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The Rational Optimist

How Prosperity Evolves

By Matt Ridley
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley

The Rational Optimist addresses the major problems that have faced human beings since the dawn of civilization, and describes how methods of exchange and specialization created innovative solutions to deal with each new obstacle. Through science, economics and historical examples, the author reveals many reasons to be optimistic about the adversities we are facing today or might encounter in the future.

Key idea 1 of 10

The discovery of cooking facilitated the first innovation networks, allowing knowledge to flow between civilizations.

Humanity hasn’t always possessed a natural ability to trade and interact. Early humans existed in small familial or tribal groups and did not produce many significant advances in technology. That changed, however, with the discovery of cooking.

Cooking was the first step in our cultural evolution. More calories can be obtained from a cooked food than a raw food, and it requires less chewing. As a result of cooking, more nutritious food could be shared by more people in less time. Cooking also led to the early specialization of labor: women collected grains and staple carbohydrates, while men hunted larger animals for protein. This, along with the extra nutrition gained from cooking, created a surplus of food, which led to the beginning of trade.

As trust between strangers slowly increased, we began to trade things other than food. This trading developed into the first innovation networks, 160,000 years ago. For the first time, people had access to different communities’ cultural traditions, raw materials and technologies. They could also share knowledge, even between distant communities. Archeological sites from the era show evidence of similar tools and ornamental shells appearing in sites hundreds or thousands of miles apart.

This cultural evolution was vital to human development. The welfare of humanity skyrocketed as we benefited from the collective knowledge of our trading partners. In fact, cultures that lacked successful trading networks are shown to have had a smaller collective knowledge, and became deficient in technologies. For example, 10,000 years ago, the Tasmanians were cut off from the mainland by rising seas, and consequently their use of technology deteriorated. They lost the ability to make cold-weather clothing, fish hooks or barbed spears. Their isolation meant they did not advance along with those on the mainland.

The discovery of cooking facilitated the first innovation networks, allowing knowledge to flow between civilizations.

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