The Rational Optimist

By Matt Ridley

This book is an very interesting compare and contrast to Sapiens.

Earlier this year I gave up on Why Nations Fail a few hours in because the whole book was about how economic prosperity strongly corresponds to the "largest number of people having a say in political and economic decision-making, as opposed to cases where a small group of people control the institutions." I appreciate the effort, but at this point I don't need 15 hours of content to believe that. Why Nations Fail however ended with the conclusion (based on the summary I read) that Democracy is the most inclusive and therefore will have the most prosperity. Weak. If you are going to go over the top with driving your points home at least go all the way.

At first I thought this book was going to be the same of scratching the surface but not actually going deep, as the beginning of the book is all about the wonders of free trade and capitalism.

However, I decided to stick with it because so many interesting people recommended this book and I'm glad I did. In Sapiens, Harari talks about how due to our improved diet, our brains eventually got large enough so that we could learn new things (such as making new tools) by changing our software (in our brains) as opposed to only being able to learn new things by changing our hardware (our genes). He says how there is a big difference between a neanderthal using a bone tool and a human. The neanderthal is essentially showcasing what Dawkins calls the extended phenotype, an external expression of its genes, which is no different than a bird building a nest. Sapiens however were able to learn much faster by modifying our hardware which led to better tools, more free time, more time get ahead, etc, etc the rest is history.

Ridley argues in this book that what started the initial spark was not our ability to learn, but our ability to trade. Chimps can learn sign language but Ridley lists studies where chimps are unwilling to trade some food they kinda of like for a food they really like. They are unable to grasp the fact that you can give something up to get something better. It is not our ability to learn that has set us apart, but our ability to trade. He then proceeds to drive home the point that prosperous societies have little to no restrictions on free trade and how history has shown that the easiest way to torpedo your own economy is to close your borders.

As an aside I like this Naval quote on why blockchains are so interesting and feel its relevant to Ridleys whole trading thesis. "150 neanderthals could coordinate in battle because they had the same genetics. 5,000 humans could coordinate in battle because they all had the shared myth of christianity. Blockchains allow humans who don't know each other, who don't trust each other, and who may not reveal their identities to each other, to transact securely."