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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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The Rational Optimist in the Wall Street Journal

Human take-off after 45,000 years ago followed the invention of exchange

I have a long article in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal.

It tries to explain how

the sophistication of the modern world lies not in individual intelligence or imagination. It is a collective enterprise. Nobody-literally nobody-knows how to make the pencil on my desk (as the economist Leonard Read once pointed out), let alone the computer on which I am writing. The knowledge of how to design, mine, fell, extract, synthesize, combine, manufacture and market these things is fragmented among thousands, sometimes millions of heads. Once human progress started, it was no longer limited by the size of human brains. Intelligence became collective and cumulative.

This explains why human beings suddenly experienced explosive progress after 45,000 years ago, following millions of years of culture that changes no faster than genes:

Dense populations don't produce innovation in other species. They only do so in human beings, because only human beings indulge in regular exchange of different items among unrelated, unmated individuals and even among strangers. So here is the answer to the puzzle of human takeoff. It was caused by the invention of a collective brain itself made possible by the invention of exchange.

This is an idea that has been slowly crystallising among anthropologists and archeologists for a while. I am trying to pull the threads together, as I do in my book.

Some nice lightbulb images: