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The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

3.97  ·  Rating Details ·  5,210 Ratings  ·  494 Reviews
Life is getting better—and at an accelerating rate. Food availability, income, and life span are up; disease, child mortality, and violence are down — all across the globe. Though the world is far from perfect, necessities and luxuries alike are getting cheaper; population growth is slowing; Africa is following Asia out of poverty; the Internet, the mobile phone, and conta ...more
Hardcover, 448 pages
Published May 18th 2010 by Harper (first published 2010)
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I wanted to read this because of the excellent review in the Economist: Getting better all the time: The biological, cultural and economic forces behind human progress .

But I started out skeptical. I’m fairly optimistic that in the long term humans are pretty good at ratcheting up to a better future, but my gut reaction to the wide array of problems facing today’s civilization is that the cumulative effect might trigger a global “reset button” handing us a new Dark Age, relatively speaking, wit
Daniel Lemire
Oct 06, 2011 Daniel Lemire rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I just finished Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. Because I am an overly pessimistic individual, I expected to hate the book.

I loved the book.

I should point out where I read the book, because context is important in this case. I was in Berlin. My hotel room was about 50 meters away from Checkpoint Charlie the central point of the cold war. I was within 2 minutes the remains of a train station where thousands of Jews were sent to their death. I was near the remains of the Berlin wall built to pre
Mar 18, 2012 Andrew rated it it was amazing
Every so often you come across a book that causes you to reevaluate the way you view the world. The Rational Optimist is definitely one of those books. Personally, I think this may be one of the most important books of the last 10 years. In many ways I am an optimist, but when it comes to the bigger picture of the world I would have to admit I have been a pessimist for some time. While I certainly am pessimistic about the short-term in America, we are going to have to feel some pain at some poin ...more
Koen Crolla
Nov 21, 2011 Koen Crolla rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Ridley makes the obvious point that life is now better than it has been at any point in humanity's past by virtually any metric, even metrics not designed specifically to make this point (like GDP), for basically everyone. Having done this for a few dozen pages (during which he is guilty of only a few instances of exaggeration, cherry picking, or intentional omission of information; his thesis really is largely true), he realises he can never fill a book with it, so he goes off into surprisingly ...more
Jul 26, 2010 Andrew rated it did not like it
Ridley's books on genetics and evolution are clear, well-supported books on the topic, so I was looking forward to his newest piece of non-fiction. Instead it is a conflation of economics, anthropology, genetics, gaming and a half-dozen other disciplines that argues "don't worry, be happy" about human progress.

Though he's right about human progress over centuries, the book would have been laughed off the market had it appeared in a period like that after World War II, when tens of millions had
Jun 16, 2012 Steve rated it it was amazing
Another Goodreads member, Helen Grant, wrote a scathing review of The Rational Optimist:

I found it particularly offensive and hypocritical that she took Ridley to task for his tone, calling it “blithe and pompous” in the midst of a review which was itself sarcastic, insulting, smugly self-congratulatory, and just plain vulgar. Certainly, Ridley can be sarcastic, and I consider that a blemish on his otherwise excellent writing. However, if Grant is going to
Sep 16, 2010 Max rated it liked it
3.5. I loved the first two chapters of this. After that, it got steadily worse and I ended up skipping the last 100 pgs.

The premise is that human culture is very adept at innovating and solving problems; as such, the author believes that, despite the pessimism of most people, one can very rationally feel quite optimistic over the future of humanity. We will find solutions to climate change and the other great problems that our species faces.

I am sympathetic to this argument and I thought that
Apr 08, 2011 Gordon rated it really liked it
Here is the central thesis of The Rational Optimist: What is uniquely human is that our intelligence is collective and cumulative in a way that is true of no other animal. (Richard Dawkins, of "The Selfish Gene" fame, dubbed the units of cultural imitation that comprise this heritage as "memes".) Evolution in sexually reproducing species is driven by genetic exchange. Culture evolution is much the same, but the unit of exchange is the idea. The truly Big Bang idea was that of division of labor, ...more
Void lon iXaarii
Dec 11, 2010 Void lon iXaarii rated it it was amazing
It's very rarely i stumble upon such a rare gem. I was initially a bit skeptical, thinking by the title it might be a blabla type feel good book, but i was blown away but i what I found: a very solid strong scientific book with tons of facts and reliable research. And while i did love feeling a biologist was explaining stuff, and it took me back to my old love of history (which i now see in a completely new light) what i was so very impressed to find was that it was written by a man who understa ...more
Jul 06, 2011 David rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-econbiz
This libertarian screed has been praised by a predictable array of dangerous right-wing organizations, such as The Guardian and the BBC.

Perhaps these organizations saw a kindred soul in someone who was demonstrably wrong in the past (in this case, part of the “management” of a bank that went bust) and, possessing an endless supply of gaseous self-confidence, just keeps insisting that the disaster was not his fault and the rest of the world could still profit from adopting his entire world-view.
Nov 11, 2012 Joachim rated it it was amazing
A truly inspiring book that goes against everything I've ever heard about the future of humanity.

Ridley takes the reader on a journey from the beginnings of mankind through the present to our future as a species. The prognosis: A) We have much to be thankful for today, and B) the future may not be as bleak as we believe, in spite of climate change and other impending problems.

Here's the gist: over time, humanity has managed to capitalize on specialization, trade and the cross-breeding of ideas (
May 22, 2013 Patrick rated it liked it
On the one hand, the idea that the division of labour and specialisation is behind most of the achievements of human history is, while not exactly a new one, probably underemphasised in most accounts of human development. Certainly I found his argument that specialisation, trade and division of labour was behind the late-palaeolithic explosion of tool making and art persuasive. On the other hand (and the author would doubtless accuse me of being one of those doom-laden pessimists he rails agains ...more
Very tempting title and first several chapters - life has been steadily improving. However, some of these happy platitudes seem to fall apart the further I read.

I'm not going to dispute the benefits of free trade, the exchange of ideas, and the steady march of technology. On the contrary. I'm even pleased to remark that he has some reasonable understanding of GM crops and is willing to defend them.

What does bother me is the incomplete and baffling treatment that global warming received. The good
Gizem Kendik
Jan 06, 2014 Gizem Kendik rated it really liked it

Selamlar Matt Ridley,

Sanırım türü anlamak için seçtiğin yöntemle diğerlerinden ayrıldın, sosyal bilimcilere kaydın. Evrimden çıkıp, çıktığın bu yolda ne güzel bilenerek (Bknz: Matt Ridley’in Bilendikleri) ekonomiye bağlamışsın. Abi kömür madenciliğinden kar etmiş bir neslin soyundan gelen Matt Ridley’in canını sıkmışsınız felaket tellalığınızla, adamı her bölümünde “hallederiz abi yea” dedirten bir kitap yazmaya zorlamışsınız. İnsanoğlunun sonu gelmiyor ya, az sakin olun.

Müsaade varsa şuraya bi
Feb 14, 2017 Juliana marked it as so-bad-i-gave-up
What can I say, I'm a rational pessimist. Vomiting data on our evolution doesn't change the fact that we live in a planet with finite resources. Not sure what his conclusion is, but I'm not listening all this massive fact dumping to find out.
Anastasia Alén
Dec 16, 2016 Anastasia Alén rated it did not like it
Shelves: nonfiction, 1-star
This book is written for optimists so it really didn't work for a pessimist like me.

The biggest problem in this book was how it repeated itself. I was like oh look at this graph...don't you see how there are fewer wars, less famine, more and more money to use for luxuries... Don't you see how it's a trend. Don't you see it will continue like that forever? It was like this book was saying that it's okay not to change the way we live. And that was maybe most annoying. Yes, we are doing a lot bette
Jul 07, 2010 smokeandsong rated it it was ok
Some really interesting ideas and thoroughly amazing facts.... but in the end, it undermines itself. I even agree with the central tenet that the world is getting better, and could go with the argument that specialization and trade are at the center of progress. But it's a good example of how not to make an argument - it takes a persuasive theory and carries it way, way too far, mocking those who disagree and not admitting to any grey areas. Every single cause for pessimism in the modern world m ...more
Jan 02, 2012 Jerry rated it it was amazing
Shelves: economics
An excellent history of civilization as a concept from prehistory to modern times. Explains why humans evolved and began to trade with each other. Traces progress and improving conditions. Makes the case for being optimistic about the long-term prospects for humanity.

When human beings were all still hunter-gatherers, each needed about 1000 hectares of land to support him or her. Now thanks to modern farming each needs little more than a tenth of a hectare. Since 1900 the world has increased its
Nov 16, 2010 Brad rated it it was amazing
Ridley takes the roundabout path to explaining his optimism, first enthralling the reader with many of the terrible and calamitous aspects of modern humanity, only then digressing into his evaluations and reasons for his (very well-founded) rational optimism. Along the way, one finds much that is well known, but then much more from Ridley that is not widespread or immediately obvious. His depth of knowledge about myriad topics is almost as impressive as the passion and clarity with which he [eve ...more
Jay Kamaladasa
May 31, 2011 Jay Kamaladasa rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
A Masterpiece. Matt Ridley is always a pleasure to read, but this puts the icing on the cake. If I claimed The Rational Optimist to be the most important non-fiction book I've read in my entire life, it wouldn't be far from the truth. I'll be going through the individual references next week, and looking at their citations for more insights, but seriously, this is a must read. If you want to fight poverty, save the environment, and build a better world - look no further. READ THIS BOOK.

Edit: Al
May 03, 2011 Espen rated it really liked it
Matt Ridley, science writer and commentator, delivers a blistering attack on the pessimists of the world, who extrapolate their way to doom and gloom, whether it be a new Ice Age, overpopulation, markets rather than hierarchies, energy crises, food scares and epidemics. He shows, with a wealth of examples (not always well referenced - especially the statistics) that the human race, due to its unique in its ability to trade goods, services and ideas with people outside the family or other small g ...more
Randy Reichenfeld
Apr 09, 2016 Randy Reichenfeld rated it it was ok
I listened as an audiobook during a long drive to and from elko.

Even with literally nothing else to do but listen to this book it failed to keep my attention as most books do.

At times I'd nod my head in agreement, but other times I'd be screaming at the reader in disbelief.

The book basically talks about how free markets are the cure for everything from world hunger, Africa, and global warming. I do believe that markets are important, but within reason. The author claims any type of regulation
Jan 25, 2011 Keith rated it did not like it
Ridley gives a good description of how the barter and exchange of goods and ideas have helped make improvements in human lives. I think, though, he overstates his case, especially in his vilification of straw men (i.e., the government and liberals) and his attacks on pessimists (no matter how out of the mainstream their ideas are/were). This is too bad because he could have had a very good book otherwise. His continual snarking about government intervention in business is especially annoying, an ...more
Dec 22, 2010 Lars rated it it was amazing
Taking its place as a global history and a guide to clearly understanding why things are as they are in the world, the Rational Optimist has a number of clear premises, each of which is persuasively and clearly demonstrated by examining the actual results of history, rather than the wishful thinking of Utopians.

1. The free exchange of ideas - what he amusingly refers to as "ideas having sex" - has the same evolutionary effect as sexual reproduction; to wit, constant refinement and improvement.

Jul 20, 2013 Devero rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Un ottimo libro, che mi ha fatto capire come la maggior parte della gente sbagli quando mi considera un pessimista. Io sono un razionale, e sono ottimista per quanto riguarda la specie a cui appartengo.

In generale sono d'accordo con l'autore sia sull'analisi, sia sulle conclusioni. I dati sono chiari e precisi, i ragionamenti che spiegano i fatti lineari e comprensibili a chiunque sappia guardare (e voglia guardare) oltre il proprio ombelico.
Alcuni passaggi meriterebbero un approfondimento (si
Sep 08, 2013 Ryan rated it really liked it
Ridley makes a wonderful and (for the most part) data-supported case that human innovation coupled wisely (and minimally) regulated markets will propel us to a much better future. He's not Panglossian, but he convincingly argues that poverty, disease, habitat destruction and other tragedies should decrease if present trends continue. This book is a good reminder for progressives (note that Ridley is a liberal, in the classical sense) that top-down regulation and interference with trade is often ...more
Rajesh Israni
Mar 24, 2012 Rajesh Israni rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Matt Ridley's new book, The Rational Optimist is one of the best investing book. The book is an sweeping account of human history through the eye of evolution and economics, this book is a devastating, fact-driven, often empirical, cogent argument against today's de facto media dourness. Ridley uses economics and evolutionary psychology to chart the upward trajectory of human civilization with astonishing acuity and insight. Ridley’s positive thesis is that

Trade and specialization among non-ass
May 26, 2015 Ian rated it really liked it
As a callow teenager in the 1970s, I was deeply impressed by the books of Paul Ehrlich, who basically predicted that by the early 21st century the entire world would have become a hellish stew of mass famine, total resource exhaustion, rampant disease, and continuous warfare. Looking back, I can see that Prof. Ehrlich has a record of failed predictions that would make Nostradamus blush, but perhaps it was my early adherence to those views that subsequently instilled in me a healthy scepticism fo ...more
Garen Glazier
Sep 25, 2016 Garen Glazier rated it liked it
Five stars for the last two chapters. Two stars for the first. And three for everything in between.

It's obvious that Matt Ridley is a very smart guy. His knowledge of biology, history, and economics is extremely impressive. It's also obvious that Mr. Ridley has balls - because it takes some ironclad ones to make the assertions that he does about the state of the human race and the environment. Much of what he says flies in the face of common sentiment. But he no doubt feels confident in his opt
Samridhi Khurana
Jan 07, 2017 Samridhi Khurana rated it really liked it
This work is a breath of fresh air where Ridley has statistically supported how the world has constantly evolved for the good, and he as regarded the pessimist view as "extrapolationism", I.e. the exaggerated version of the past. He has convincingly argued that human race is a collective problem solving machine, and be it economic concerns, climate issues, genetics- people have always worked together and solved the issues. He has also challenged the concept of self-sufficiency against the ideas ...more
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Matthew White Ridley, 5th Viscount Ridley DL FRSL FMedSci (born 7 February 1958, in Northumberland) is an English science writer, businessman and aristocrat. Ridley was educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford where he received a doctorate in zoology before commencing a career in journalism. Ridley worked as the science editor of The Economist from 1984 to 1987 and was then its Washington cor ...more
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“Because it is a monopoly, government brings inefficiency and stagnation to most things it runs; government agencies pursue the inflation of their budgets rather than the service of their customers; pressure groups form an unholy alliance with agencies to extract more money from taxpayers for their members. Yet despite all this, most clever people still call for government to run more things and assume that if it did so, it would somehow be more perfect, more selfless, next time.” 9 likes
“Random violence makes the news precisely because it is so rare, routine kindness does not make the news precisely because it is so commonplace. (104)” 6 likes
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