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In Virtue/Vice, Dr. Christine B. Whelan blogs about news, books, scientific and psychological research and her general musings about virtue and vice in our everyday lives.

 

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January 21st, 2011

When Ideas Have Sex

 
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ideashavesex-flashI was predisposed to like this piece in Scientific American based on its title alone:

When Ideas Have Sex: How free exchange between people increases prosperity and trust

But it’s not just a provocative title. The parallel between the benefits of intermixing genes to create new life and the benefits of sharing ideas to create prosperity makes a lot of sense.

Writes Michael Shermer:

the free exchange between people of goods, services and especially ideas leads to trust between strangers and prosperity for more people. Think of it as ideas having sex. That is what zoologist and science writer Matt Ridley calls it in his book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (HarperCollins, 2010). Ridley is optimistic that “the world will pull out of the current crisis because of the way that markets in goods, services and ideas allow human beings to exchange and specialize honestly for the betterment of all.”

Sex evolved because the benefit of the diversity created through the intermixture of genomes outweighed the costs of engaging in it, and so we enjoy exchanging our genes with one another, and life is all the richer for it. Likewise ideas. “Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution,” Ridley writes, and “the more human beings diversified as consumers and specialized as producers, and the more they then exchanged, the better off they have been, are and will be. And the good news is that there is no inevitable end to this process. The more people are drawn into the global division of labour, the more people can specialize and exchange, the wealthier we will all be.”

He points to recent research showing that trade makes people act more fairly and concludes

In other words, our ancestors had sex with people they knew, but their ideas had sex with strangers, and this form of trade led to trust and prosperity.

Take that to your next cocktail party and see what it does for conversation.

 
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The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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