Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution

If culture consisted simply of learning habits from others, it would soon stagnate. For culture to turn cumulative, ideas needed to meet and mate. The ‘cross-fertilisation of ideas’ is a cliché, but one with unintentional fecundity. ‘To create is to recombine’ said the molecular biologist François Jacob. Imagine if the man who invented the railway and the man who invented the locomotive could never meet or speak to each other, even through third parties. Paper and the printing press, the internet and the mobile phone, coal and turbines, copper and tin, the wheel and steel, software and hardware. I shall argue that there was a point in human pre-history when big-brained, cultural, learning people for the first time began to exchange things with each other, and that once they started doing so, culture suddenly became cumulative, and the great headlong experiment of human economic ‘progress’ began. Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution.


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. The more human beings diversified as consumers and specialised as producers, and the more they then exchanged, the better off they have been, are and will be. And the good news is that there is no inevitable end to this process. The more people are drawn into the global division of labour, the more people can specialise and exchange, the wealthier we will all be.


Some will say that I am merely restating what Adam Smith said in 1776. But much has happened since Adam Smith to change, challenge, adjust and amplify his insight. He did not realise, for instance, that he was living through the early stages of an industrial revolution. I cannot hope to match Smith’s genius as an individual, but I have one great advantage over him – I can read his book. Smith’s own insight has mated with others since his day.


Folksonomies: evolution cross-pollination markets hybridization

 The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Ridley , Matt (2010), The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Retrieved on 2017-09-22
Folksonomies: capitalism optimism libertarianism