The evolution of progress

I'm just back from a symposium which discussed the draft of a new book by my friend and former colleague Matt Ridley, author of "The Red Queen", "The Origins of Virtue", "Genome"--each of them a masterpiece of popular science writing.  The new book applies Matt's interest in evolutionary science to economics. It takes a long view, and a very optimistic one. It is a kind of antidote to Jared Diamond's pessimism. It is still at an early stage, and I have some questions about the thesis, but the first draft is brilliant and I don't doubt the final version will be essential reading.

I came away from the meeting with a long reading list and several thoughts. First, all symposiums--but especially those discussing grounds for optimism about the human project--should be held in Napa Valley. Conditions in the area lend themselves to cheerfulness, at times almost excessively so. (It is not for nothing that I got married there. Not this week, you understand. That was a previous visit.)

Second, the interface between genetics and economics is well worth exploring. I reached the same conclusion a few years ago after reading Paul Seabright's "The Company of Strangers", a really wonderful book that has not had the readership it deserves. (Here is a review I wrote for The Economist.) Perhaps the literature is about to blossom now, however. A lot of research seems to be under way.

One of the participants in the symposium was Anna Dreber, who has been researching among other things the links between testosterone and risk-taking in financial markets, and the connection between a certain genetic trait, DRD4, and economic behaviour. DRD4 appears to be linked to migration--a highly entrepreneurial activity--and again to financial risk-taking. One wonders whether bank regulators, in the aftermath of some future financial meltdown, will want banks to monitor the incidence of DRD4 among their employees, and perhaps set higher capital requirements for institutions with too high a reading. (Explicit genetic discrimination in hiring will be illegal, of course, so the issue will have to be dealt with after the fact. Alternatively, they could just hire more women.)

Robin Hanson of GMU and Overcoming Bias was also at the meeting. He gave an excellent presentation on the misunderstood pre-history of economic growth. He offers some further reflections on the topic, deeper than mine, on his blog.