Only a Biologist Can Go to Universal Humanism
By Bart Wilson
When I first read the manuscript for The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley had me hooked on p. 8:
And I find a deep incuriosity among trained economists–of which I am not one–about defining what prosperity is and why it happened to their species.
If you crack open a graduate or intermediate level economics textbook to the first section on consumer theory, try and find a distinction in kind for its application to humans, chimpanzees, or pigeons. Everything works for any species as long as the choices are consistent with a set of axioms. Nothing special here to note.
Most principles books open with some version of the definition of economics as the study of how (an anthropomorphic) society allocates scarce resources among unlimited wants. Just stuff shifting around from here to there. No need to note that the society is comprised of people.
Even experimental economists who study what people do in the laboratory take for granted that the study of economics is about human beings. When a college sophomore does something we do not recognize in an experiment, the first response is that the participant must be “confused.” Why? Because I would never do something like that unless I was confused. If I were to call my collaborators at Georgia State’s Language Research Center and report that subject 4 in the data set must have been confused because I cannot reject the null hypothesis that he was flipping a coin, they would say, “Didn’t you meet subject 4? Gabe is a capuchin monkey.” The difference between human and nonhuman primatologists is that the latter are reminded of human exceptionalism when they reward their subjects.
There are many reasons why I think that The Rational Optimist is the best introduction to economics. Of course the book is no substitute for mastering the body of material covered in principles or intermediate courses on economics. But Matt Ridley does what few authors of introductory texts do and all should: Put the focus on the well being of people, all people.
Ridley does more than just remind us that, lucky for us, world GDP per capita for Homo sapiens has been growing exponentially since 1800, and that it has been stuck at zero for every other species in the history of the planet. By focusing on the exceptionalism of our species as a whole, Ridley creates an “Us” that has no corresponding “Them.” As a biologist writing about wealth creation, Ridley’s first instinct isn’t to compare what life is like in the
U.S.U.K. relative to some other habitat on the planet. The first order question is, why is Homo sapiens living longer, healthier, and less violent lives on the third rock from the sun?
Yesterday my class vigorously discussed the Prologue and Chapter 1. Over and over, for each mention of a “we” there was an implied if not an explicit “they.” (My co-instructors and I are partly responsible for this by presenting the organizing question as, what makes a rich nation rich? Old habits die hard.) As consummate comparers, we take notice that some geographic areas of the planet are home to members of Homo sapiens who are more prosperous than others. The biologist, however, wonders less about these differences and puzzles over the glaring fact that the species was as poor as it always had been and then something changed around 1800. In posing the question as why is only our species prosperous, Ridley transmutes a unique biological fact into a treatise on the humanity of Homo sapiens.