What Happens When Ideas Have Sex?

Jun 8, 2012
Originally published on June 8, 2012 9:49 am

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Where Ideas Come From. Watch Matt Ridley's full Talk — When Ideas Have Sex — on TED.com

At TEDGlobal 2010, author Matt Ridley showed how, throughout history, the engine of human progress has been the meeting and mating of ideas to make new ideas — basically "ideas having sex with each other." The sophistication of the modern world lies not in individual intelligence or imagination, he says, instead it's a collective enterprise. That means it's not important how clever individuals are; what really matters is how smart the collective brain is.

About Matt Ridley

In his book The Rational Optimist, British author Matt Ridley sweeps the entire arc of human history to argue that it is our habit of trade, idea-sharing and specialization that has created the collective brain which set human living standards on a rising trend.

Ridley's previous works include Genome, which picks apart the Human Genome Project chromosome by chromosome, and Nature via Nurture, exploring the age-old question: Does nature or nurture that makes us who we are?

About the Entrepreneurs

Vijaya Thakur was working for an organization doing relief work in the Democratic Republic of Congo when she started thinking that relief could be done better at a smaller scale. She left her job and founded the Resolve Network, which aims to promote peace in Eastern Congo through literacy and microfinance.

While working for the Peace Corps in Morocco, Dan Driscoll kept seeing local artists and artisans get underpaid by foreign art dealers for their wares. Wanting to help them earn more revenue, Driscoll founded Anou, a Web-based platform for artisans around the world to sell their wares online.

Steven Nelson, a dot-com boomer turned stay-at-home dad, was looking for something to do while his kids were asleep. He decided to try building a solar turbine, which he believes can bring the cost of solar power below that of fossil fuels. His project lead him to found the non-profit organization Zenman Energy.

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This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart. In 2010, Vijaya Thakur was working at a human rights NGO that focused on the Democratic Republic of Congo. She worked closely with lawmakers, whom she had grown up idolizing. She drafted legislation that would offer relief to Congolese citizens, but Vijaya started doubting that her work was actually doing anything.

VIJAYA THAKUR: No matter how many victories we stacked up in terms of getting laws passed either here on the hill or at the UN, it never seemed to reach the people who were most affected by conflict.

STEWART: Meanwhile, San Diego native Dan Driscoll was living in a small village in Morocco during a stint with the Peace Corps. He made friends with some local artisans, and repeatedly he'd see them being taken advantage of by foreign art dealers.

DAN DRISCOLL: They go around from, you know, town to town, they buy a product at whatever price they ask for, and they turn around and sell it in the States for, you know, what they call a fair price, but it can be anywhere between 200 to 1000 percent markup.

STEWART: While in Norfolk, Virginia, Scott Nelson was a dot-com boomer turned stay-at-home dad.

SCOTT NELSON: And after about, I don't know, six months I just went completely stir crazy, and just had a hard time just sitting still, so I just started figuring out, you know, what could I do while my kids are sleeping?

STEWART: Now all three of these people are doing a fundamental human activity: identifying problems. And they're also looking for solutions. Vijaya, fed up with how Congo relief effort was shaking down, started her own NGO, called the Resolve Network.

THAKUR: In our first year, we worked with 50 women in helping them start their own small businesses, and through them we were able to help over 500 people rise out of extreme global poverty.

STEWART: Dan in Morocco helped artists there earn more money by building a website called Anou.

DRISCOLL: Anou is an online platform designed specifically for computer-illiterate artists and artisans, so that they are able to use the Internet to sell their products abroad independently.

STEWART: And Scott, the stay-at-home dad, started building a solar steam engine.

NELSON: And basically what that does is it focuses sunlight onto water, turns the water into steam, and the steam compresses, turns the steam engine, that steam engine turns a generator and...

STEWART: Today on our program, we're asking where do ideas come from? What's the origin of our innovations?

DRISCOLL: I would think that ideas come from when people find a problem that hasn't been solved, not necessarily looking for a solution but finding the right problem to fix.

THAKUR: When you let go of your notions of what's possible and what's not, and you just let yourself explore, I think that's where ideas come from.

NELSON: I'm fairly convinced that ideas are born from other ideas. Homo erectus, they had like one tool, they had this hand ax, it was basically a sharpened rock. There was one guy that was like, hey, let's sharpen this rock. That idea lasted for a million years.

STEWART: Hang on to this image of a sharpened rock, because science writer Matt Ridley says, that is the key to understanding where ideas come from. First, let's start with Matt's broader assertion, which he made at his 2010 TED Talk, that ideas come from pretty much the same place that babies do.


MATT RIDLEY: In other words, you need to understand how ideas have sex.

STEWART: Matt Ridley, welcome to the TED RADIO HOUR.

RIDLEY: Thank you for having me on the show.

STEWART: Matt, you have to explain to me what you mean by ideas having sex.

RIDLEY: Well, if sex didn't exist, you wouldn't get nearly such progress in evolution. You wouldn't get such complexity in bodies. Because what sex does, it enables you to draw upon genetic inventions anywhere in your species. You're drawing upon genetic mutations that happen anywhere. And I'm saying that exchange had the same impact on our culture that sex had on our biology. It accelerated cultural evolution the same way that sex accelerated biological evolution.

STEWART: In your talk, Matt, you show a really fascinating slide of a tear egg-shaped primitive tool.


RIDLEY: It's an Acheulean hand ax from half a million years ago of the kind made by Homo erectus.

STEWART: And a computer mouse.


RIDLEY: A computer mouse. They're both exactly the same size and shape, to an uncanny degree. I've tried to work out which is bigger, it's almost impossible.

STEWART: So, Matt, what do a hand ax and a computer mouse have to do with ideas having sex?

RIDLEY: I'd always been fascinated by this thing called the Acheulean hand ax, which was kind of the basic human technology that we had for about a million years when we were called Homo erectus, between about a million and a half, and half a million years ago. I suddenly realized that it was exactly the same shape and size as the computer mouse next to it.

So if you imagine a standard wireless computer mouse, that's the size and shape of an Acheulean hand ax. The similarity is what catches your eye between the...

STEWART: It's amazing.

RIDLEY: ...the mouse and the - and the ax. But in my talk I kind of say it's the similarity that's not interesting.


RIDLEY: The differences are what interests me, because the one on the left was made to a pretty unvarying design for about a million years. There was no progress, no innovation. It's an extraordinary phenomenon, but it's true. Whereas the object on the right is obsolete after five years.

And there's another difference too, which is the object on the left is made from one substance. The object on the right is made from a confection of different substances: from silicon and metal and plastic and so on. And more than that, it's a confection of different ideas. The idea of plastic. The idea of a laser. The idea of transistors. They've all been combined together in this technology. And it's this combination, this cumulative technology, that intrigues me.

Because I think it's the secret to understanding what's happening in the world. What's the process that's having the same effect in cultural evolution as sex is having in biological evolution? And I think the answer is exchange. The habit of exchanging one thing for another. It's a unique human feature. No other animal does it. You can teach them in the laboratory to do a little bit of exchange, and indeed there's reciprocity in other animals.

But American Stock Exchange of one object for another never happens. As Adam Smith said, "No man ever saw a dog make a fair exchange of a bone with another dog." Adam takes four hours to make a spear and three hours to make an ax. Oz takes one hour to make a spear and two hours to make an ax. So Oz is better at both spears and axes than Adam. He doesn't need Adam. He can make his own spears and axes.

Well no, because if you think about it, if Oz makes two spears and Adam makes two axes and then they trade, then they will each have saved an hour of work. And the more they do this, the more true it's going to be. Because the more they do this, the better Adam is going to get at making axes, and the better Oz is going to get at making spears, so the gains from trade are only going to grow.

And this is one of the beauties of exchange, is it actually creates the momentum for more specialization which creates the momentum for more exchange and so on. Adam and Oz both saved an hour of time. That is prosperity, the saving of time in satisfying your needs. Ask yourself, how long you would have to work to provide for yourself an hour of reading light this evening to read a book by?

If you had to start from scratch. Let's say you go out into the countryside, you find a sheep, you kill it, you get the fat out of it, you render it down, you make a candle, etc, etc. How long is it going to take you? Quite a long time. How long do you actually have to work to earn an hour of reading light, if you're on the average wage in Britain today? And the answer is about half a second.

Back in 1950, you would have had to work for eight seconds on the average wage to acquire that much light, and that's seven and a half seconds of prosperity that you've gained since 1950, as it were. Because that's seven and a half seconds in which you can do something else, acquire another good or service. Back in 1800, you'd have had to work six hours to earn a candle that could burn for an hour.

In other words, the average person on the average wage could not afford a candle in 1800.

STEWART: Can you explain why you measure prosperity in terms of time?

RIDLEY: Yes, this was an insight that's occurred to a lot of people in the economics profession before. This is what economic prosperity, economic growth, is. It's a reduction in the amount of time it takes to fulfill a need. That's how we fit so much consumption into our lives is by reducing the amount of time it takes to earn it. So I think in the end, the real measure of how well-off you are is how long you have to work to fulfill a need, or indeed a luxury.

The difference between a need and a luxury becomes blurred in the case of, you know, artificial light was a luxury 200 years ago, today it's pretty well a necessity.


RIDLEY: Go back to this image of the ax and the mouse and ask yourself who made them and for who? The stone ax was made by someone for himself. It was self-sufficiency. We call that poverty these days. But the object on the right was made for me by other people. How many other people? Tens, hundreds, thousands? You know I think it's probably millions.

Because you've got to include the man who grew the coffee which was brewed for the man who was on the oil rig who was drilling for oil which was going to be made into the plastic, etc. They were all working for me to make a mouse for me. In the case of the stone ax, the man who made it knew how to make it, but who knows how to make a computer mouse? Nobody. Literally nobody.

There is nobody on the planet who knows how to make a computer mouse.


I mean this quite seriously. The president of the computer mouse company doesn't know, he just knows how to make a - run a company. The mad person on the assembly line doesn't know 'cause he doesn't know how to drill an oil well to get oil out to make plastic, and so on. We all know little bits, but none of us knows the whole.

And what we've done, in human society, through exchange and specialization, is we've created the ability to do things that we don't even understand. It's not the same with language. With language we have to transfer ideas that we understand with each other. With technology, we can actually do things that are beyond our capabilities.

STEWART: In describing this true exchange of ideas, you describe all the benefits that come from it. But couldn't bad ideas have sex too?

RIDLEY: Yes, that's absolutely true. And of course, you know, you can combine two bad ideas and come up with a worse kind of bomb. But, there is a sense in which the more you share ideas, the more transparent you are, the more open you are, the more the good guys can use them and the less the bad guys can. I had a nice example of this recently when I got a computer virus on my laptop.

And I went on a website to find out how to solve this, on someone else's computer. And there I found right up-to-date chat rooms talking about this virus, and about how to solve the latest version of it. That people were sharing. People were sharing how - the solutions to this problem. Now the bad guys can't share their solutions to the solution. They can - you know, a few of them can get together and privately email each other about them, but they can't put them out there, otherwise it's - you know, it makes the virus useless.

So there's a sense in which sunlight is a great disinfectant on the Internet, and in the affairs of human beings generally. I think that the openness of people to other ideas has, on the whole, allowed good ideas to spread faster than bad ideas. Cause for a bad idea to spread, someone's got to benefit from it. And, on the whole...


NELSON: ...the problem with a bad idea is that a lot of people are not benefiting from it. In fact they're being harmed by it, so they're not going to spread it.


RIDLEY: It's the interchange of ideas, the meeting and mating of ideas that is causing technological progress, incrementally, bit by bit, however bad things happen. And in the future, as we go forward, we will of course experience terrible things. There will be wars. There will be depressions. There will be natural disasters. Awful things will happen in this century, I'm absolutely sure.

But I'm also sure that because of the connections people are mating, and the ability of ideas to meet and to mate as never before, I'm also sure that technology will advance and, therefore, living standards will advance. Thank you.

STEWART: Science writer, Matt Ridley, is the author of the "Rational Optimist," "Nature Via Nurture", as well as other books. Matt, thanks for being with us on the TED RADIO HOUR.

RIDLEY: Thank you for having me on the TED RADIO HOUR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.