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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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How to unlearn pessimism

Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal, on `unlearning':

For adults, one of the most important lessons to learn in life is the necessity of unlearning. We all think that we know certain things to be true beyond doubt, but these things often turn out to be false and, until we unlearn them, they get in the way of new understanding. Among the scientific certainties I have had to unlearn: that upbringing strongly shapes your personality; that nurture is the opposite of nature; that dietary fat causes obesity more than dietary carbohydrate; that carbon dioxide has been the main driver of climate change in the past.

I came across a rather good word for this kind of unlearning-"disenthrall"-in Mark Stevenson's book "An Optimist's Tour of the Future," published just this week. Mr. Stevenson borrows it from Abraham Lincoln, whose 1862 message to Congress speaks of disenthralling ourselves of "the dogmas of the quiet past" in order to "think anew."

 

Mr. Stevenson's disenthrallment comes in the course of a series of sharp and fascinating interviews with technological innovators and scientific visionaries. This disenthralls him of the pessimism about the future and nostalgia about the past that he barely realized he had and whose "fingers reach deep into [his] soul." It eventually turns him into an optimist almost as ludicrously sanguine about the 21st century as I am: "I steadfastly refuse to believe that human society can't grow, improve and learn; that it can't embrace change and remake the world better."

Along the way, Mr. Stevenson is struck by other examples of how the way he thinks and reasons is "in thrall to a world that is passing." The first of these bad habits is linear thinking about the future. He cures this with the help of the inventor Ray Kurzweil, who champions transhumanism, the idea of living forever with the help of technology.

We expect to see changes coming gradually, but because things like computing power or the cheapness of genome sequencing change exponentially, technologies can go from impossible to cheap quite suddenly and with little warning. Extrapolating often fails because of diminishing returns; it also fails because of accelerating returns.

The second mental "reboot," which Mr. Stevenson gets from biotech entrepreneur Juan Henriquez, is that evolution is not over. "Attempting to hold on to something 'essentially human' by trying to fight against something that humans do best-evolve through culture and technology-is a contradictory and ultimately futile course of action." Our morals change as our technologies change, and there is not much we can do to stop it.

I would put it slightly differently: We are always on a path, never at a turning point (every generation narcissistically thinks it stands at a turning point in history). There simply is no ideal human social arrangement, and there won't ever be one. For me this has been the biggest disenthrallment of all-the growing realization of the ever-changing, chronically dynamic nature of the world. "Nothing endures," said Heraclitus (supposedly), "but change."

The third of Mr. Stevenson's unlearnings, helped by the "radical innovation" strategist John Seely Brown, is to escape from top-down thinking. "Hierarchies are on the way out; networks are on the way in."

Here too I am with Mr. Stevenson. I am becoming a bit obsessed with how misleading the word capitalism is to describe what is now happening in the free-enterprise system. Facebook is an utterly different form of business from Andrew Carnegie's U.S. Steel, not least in needing far less capital.

And what comes next will be even more different as people use the Internet to share and swap, and as corporations turn themselves into fast-changing virtual networks of temporary collaboration rather than centrally directed executors of fixed plans in fixed places.

How many other false nostrums still infect my brain, unchallenged and unexamined, to obstruct the arrival of fresh thoughts?

 

Update: It turns out Mark Stevenson is not the first to link Lincoln's word `disenthrall' to the idea of unlearning. Jack Uldrich  did the same a couple of years ago. Not that either Mark or I claimed priority for him.