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When Ideas Have Sex
Posted: Friday, July 30, 2010

By Derren Joseph
July 30, 2010

TED Talks are short video podcasts (10 to 20 minutes) featuring some of the world's leading thinkers and doers. I highly recommend that you check them out. A recently uploaded podcast featured Matthew White Ridley. Born in 1958, Ridley was educated at Eton and Oxford, where he received a doctorate in Zoology before commencing a career in journalism. His talk was entitled "when ideas have sex" which described how specialization and exchange have led to a global society built on cooperation that has raised our collective living standards.

Ridley starts his talk by describing the 1970s while he was at university. We were told that nuclear war was inevitable, the population was exploding making a food shortage inevitable, we were facing a cancer epidemic caused by chemicals in the environment, oil was running out, acid rain was falling on forests and deserts were advancing by 1 mile a year.

The reality however is somewhat different. Over the course of Ridley's life (he was born in 1958), he says that he has seen average per capita income across the planet, adjusted for inflation, actually treble. The average lifespan is now up by 30%, child mortality in down by 66% and per capita food production is up by 33%. All this despite the fact that population has doubled. Ridley poses the question - how did we become the only species that becomes more prosperous while becoming more populous? How do humans bring together their brains and allow ideas to intersect and combine? In other words, how do ideas have sex?

The answer reminds me of what we were taught in beginner's economics. Specialization and trade has the potential to benefit all parties. Or as Ridley explains it – specialization and exchange leads to a rise in collective living standards. Consider a computer mouse. It represents an exchange of ideas, from the team that writes the software to operate it, to the team that drills the oil which is then converted into plastics etc. We are at a stage in our evolution as humanity, where we use tools that no single person understands how to construct from scratch. Specialization and exchange have led to a society built on cooperation. This theory suggests that were any one community to be isolated from the rest, there would be stagnation and regression. Ridley uses the example of Tazmania, which when isolated from the mainland and it became an island, led to technological regression by the people resident there.

Ridley goes on to argue quite naturally, that IQ of various groups becomes an irrelevant focus. Rather, what is more important is any groups' ability to communicate and exchange ideas. That is, the ability of ideas to meet and mate. Exchange is to cultural evolution what sex is to biological evolution. Today, thanks to the internet especially, there is unprecedented exchange of ideas and thus, an unprecedented potential for innovation.

Of course in a world of recession, poverty and wars, such a notion is, as one critic puts it, ripe for skepticism. As one would therefore expect there is much debate over this notion that specialization and exchange leads to a rise in collective living standards. Feel free to join the debate in the various online forums. I for one believe that there is much merit in his assertions.

Bringing this issue back home to us in Trinidad and Tobago, there is much debate over our new government providing laptops for the young men and women who are now entering secondary school. A couple weeks ago, my friend Kevin Snaggs used his Facebook page to highlight an article in the New York Times entitled "Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality". The article was about various economic studies to measure a home computer's educational impact on schoolchildren in low-income households. The piece concludes that despite taking widely varying routes, economists are arriving at similar conclusions: little or no educational benefit is found. What is worse is that computers seem to have further separated children in low-income households, whose test scores often decline after the machine arrives, from their more privileged counterparts.

I for one support the laptop initiative because it has the potential to facilitate that communication and exchange or mating of ideas that Ridley advocates. In our quest to diversify our economy away from energy dependence, fostering innovation is critical. But at the same time, measures must be put in place to ensure that the laptops become an asset to the student; not a liability. Proper supervision is key.

My name is Derren Joseph and I love my country. As always, I end by saying that despite our challenges, we are so blessed to live in this beautiful land. Let us continue to have the audacity of hope in our country, as we embark upon the next chapter in our nation's history.

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