Bryan Caplan  

Ridley, Simon, Population, and Innovation

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Matt Ridley ends his excellent Julian Simon Award Lecture with a criticism:

Having paid homage to Julian Simon's ideas, let me end by disagreeing with him on one thing. At least I think I am disagreeing with him, but I may be wrong. He made the argument, which was extraordinary and repulsive to me when I first heard it as a young and orthodox eco-pessimist, that the more people in the world, the more invention...

Now there is a version of this argument that - for some peculiar reason - is very popular among academics, namely that the more people there are, the greater the chance that one of them will be a genius, a scientific or technological Messiah.

Occasionally, Julian Simon sounds like he is in this camp. And if he were here today, -- and by Zeus, I wish he were - I would try to persuade him that this is not the point, that what counts is not how many people there are but how well they are communicating.
A strange claim.  Isn't the correct position clearly that both population and communication matter?  A two-person world linked by Skype wouldn't be very creative.  Neither would a world of a trillion people in solitary confinement.  Creativity requires minds to generate ideas, and mouths to share them.

Ridley continues: 
I would tell him about the new evidence from Paleolithic Tasmania, from Mesolithic Europe from the Neolithic Pacific, and from the internet today, that it's trade and exchange that breeds innovation, through the meeting and mating of ideas. That the lonely inspired genius is a myth, promulgated by Nobel prizes and the patent system.
The importance of rare geniuses is an interesting question for discussion.  But who ever even hinted that lonely geniuses are the crucial ingredient?
This means that stupid people are just as important as clever ones...
This is frankly an absurd leap.  Geniuses are overrated?  Maybe.  Stupid people are "just as important" for progress as clever ones?  Come on.  Question for Ridley: Whose the most creative person alive with an IQ under 100?  Under 80?
...that the collective intelligence that gives us incredible improvements in living standards depends on people's ideas meeting and mating, more than on how many people there are.
If "meeting and mating" are so important, doesn't that suggest that creativity will be more than proportional to population?  If so, isn't population even more important than it seems?
That's why a little country like Athens or Genoa or Holland can suddenly lead the world.
Can?  Sure.  But is it typical for little countries to lead the world in innovation?  Hardly. 



COMMENTS (17 to date)
Matt Ridley writes:

Thanks for the comments, Bryan. Let me make three quick responses.

First, I know of a lot of people who are not conventionally clever but who contribute to innovation by making tiny tweaks to machines or routines. That's very much my point, that innovation is not a series of intuitive leaps but often unplanned micro-steps that come together. (Kevin Kelly's book What Technology Wants is a brilliant addition to this literature.) I am thinking of one guy in particular who can adjust or mend almost anything, but could never pass an exam or hold much of a conversation. I just think there is a strong prejudice among academic types (of which I am one) to miss the point that most innovation consists of bottom-up infinitesimal cumulative improvements and to think in terms of big ideas: the inspiration, rather than the perspiration.

As for small countries leading the world, I would argue it is almost the rule. To Athens, Genoa, Holland, let me add New York (for much of America was superfluous to America's economic explosion in the nineteenth century), San Jose, CA (for there was a remarkable concentration of innovation there in recent decades) Singapore, Hongkong, or going back in time Tyre, Sybaris, Pataliputra. Britain, when it embarked on the industrial revolution had less than half the population of France: this was clearly no disadvantage. I think it is rather striking how infrequently big countries like Russia, France, the Roman empire, the Ming Empire do lead the world economically. (Military might is a different matter.)

As for the notion that both population and connectedness matter, sure up to a point. To have 10,000 people is a lot better than to have 5,000. But to have a billion instead of 500m? I'm not convinced.

Best wishes

Matt Ridley

RAD writes:
But who ever even hinted that lonely geniuses are the crucial ingredient?

Ayn Rand for one. That is kind of the premise behind Atlas Shrugged isn't it? The industrious genius class goes on strike and the world can not cope without them.

I think Matt's point is very insightful and possibly counter-intuitive. Ayn Rand's fictional Galt's Gulch is not sustainable. Its missing a critical mass of regular non-geniuses.

Rand rightfully mocks the left and their idea of the selfless philosopher king but her premise that individual genius is the motor that drives the invisible hand is mistaken (IMHO).

philemonloy writes:
To have 10,000 people is a lot better than to have 5,000. But to have a billion instead of 500m? I'm not convinced.

I grant the point that small countries and cities are often places where lots of innovation take place--because they are also places where people are in closer proximity with each other and hence cost of communication is low and connectedness is high within a small space. But many of the historically innovative 'small places' are also places with a high migrant population. So While NY City and San Jose CA might be (relatively) small, they have a very large pool to draw from--most of the world, in fact. One might even argue that the existence of these places function as a catalyst for people to do a bit of self-sorting: people who are naturally more innovative, go-getting, gung-ho, etc., gravitate to the erstwhile small places, which makes them especially innovative places. If this is right, then it's not just 5,000 vs. 10,000 vs. 500m--it also matters whether the 10,000 is drawn from a larger or smaller pool. (Thought experiment: could San Jose have become the sort of place it is if only people from the SF Bay Area are allowed to live there? People from CA? People from the USA? People from all over the world?)

J Storrs Hall writes:

There was an amazing flowering of science in France at the dawn of the nineteenth century. D. S. L. Cardwell writes, "During the years 1790-1825 France had more scientists and technologists of first rank than any other nation ever had over a comparable period of time." We can mention Carnot, Lavoisier, Laplace, Montgolfier, Dulong, Petit, Biot, Fresnel, Gay-Lussac, Ampere, Savart, Fourier, Coriolis, Cauchy, and Lamarck--and these are just the ones whose names are attached to scientific laws and inventions that have survived to the present.

What's more, the advancement of science and technology was a well-funded national policy. Sadi Carnot was a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique, an institution that had no parallel in England or anywhere else at the time. England by contrast, far from supporting its scientists, allowed top caliber people to be hounded for religious or other reasons. While the leading scientists of France were given seats at the Ecole or other institutions and expected to teach the next generation of French scientists, Joseph Priestly, the discoverer of oxygen, was run out of England for his religious beliefs, and lived out his life in America.

Besides the names, the textbooks and technical literature of France were notably superior. Charles Babbage, forefather of the computer and holder of the Lucasian chair at Cambridge (the professorship Newton had held), writes of searching for French calculus books and starting a society for the adoption of the Leibnitzian notation over the cumbersome Newtonian one.

It was not only an academic leadership. France was the acknowledged leader in most fields of actual technology. From the Jacquard loom, an early example of automated control, to the invention of the balloon and parachute, the French were ahead. Their roads, bridges, and cathedrals were better. They even built more advanced ships than the British at the time. French policy included public recognition and prizes for scientific and technical discoveries, and public funds were available for the development of new inventions.

So if you are a technological forecaster, what do you think happened next? What actually happened, of course, is that the Industrial Revolution occurred in Britain, not France. By 1850, Britain had railroads; Britain had steamships; Britain had the leading engine, machine tool, and textile industries in the world.

(This is from my book Nanofuture)

If I'd been making Ridley's speech, I'd have said "brilliant" and "average" instead of "clever" and "stupid", but that may be more an artifact of two peoples separated by a common tongue.

But with that proviso, I agree with Ridley. Progress and innovation happen when the system (a) pushes people to make innovations that matter rather than innovations that merely impress other smart people, and (b) allows innovations to be freely copied, tested, and modified.

The essence of technology, as with science, is not so much the brilliant idea, but the fact that it is thoroughly tested by experiment and experience. Lots of average people working with it provides that essential component of the overall learning process.

DPG writes:

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D writes:

Jason collins weighs in:

http://www.jasoncollins.org/2012/06/population-connectivity-and-innovation/

Glen Smith writes:

Remember that the two big drivers of innovation are laziness and need. Further, smart. clever people always need minions to manipulate and thus need to find the cheapest means to support such a class.

Ken B writes:

Athens, Florence, Edinburgh. Explain.

Ted Levy writes:

Who is the most creative person among people with an IQ of greater than 150?

Nathan Smith writes:

I'm with Bryan: population and communication both matter. And I don't think there's any upper bound to the population increases that will keep benefiting innovation. Though they might make the world poorer at some point because Malthusian factors could OFFSET the innovation benefits, of course.

As for why Athens, Florence, Edinburgh, etc. are not counter-examples, there are several ways to think about it.

First, you just have better odds. Suppose that places of a given population has a 1-in-100 chance of being really innovative in a given year. The more places you have, the more super-innovative places you have, and so the more ideas.

Second, as philemonloy says, centers of innovation tend to draw migrants from a much larger, so to speak, catchment area. Ancient Athens was a city of immigrants, as were 19th-century New York and London, 17th-century Holland, and so forth. These places would be a lot less innovative if they could only draw on their own talent.

Third, centers of innovation are part of a larger division of labor. New York can't feed itself. It gets fed by the rest of America. If it had to feed itself, it would have to spread out, communication would slow down, and it would be a lot less innovative.

Fourth-- but this is closely related-- having a large market increases the pay-off to innovation. San Jose, CA couldn't have made a living off of developing the internet if the internet was only used in San Jose, CA. It's because the internet has a billion plus users that new apps can be so profitable. By the same token, the 17th-century Netherlands couldn't have thrived off the spice trade if only the Dutch were buying spices. They were selling to all of Europe. That's one reason why growth in India and China is good news for the whole world: by increasing *demand* for innovation, they can accelerate global growth. Vasco da Gama's explorations were profitable because spices were insanely expensive, and those high prices reflected demand throughout all of Europe, not just Portugal.

It's probably true that 90% of humanity has a negligible chance of coming up with a crucial new idea, even of an inarticulate and non-academic kind such as Matt Ridley's mechanic friend. Maybe they could under the right circumstances but they're not plugged into the right communication networks to have an impact. They can still contribute to innovation in all these indirect ways, though.

D writes:

Are there any large, decently connected low IQ populations? What kind of technological innovations have they produced?

If there are no examples of decently connected low IQ populations, why is that? There are certainly large samples of low IQ populations at present and dating back to the beginnning of civilization.

D writes:

"Who is the most creative person among people with an IQ of greater than 150?"

Steve Hsu has shown that most Nobel Prize winners are in this category (145+). So, take your pick.

Finch writes:

Concentration of smart people in small areas seems to be part of the trick. That might be easier to support with a generally large population, but it isn't exactly the same thing.

And I wonder whether the internet has the effect of reducing the need for physical concentration.

Mark Bahner writes:

"To have 10,000 people is a lot better than to have 5,000. But to have a billion instead of 500m? I'm not convinced."

The important thing to recognize is that (by my calculations, but anyone should get the same general result):

In 2000, the world's personal computers added about 100 human brain equivalents (HBEs).

In 2010, the world's personal computers added about 100,000 HBEs.

In 2020, the world's personal computers will add about 100,000,000 HBEs.

In 2030, the world's personal computers will add about 100 billion HBEs.

In 2040, the world's personal computers will add about 1 quadrillion HBEs.

In other words, in less than 2-3 decades, the increases in computer human brain equivalents will dwarf the number of conventional human brains.

So long as those computers minds work for good instead of eeevil, it should result in absolutely astonishing rates of innovation. It won't matter whether the rate of innovation is more influenced by the number of people or the number of smart people or the communication between people.

Jim Glass writes:

As to "little countries" leading in innovation and creativity or not, as I said about population in the other thread, ceteris isn't paribus.

E.g., in historical times it is clear that small nations and city states (Athens and the Greek city states, Venice and the Italian cities, the small states of western Europe etc.) were far more competitive and thus more innovative than the big states and Empires that lacked competition and outright forbade innovation to lock in political stability.

(Anyone who doubts the degree of this should read Why Nations Fail, e.g. on how the Austrian-Hungarian Empire's leaders forbade factories and railroads in the 19th Century -- which made it a bad idea for them to rush into WWI, which fact they didn't appreciate until later. I have my quibbles about WNF, but its survey of how throughout all history leaders everywhere have suppressed innovation by itself makes the book worth reading, IMHO.)

But in our time with competition in world-wide markets the norm -- innovation not only allowed but demanded -- it's entirely different from those days. Advances depend on specialization, the degree of which depends on the size of the market.

So in the "'small v big' are the best innovators" argument, it's kind of pointless to argue Athens or Genoa way back then versus the United States today as examples that refute each other.

The world was entirely different in different eras, so there's no problem with the correct answer being "small" in some eras and "big" in others.

Stuart Buck writes:

Worth mentioning: this paper finding that innovation increases disproportionately as population grows. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1852329/?tool=pmcentrez

GIVCO writes:

1,000,000 people living in littoral zones (e.g., Mesolithic Europe) are not going to innovate like the aggregate of 100,000 people there, 200,000 in the Levant, 200,000 in and around the Loire valley, 100,000 in forested Germany, and 200,000 migrating in from the Levant.

In the first case, the 1 million all survive and suffer the same way.

In the second case, different climate, ecology, and geology stimulate different strategies, different navigation technology, husbandry and agriculture, applied materials, etc. If those disparate groups trade, they obtain new technologies and processes, adapt, and innovate to improve productivity, compounded. External markets stimulate local communities of specialists (division of labor) that accelerate innovation.

This is exactly what happened in pre-Hellenic Europe and it's world-wide lead in innovation has never ceased (don't believe the nonsense about "dark ages").

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