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Why Cooperative Wisdom is More Important than Individual IQs

At TED Global 2010, author Matt Ridley argued that, through history, the engine of human progress and prosperity has been, and is, “ideas having sex with each other.” The basic idea being that technology and living standards will keep advancing as long as people keep making connections, leading to continuous meeting and mating of ideas.

Somewhere close to the end of his talk, he made this interestingly unconventional remark about I.Q.

Quoting from a famous essay by Leonard Read, the economist in the 1950s, called “I, Pencil” in which he wrote about how a pencil came to be made, and how nobody knows even how to make a pencil, because the people who assemble it don’t know how to mine graphite, and they don’t know how to fell trees and that kind of thing. And what we’ve done in human society, through exchange and specialization, is we’ve created the ability to do things that we don’t even understand. It’s not the same with language. With language we have to transfer ideas that we understand with each other. But with technology, we can actually do things that are beyond our capabilities.

We’ve gone beyond the capacity of the human mind to an extraordinary degree. And by the way, that’s one of the reasons that I’m not interested in the debate about I.Q., about whether some groups have higher I.Q.s than other groups. It’s completely irrelevant.

What’s relevant to a society is how well people are communicating their ideas, and how well they’re cooperating, not how clever the individuals are.

In his 2011 interview with Dumbo Feather, Chris Anderson said about Ridley’s insight: I think that’s a perfectly good way to think of it. Every receiving brain out there is different, everyone is prepped a little differently, and when you combine a set of ideas from here, and a set of ideas from there, and mix them up, it’s in the mixing and in the provocation and in the catalytic work that occasionally something truly spectacular and new pops out.

The whole of Ridley’s talk is insightful and worth your time, I suggest you head over to TED to watch the video or read the transcript. You may also complement this insight about ideas and the connection between them with Chris Anderson on how knowledge is connected.

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