Are we individuals who achieve great things on our own, or do we achieve progress collectively?
This question is usually viewed as an either/or proposition, although I have suggested elsewhere that we are actually both individuals and members of collectives at the same time.
According to Matt Ridley – a British science writer, former banker and Wall Street Journal columnist – when it comes to progress the collective is key. In a talk he gave at Zeitgeist 2012 (sort of Google’s answer to TED), he observes that the modern world achieves many things that nobody actually knows how to do. He concludes “it’s run by collective, not individual intelligence.”
How can this be? Ridley argues that an essential ingredient for progress is the exchange of goods and information. He notes:
Exchange is the source of innovation. Exchange is playing the same role in technology and economics that sex is playing in biology…Sex enables two genes to come together and mate. Technology depends on ideas meeting and mating in the same way…
He uses as an example the pill camera, which can be used to examine parts of the gastrointestinal tract. Ridley says “…it came about after a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided missile designer.”
It’s an interesting talk – a helpful counterpoint to the American myth of the lone tycoon. It reminds us that others play a vital role in our own accomplishments.