American Elephants

The Natural Evolution of Ideas: The Case for Optimism. by The Elephant's Child

The argument is over. The case for wind has become obsolete. Hadn’t you heard? Up until about five years ago, it was assumed that natural gas would be the first fuel to run out. Gas will be the world’s dominant fuel for the next century.  All because of a man you have probably never heard of named George Mitchell.  As Matt Ridley says in an important essay for The Spectator (UK):

A chap called George Mitchell turned the gas industry on its head. Using just the right combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) – both well-established technologies — he worked out how to get gas out of shale, where most of it is, rather than just out of (conventional) porous rocks, where it sometimes pools. The Barnett shale in Texas, where Mitchell worked, turned into one of the biggest gas reserves in America. Then the Haynesville shale in Louisiana dwarfed it. The Marcellus shale mainly in Pennsylvania then trumped that with a barely believable 500 trillion cubic feet of gas, as big as any oil field ever found, on the doorstep of the biggest market in the world.

The International Energy Agency reckons there is a quarter of a millennium’s worth of cheap shale gas in the world. A company called Cuadrilla drilled a hole in Blackpool, hoping to find a few trillion cubic feet of gas. Last month it announced 200 trillion cubic feet, nearly half the size of the giant Marcellus field. That’s enough to keep the entire British economy going for many decades. And it’s just the first field to have been drilled.

Matt Ridley is the British author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. He has a PhD in Zoology from Oxford, and is a former science editor of the Economist. A very interesting chap. His most recent book is The Rational Optimist: which is my current enthusiasmIt is a very optimistic book, a quality it shares with my enthusiasm for An Empire of Wealth by John Steele Gordon. Ridley writes “about the rapid, continuous and incessant change that human society experiences in a way that no other does.”

It is not as if human nature changes.  Just as the hand that held the hand axe was the same shape as the hand that holds the [computer] mouse, so people always have and always will seek food, desire sex, care for offspring, compete for status and avoid pain just like any other animal.  Many of the idiosyncrasies of the human species are unchanging, too.  You can travel to the farthest corner of the earth and still expect to encounter singing, smiling, speech, sexual jealousy and a sense of humor — none of which you would find to be the same in a chimpanzee. …

Yet to say that life is the same as it was 32,000 years ago would be absurd. In that time my species has multiplied by 100,000 percent, from perhaps three million to nearly seven billion people. It has given itself comforts and luxuries to a level that no other species can even imagine. It has colonised every habitable corner of the planet and explored almost every uninhabitable one. It has altered the appearance, the genetics, and the chemistry of the world and pinched perhaps 23 per cent of the productivity of all land plants for its own purposes. It has surrounded itself with peculiar, non-random arrangements of atoms called technologies, which it invents, reinvents and discards almost continuously. …

To argue that human nature has not changed, but human culture has, does not mean rejecting evolution — quite the reverse. Humanity is experiencing an extraordinary burst of evolutionary change, driven by good old-fashioned Darwinian natural selection. But it is selection among ideas, not among genes. The habitat in which these ideas reside consists of human brains.

“Ideas.” Ridley says, “have sex.”  What a marvelous shorthand way of explaining how innovation happens and whole economies evolve by natural selection. By exchanging food or tools with others in such a way that both parties to the exchange were better off,  humans discovered division of labor, and each became more specialised. Specialization encouraged innovation because it encouraged the investment of time in making tool-making tools.

Should disaster strike, when I ran through my box of matches, I’d probably be sunk. I was never a Boy Scout or a Girl Scout.  I know the principle of making fire, but I’d probably freeze before I could manage it successfully. I am surrounded by things that I could not make. But ideas are communitarian.  Ideas have sex.  There are no new ideas that are not derived, inspired or related to other ideas. Everything is connected, sometimes in surprising ways.

Henry Ford wanted to make an automobile that was accessible for ordinary people. The Model T was designed to be operated by anyone, and to survive the unpaved roads of the day. The idea that made him famous, and the Model T successful came from a chance visit to a meat-packing plant. Carcases were suspended from a moving line and butchered into parts at succeeding stations. That gave him the idea for an assembly line, and the modern factory was born.  How many people has visited a meat-packing plant and come out with only the idea that they’d rather not see how sausage was made.

The statists in government are sure that they can direct the creation of ideas, and jobs, and business and progress better than is done by the free market and natural selection. The statists and communitarians keep turning up, and they never seem to learn from history, which they never seem to have read.

Do download or print out Matt Ridley’s brief essay on energy.  It’s a keeper.

%d bloggers like this: