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Rational optimism for the universe

In The Rational Optimist, I argue that the human technological
and economic take-off derives from the invention of exchange and
specialisation some time before 100,000 years ago. When people
began to trade things, ideas could meet and mate, with the result
that a sort of collective brain could form, far more powerful than
individual brains. Cumulative technology could begin to embody this
collective intelligence.

Of course, I did not invent this idea. In keeping with the
theory, I merely put together the ideas of others, notably those of
Joe Henrich (collective intelligence), Rob Boyd (cumulative
culture), Paul Romer (combinatorial ideas), Haim Ofek (the
invention of exchange) and many others.

There was also the important thought that came from Adam Powell, Stephen Shennan and Mark Thomas,
namely that temporary `outbreaks’ of new technology in Paleolithic
Africa probably have a demographic explanation. That is, when
population density rose, it resulted in a spurt of innovation; when
population density fell, it resulted in technological regress (as
happened in Tasmania when it was isolated). Technology was
sophisticated, in other words, in proportion to the number of
people networked by exchange to sustain and develop it.

By this interpretation, animals with plenty of culture but no
habit of exchange and specialisation between groups — killer
whales, chimpanzees, crows, Neanderthals — do not experience
headlong technological and economic `progress’, however clever they

Michelle Kline and Rob Boyd have since produced evidence from Pacific islands that
technological complexity correlates with population size (and
contact with other islands):

In Oceania, around the time of
early European contact, islands with small populations had less
complicated marine foraging technology. This finding suggests that
explanations of existing cultural variation based on optimality
models alone are incomplete because demography plays an important
role in generating cumulative cultural adaptation. It also
indicates that hominin populations with similar cognitive abilities
may leave very different archaeological records, a conclusion that
has important implications for our understanding of the origin of
anatomically modern humans and their evolved

Now comes a new thought from a completely different direction. A
Russian and a Ukrainian scientist have been modelling the universe
to  understand what happens when civilisations from different
planets meet (hat tip Marc Merlin). Technology Review takes up the tale:

The parameters that govern the
evolution of this universe are simple: the probability of a
civilisation forming, the usual lifespan of such a civilisation and
the extra bonus time civilisations get when they meet.

The result gives a new insight
into the Fermi Paradox. Bezsudnov and Snarskii say that for certain
values of these parameters, the universe undergoes a phase change
from one in which civilisations tend not to meet and spread into
one in which the entire universe tends to become civilised as
different groups meet and spread.

Of course, it is only a model. That is to say, Bezsudnov and Snarskii assume the conditions
that lead to their conclusion:

We assume, that the unique reason
which can prolong a lifetime of the Civilization, is the contact to
other Civilizations. The meeting of Civilizations generates the new
purposes and objects of knowledge, necessity to use an

They have not proved, for example, why civilisations must die
after a certain time if they don’t meet others. But the description
of isolated interstellar civilisations eventually and explosively
linking up and `globalising’ is a pretty good description of what
happened on planet earth over the past 100,000 years:

It is shown that there exists a
scenario when at the given moment almost all Civilizations are
lonely- “there is nothing”, however after some, sufficiently
prolong time Civilizations will get into a contact and the Universe
as a whole becomes civilized. Conclusion is that it is necessary to

That’s an exciting thought with which to go off on holiday. Back
in mid August.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist