Our social nature through trade, or when ideas have sex

This TED talk by Matt Ridley deftly summarizes the inherent power and benefit in our social nature and reinforces why we live in societies and perform public services for each other.

I concede that his notion of ideas having sex seems odd and maybe needlessly provocative–until you hear his presentation. Then it makes total sense.

Here’s his gist on that point. Stone Age man made the same stone hand ax using the same materials and methods for 30,000 generations. That’s a type of social and cultural idea, replicated identically (asexually, as it were) through those generations. Even today, social animals like apes practice this type of culture, for instance when they teach their young how to use rocks to crack open nuts.

But for 30,000 generations that stone hand ax idea never combined with other ideas, other materials, other methods. When humans became uniquely social by distributing and trading goods and ideas across multiple social groups and long distances, materials and methods from one social group in one area combined with those from another to create new ideas using new materials and new methods, like combining sharp stone implements with wood and vines to create hatchets and spears. We moved from simple replication to a true and unique diversity of ideas born from recombination. Ideas having sex.

Ridley also points out that trading materials, methods, and ideas is ten times older than agriculture. And what do we call it when people come together to exchange things of value? A market. If trade has been around for 100,000 years, helping to shape who we are as societies, so has marketing.

The power of specialized labor, which Ridley also touches on, frees us up to continue pursing recombinant ideas. Part of specialized labor is public services, the maintenance of the social group as a whole. By supplying public service, we (can) empower all members of society to contribute their recombinant ideas, thereby creating a virtuous cycle. Conversely, unfairness in public services prevents all members from fully contributing, slowing down this virtuous cycle to the detriment of all.

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