult tools and complex skills were lost first, because they were the hardest to master without a master to learn from. (Location 1131)

Imagine if 4,000 people from your home town were plonked on an island and left in total isolation for ten millennia. (Location 1134)

Self-sufficiency was dead tens of thousand years ago. (Location 1153)

As the economist Julian Simon put it, ‘population growth leading to diminishing returns is fiction; the induced increase in productivity is scientific fact’. (Location 1173)

The argument is not that exchange teaches people to be kind; it is that exchange teaches people to recognise their enlightened self-interest lies in seeking cooperation. (Location 1209)

how inconceivable it would be for an orderly queue of stranger chimpanzees to board an aeroplane, or sit down in a restaurant, without turning violently on each other. (Location 1220)

just for the prestige of being seen to be philanthropic. (Location 1280)

Smith brilliantly confused the distinction between altruism and selfishness: (Location 1294)

People are surprisingly good at guessing who to trust. (Location 1322)

Capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees are just as resentful of unfair treatment as human beings are and just as capable of helpful acts towards kin or group members. (Location 1338)

As a broad generalisation, the more people trust each other in a society, the more prosperous that society is, and trust growth seems to precede income growth. (Location 1346)

He surely knows that in making a quick buck now by ripping you off he risks losing all future purchases you might make. (Location 1360)

Suddenly every deal lay under the shadow of the future; suddenly, every eBay user felt the hot breath of reputation on his neck as surely as a Stone Age reindeer hide salesman returning to a trading place after selling a rotten hide the year before. (Location 1372)

Trust matters, said J.P. Morgan to a congressional hearing in 1912, ‘before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it ... because a man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom.’ (Location 1385)

Long before the credit crunch of 2008 most people saw capitalism (and therefore the market) as necessary evils, rather than inherent goods. (Location 1407)

There is nothing new about this. The intelligentsia has disdained commerce throughout Western history. (Location 1416)

In market societies, if you get a reputation for unfairness, people will not deal with you. In places where traditional, honour-based feudal societies gave way to commercial, prudence-based economies – say, Italy in 1400, Scotland in 1700, Japan in 1945 – the effect is civilising, not coarsening. (Location 1426)

There is a direct link between commerce and virtue. (Location 1454)

‘the market system makes self interest into something thoroughly virtuous.’ (Location 1455)

There is now a pretty well established rule of thumb (known as the environmental Kuznets curve) that when per capita income reaches about $4,000, people demand a clean-up of their local streams and air. Universal access to education came about during a (Location 1474)

But I detect that the criticism is increasingly out of date, and that large corporations are ever more vulnerable to their nimbler competitors in the modern world – or would be if they were not granted special privileges by the state. (Location 1536)

It was Joseph Schumpeter who pointed out that the competition which keeps a businessman awake at night is not that from his rivals cutting prices, but that of entrepreneurs making his product obsolete. (Location 1574)

In that sense ‘capitalism’ is dying, and fast. The size of the average American company is down from twenty-five employees to ten in just twenty-five years. (Location 1594)

The intelligentsia generally looks down on commerce as irredeemably philistine, conventional and lowering in its taste. (Location 1600)

The innovations that made the world nicer, it may be argued, are institutions, not technologies: things like the golden rule, the rule of law, respect for private property, democratic government, impartial courts, credit, consumer regulation, the welfare state, a free press, religious teaching of morality, copyright, (Location 1607)

These rules made trustful, safe commerce possible, at least as much as vice versa. (Location 1610)

It concluded that Americans can draw upon more than ten times as much intangible capital as Mexicans, which explains why a Mexican who crosses the border can quadruple his productivity almost immediately. (Location 1624)

‘Rich countries,’ concluded the Bank, ‘are largely rich because of the skills of their populations and the quality of the institutions supporting economic activity.’ (Location 1626)

Perhaps they are symptoms, not causes, and it was the invention of institutions and rules that then made exchange possible. (Location 1630)

He was undoubtedly consuming the labour of many other people, and giving his own in exchange. (Location 1661)

Farming is the extension of specialisation and exchange to include other species. (Location 1668)

‘as it were, a certain quantity of labour stocked and stored up to be employed, if necessary, upon some other occasion’. (Location 1672)

then you can spare yourself the time and the energy of working for your own immediate needs, (Location 1673)

Before farming, nobody could hoard a surplus. There is some truth in this, but to some degree it gets the story the wrong way round. (Location 1678)

Trade provided the incentive to specialise in farmed goods and to generate surplus food. (Location 1679)

They captured the benefits of cereals – milled and baked starch – long before they took on the hard graft of farming them. (Location 1693)

They abandoned their settlements, returned to nomadism and broadened their diet again. The same happened in Egypt about the same time – a retreat from grinding grain to hunting and fishing (except in Egypt’s case it was much longer before the proto-farming experiment resumed). (Location 1698)

throughout the world conditions became dramatically warmer, wetter and more predictable. (Location 1706)

This phenomenal coincidence, as bizarre as finding that an aborigine, an Inuit, a Polynesian and a Scotsman all invented steam engines in the same decade of the eighteenth century without contact of any kind, is explained by the stabilising climate after the ice age ended. (Location 1722)

with its unpredictable years of drought followed by years of wet, still looks a bit like that volatile glacial world. (Location 1725)

Moreover, these very earliest Greek farmers were also apparently enthusiastic traders with each other and were very far from being self-sufficient: they relied upon specialist craftsmen to produce obsidian tools from raw material imported from elsewhere. (Location 1743)

It was a mutation that would eventually be inherited by nearly 40 per cent of Europeans. Because it went with unusually pale skin, it probably helped those people who were trying to live on vitamin-D-deficient grain in sunless northern climates: sunlight enables the body to synthesise vitamin D. The gene’s frequency speaks of the fecundity of farmers. (Location 1758)

needs feeding, so you need pasture as well as arable land. No wonder that shifting agriculture – slash and burn – remains so much more popular with many tribal people in forests to this day. (Location 1766)

Farmers, by contrast, have to store grain or protect herds or guard fields before they are harvested. The first person to plant a wheat field must have faced the dilemma of how to say ‘This is mine; only I may harvest it.’ (Location 1773)

Copper smelting was a practice that makes no sense for an individual trying to meet his own needs, or even for a self-sufficient tribe. (Location 1781)

Conventional wisdom has probably underestimated the extent of specialisation and trade in the Neolithic age. (Location 1802)

The characteristic signature of prosperity is increasing specialisation. The characteristic signature of poverty is a return to self-sufficiency. (Location 1809)

‘We engage in exchanges to make some sort of profit; they do so in order to cement social relationships; we trade commodities; they give gifts.’ (Location 1816)

Westerners give each other cards and socks at Christmas speaks to the importance in their lives of the social meaning of exchange, (Location 1827)

the last third of the twentieth century, a prosperous yet nostalgic time, farming came to be reinterpreted as an invention born of desperation rather than inspiration, and perhaps even ‘the worst mistake in the history of the human race’. (Location 1837)

Their low fertility owed more to sexually transmitted infections than birth control. As for the deformities of early farmers, skeletons may not be representative and may tell you more about the injuries and diseases that were survived, rather than proved fatal. (Location 1861)

The archaeologist Steven LeBlanc says that the evidence of constant violence in the ancient past has been systematically overlooked by Rousseauesque wishful thinking among academics. (Location 1871)

After a successful battle against the Midianites and a massacre of the adult males, he told them to finish the job by raping the virgins: ‘Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.’ (Numbers 31) (Location 1880)

But an even bigger factor in averting Crookes’s disaster was the internal combustion engine. The first tractors had few advantages over the best horses, but they did have one enormous benefit as far as the world was concerned: they did not need land to grow their fuel. (Location 1912)

Human beings comprise about 0.5 per cent by weight of the animals on the planet. Yet they beg, borrow and steal for themselves roughly 23 per cent of the entire primary production of land plants (the number is much lower if the oceans are included). (Location 1966)

Running out of land to capture sunlight is not going to be a problem for food production – not since Haber broke the fertiliser bottleneck. Running out of water could well be. (Location 2011)

Once it is properly priced by markets, water is not only used more frugally, but its very abundance increases through incentives to capture and store it. (Location 2017)

Indeed, come to think of it, let’s make farming a multi-storey business, with hydroponic drip-irrigation and electric lighting producing food year-round on derelict urban sites linked by conveyor belt directly to supermarkets. (Location 2027)

Organic farming is low-yield, whether you like it or not. The reason for this is simple chemistry. Since organic farming eschews all synthetic fertiliser, it exhausts the mineral nutrients in the soil – especially phosphorus and potassium, but eventually also sulphur, calcium and manganese. (Location 2044)

Organic farmers also aspire to rely less on fossil fuels, but unless organic food is to be expensive, scarce, dirty and decaying, then it has to be intensively produced, and that means using fuel – in practice, a pound of organic lettuce, grown without synthetic fertilisers or pesticides in California, and containing eighty calories, requires 4,600 fossil-fuel calories to get it to a customer’s plate in a city restaurant: (Location 2051)

But modern genetic modification, using single genes, was a technology that came worryingly close to being stifled at birth by irrational fears fanned by pressure groups. (Location 2092)

with not a single case of human illness caused by GM food, that argument has gone. Then they argued that it was unnatural for genes to cross the species barrier. (Location 2093)

‘You people in the developed world are certainly free to debate the merits of genetically modified foods, but can we eat first?’ (Location 2109)

In the pursuit of quantity, science may have sacrificed nutritional quality of food. Indeed, the twentieth-century drive to provide a growing population with an ever faster-growing supply of calories has succeeded so magnificently that the diseases caused by too much bland food are rampant: (Location 2129)

make for a diet low in omega-3 fatty acids, which may contribute to heart disease; modern wheat flour is rich in amylopectin starch, which may contribute to insulin resistance and hence diabetes; and maize is especially low in the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor of serotonin, the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter. (Location 2132)

would suit the wealthy more than the poor, so it would exacerbate health inequalities. (Location 2135)

Inevitably, these had ideas above their stations, for when, after 6,000 years ago, the Ubaid culture disappeared, it was replaced by something that looks much more like an empire – the ‘Uruk expansion’. (Location 2166)

These were people who lived not by production, nor by plunder and tribute, but by deals alone. Like traders ever since, they gathered as tightly together as possible to maximise information flow and minimise costs. (Location 2172)

Uruk did not last, because the climate dried out and the population collapsed, aided no doubt by soil erosion, salination, imperial overspending and uppity barbarians. (Location 2188)