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The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

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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 container shipping are enriching people’s lives as never before. The pessimists who dominate public discourse insist that we will soon reach a turning point and things will start to get worse. But they have been saying this for two hundred years.

Yet Matt Ridley does more than describe how things are getting better. He explains why. Prosperity comes from everybody working for everybody else. The habit of exchange and specialization—which started more than 100,000 years ago—has created a collective brain that sets human living standards on a rising trend. The mutual dependence, trust, and sharing that result are causes for hope, not despair.

This bold book covers the entire sweep of human history, from the Stone Age to the Internet, from the stagnation of the Ming empire to the invention of the steam engine, from the population explosion to the likely consequences of climate change. It ends with a confident assertion that thanks to the ceaseless capacity of the human race for innovative change, and despite inevitable disasters along the way, the twenty-first century will see both human prosperity and natural biodiversity enhanced. Acute, refreshing, and revelatory, The Rational Optimist will change your way of thinking about the world for the better.

448 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2010

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About the author

Matt Ridley

29 books1,868 followers
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 correspondent from 1987 to 1989 and American editor from 1990 to 1992.

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Profile Image for Richard.
1,140 reviews1,028 followers
January 22, 2018
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, within a few generations.

I haven’t seen any writer examine the totality of these problems and address how difficult things might get if we’re hit by them all at once, more or less. The review in the Economist made me think Ridley is fairly dismissive of some problems, so my expectation that he’s got something fundamentally new to say is pretty low. Still, I wanted to give him a chance.

But the book — even though I couldn’t be bothered to finish it — was worse.

I had several big complaints.

Style and Attitude

The first thing that began to exasperate me within a few pages was his attitude. Frankly, he’s arrogant, and in my book arrogance is only barely tolerated when you’ve satisfied one huge condition: you are absolutely correct, no ifs-ands-or-buts. Even then, it’s nice if you show a little humility. And Ridley fails on that score in many ways.

Ridley hasn’t made anywhere near a strong enough argument to dismiss contrary opinions so casually. As an example which specifically grated, in the chapter on climate change he mentions that a few decades ago it was “fashionable” to talk of global cooling, and now it is “fashionable” to speak of global warming. He contrasts two paragraphs from then-contemporary news articles to show how similar such prognostications can sound.

Now, to anyone with a scientific approach, being accused of pursuing your research because it is “fashionable” is, frankly, a vicious insult. Fashion is about what people will find appealing, and is typically ephemeral and often superficial. In contrast, scientists are doing their best to seek “eternal truths.” Or, as Jared Diamond puts it, they’re engaged in a methodological search for reliable information. Ridley’s choice of words was an insult, and this is not only a lack of civility, it is also very poor reasoning. The latin for what Ridley is doing here is the old ad hominem attack: Ridley doesn’t waste one word examining why scientists were worried about climatic cooling in the ‘80s, and instead he trivializes that investigation as “fashionable.” To a logician, he has attacked the arguer, not the argument. Then, by drawing such a strong parallel between the earlier fruitless investigation and the current one, he is also dismissive of the latter. An attack by association: by linking the two arguments on the basis of cursory similarity, he is again ignoring the argument whilst attacking irrelevancies. So even before he goes into any details of evidence, he has primed his readers’ expectations in a logically illegitimate way — and yet his book is supposed to be about rationality?

And while he does go into a bit more discussion of climatic warming, he remains dismissive of opposing arguments. For example, he rails against one IPCC scenario because the “world population reaches fifteen billion by 2100, nearly double what demographers expect.” Well, duh — they used multiple scenarios. If you check his endnotes and look at what he cites, the first sentence of the first paragraph of the portion of the report he’s citing states: “Three different population trajectories were chosen for SRES scenarios to reflect future demographic uncertainties based on published population projections.” The high one at 15 billion, the mid-range (the UN’s most recent estimate) of 10 billion, and a low estimate of 7 billion. Note how he cherry-picks data that strengthens his argument. This is a very bad sign, if you are hoping for balanced reasoning.

Once I grew suspicious of this tendency, I saw further hints all over the place. I’m not surprised — if the blurb on the back is any indication, Ridley takes pride in being “provocative,” which I’m pretty sure doesn’t play well with “balanced.” For example, on the next page (p. 333) he starts off saying he’ll look into the IPCC’s more likely case of a 3°C rise by 2100. He then goes on to toss in an unsubstantiated complaint in parenthesis, noting that this scenario still requires a rate of temperature increase to double that of the 1980s and 1990s, whereas “the rate has been decelerating, not accelerating.” Well, yes, climate change is expected to accelerate for a wide variety of positive feedbacks, such as: the earth’s decreased albedo as white ice melts and is replaced with dark sea water; or permafrost melts and decays, releasing methane and carbon; and droughts cause deforestation reducing carbon sequestration; or even the melting of methane clathrates as the oceans warm. And that “recent” trend? I’m pretty sure Mr. Ridley is latching onto noise due to the ENSO and other chaotic factors. But since he selectively neglects to footnote his cause for complaint, we have no way of checking his assertion regarding “decelerating.”

Blindness to Societal Collapse

Ridley starts off by looking at the big picture of human evolution and our ever-increasing trend towards prosperity. But he really doesn’t like annoying details, such as the many civilizations that have collapsed during that stretch of time. Having recently finished Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed , I was watching for Ridley’s argument about why our current global civilization couldn’t collapse, paving the way in a few centuries for another to continue his teleology. But he conflates any mention of “catastrophe” with the extinction of the human race. As far as I know, neither the Romans nor the Maya nor the Khmer Empire were struck down by a meteor. None of those societies are mentioned in the index — even though this book was published five years after Diamond’s Collapse, Ridley apparently didn’t think that topic was worth his research. Diamond is only mentioned in the book so Ridley can dismiss him as “the otherwise excellent scientist and writer,” some of whom’s 1995 predictions are at least a little off, according to Ridley’s assurances (Diamond even gets laughably smeared with Ridley’s favorite dismissal as being “fashionable”).

If someone is going to write a book about how everything is going to be wonderful forever and ever, I would think he’d at least explore some of the more notorious alternatives, not just those that he can easily make fun of.

But I had anticipated this oversight before even opening this book. What still surprised me was that he never even spotted the best reason for “rational” pessimism.


Ridley points out that humans have evolved into incredibly efficient organisms at solving the problems our paleolithic ancestors faced. Most humans alive today have access to food, health and a length of life that would astonish even our great-grandparents.

And given how important those things are in our life, I’m also optimistic that we’re going to keep getting better at them. Given the staggering amount of research that’s going on, it would be very surprising if the coming decades don’t provide continuing delights at keeping people healthier and living longer.

But here’s the problem: when I look around me, most of the people I see are already pretty satisfied on those counts. Sure, it’ll be really sweet when we finally cure cancer, and when we can reliably prevent Alzheimer’s, etc., etc. But the existential threats that drove paleolithic existence aren’t reflected on most folks’ day-to-day anxiety list, are they?

The upshot of this is a little tricky: if the existential threats present during evolutionary time aren’t what drives us today… what does? Something I think is important to realize is that no matter what the answer is to that question, it isn’t embedded in our nature, at least certainly not in the same way as the old threats. Which means it is a very flexible thing, informed by culture, preference, and contingency. And that means individual and societal choices will vary widely, and might often contradict each other. I can easily imagine some of those drives being cause for pessimism — whether they be growth-for-growth’s sake of the capitalist, or the holy wars of various religious extremists. Those mimetic constructs could, in turn, put a damper on the pollyannaish future presented here.

Since Ridley merely examines how good we are at meeting the materialistic goals of cavemen, he really never gets it. The pessimism of the post-modern isn’t about Malthusian crises, but about the lack of focused direction for our post-materialist civilization to take.

Ridley doesn’t see that problem, and his book is fundamentally flawed.
Profile Image for Daniel Lemire.
38 reviews128 followers
October 6, 2011
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 prevent people from escaping communists. Berlin could easily be the mecca of pessimists.

Ridley is a very specific optimist: he believes that innovation is an almost unstoppable force. Food and energy shortages? We will invent new ways to produce more food and energy than we need. Effectively, human beings have become better at almost everything: producing goods and food, taking care of each other, learning, sharing and so on.

But he is also a pessimist: he believes that if we stop innovation, we suffer. We must constantly out-innovate our problems. We will soon run out of food, energy and breathable air if we keep doing the same thing at a greater scale. Only by inventing drastically better technologies and organizations can we hope to prosper. Innovation is required for our survival. Civilizations eventually collapse, when they become unable to innovate around their problems.

But where does innovation comes from? Ridley believes it comes from trade, taken in the broadest sense of the term. Traders are people who carry ideas from people to people. They are like bees in that they allow ideas to have sex… Traders allow people to specialize and to focus on perfecting ideas. Without trade, we would all need to be self-sufficient. Condemned to self-sufficiency, we would not have time to improve our methods nor share our ideas. Interdependency makes human beings better.

How do you get more innovation? Do you have your governments entice researchers like myself to pursue “strategic” research? Absolutely not. Governments cannot create innovation. Instead, they should limit the wealth they extract from the economy by remaining small. Other institutions like banks should also be kept in check. In effect, central planning, wherever it comes from, should be avoided as it stops innovation in its tracks.

Hence, civilization comes in as a result of trade, because it can siphon the newly generated wealth. It wasn’t the Jewish traders in the 1930s who drained the wealth out of Germany. With their various enterprises, they were the source of much of the wealth that the state was extracting. They were not the parasites.

Ridley does not have much faith in science as a source of innovation. Most innovations comes through tinkering and trading ideas. Science and law come after the fact to codify what was learned. In effect, science may support innovations and inventions, but it is not the causal agent. What you want is trade and the freedom it brings. I share his vision. After all, Russians had top-notch scientists, but they were still unable to innovate in most fields.

He sees a cycle, where innovation creates value which is then captured and killed by bureaucrats or obsolete corporations. But innovation always reappears elsewhere. He believes that the best place to be right now is on the Web. One day, governments and corporations will kill Web-based innovations, but by then, a new frontier will have opened.

Ridley predicts the fall of corporations and the rise of bottom-up economics where individuals freely assemble to create value. Apple, Google and Facebook will soon collapse, faster than comparable companies a century ago.

This book also explains why Germany is at least marginally richer than the United Kingdom even though the United Kingdom won the two last great wars and Germany lost. Winning is overrated. Wealth cannot be put into boxes and piled up. Had you confiscated all the computers from 1970s, you would hold a collection hardly more valuable than a single iPad.

(Original text on my blog: http://lemire.me/blog/archives/2011/1...)
Profile Image for Daniel Clausen.
Author 11 books459 followers
June 7, 2018
3.2 Stars

Review in Short: An insightful, if often crude and narrow, defense of how trade and greater specialization will continue to fuel humanity's progress toward higher living standards and greater human dignity for all.


This book definitely has its moments. The book is the outcome of one of its own ideas -- "idea sex" -- many ideas come together to mingle in this book. And, I believe that many of the ideas are clearly presented and poignant. There are many fine details that the author highlights that I would have otherwise missed. A few chapters were excellent. I still have the book and can't wait to read these points again to further digest them.

However, much of the book seems like a rehash of ideas you might be exposed to elsewhere. This would be perfectly excusable if there were not a second problem -- the book chokes on some of its own libertarian dogma. So much so that the book seems at times like punditry.

Punditry, for me, is the worst of all types of writing these days. I looked up the word pundit, and according to one dictionary, it just means "expert opinion". I define it as crass sectarianism. Let me look for other words, polemical, browbeating, overbearing...almost like a sermon, and "gulp" might I say even unscientific.

If the book often seems like a sermon, then what scripture are we taking from? It seems like the book has embedded the DNA of libertarianism deeply. So deeply that people who favor libertarian perspectives will cheer, while those who are not well read in political philosophy might gloss over some of the problems of the book and its philosophy. Others, might simply be confused.

Libertarian thinking has its good points. Much of libertarianism is liberal thinking that many if not most college-educated adults might take as unexceptional. Libertarian thinking or libertarian concerns have also influenced a lot of excellent scholarship. As the author himself admits, many of the ideas in the book are taken from other books or were influenced by other books.

*The co-mingling of ideas as important to history -- Jared Diamond, "Gun, Germs, and Steel"
*the progressiveness of human society -- Steven Pinker, "Better Angels of our Nature"
*a right based approach to development/ the folly of bureaucrats -- William Easterly, "The Tyranny of Experts"
*the folly of bureaucrats / government / benefits of bottom-up development -- James Scott, "Seeing Like a State"

These are all books I've reviewed on Goodreads. They are all excellent books. They are books that may have influenced Ridley and certainly work in the same tradition. They also come off as sophisticated works of scholarship.

I would also recommend the writing of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. His writing can come off as obnoxious and preachy at times too. I recommend his work anyway because it is a more evolved version of Ridley's book. It is a book influenced by libertarian thinking without being doctrinaire. It is libertarian writing without the "ism".

I can't stress enough how important this is because if libertarians hate monopolies so much, they should be suspicious of the way "-isms" try to harden ideas, indoctrinate converts, and block off evolution and competition. As N.N. Taleb might say, in their hardened states, "isms" are hyper-fragile.

So much of libertarianism comes off as anti-government fever-talk. Worst, in its dogmatism, it is unscientific. Where is the proof the government is responsible for these evils? Government, after all, not only did not censor Ridley's book, but through various programs such as public education and subsidies for research and higher education has actually helped produce it. Matt Ridley -- your book is partially a product of (liberal, but not libertarian) government! Mr. Ridley might actually have this sophisticated approach to government. There are hints of it in his book, but this level of sophistication only comes across occasionally. In his use of words like "parasites" to describe "bureaucrats, warriors, and chiefs," Mr. Ridley does not come across as sophisticated; he comes across as crude. James Scott, in a book that is almost exclusively about the folly of governments ("Seeing Like a State"), does not.

Anyone broadly aware of liberal theories of trade will understand the main points without much trouble. Trade helps create specialization, and through specialization humanity becomes wealthier and progresses. Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant...and on and on. A question must be asked how the reader benefits from an understanding that trade might have been a key feature of human development? The point seems to elevate trade to a "natural human" characteristic (perhaps Ridley wants it to be "the" natural human element), whereas things like jealousy, competition, and violence are merely traits shared with other species. Should that change our understanding of trade and its relationship to other human motives -- fear and esteem (see Ned Lebow's "Cultural Theory of International Relations")? Maybe, but I don't think so. Just because these traits are shared with other species doesn't make them any less human. I certainly don't think it makes trade more human.

Finally, I would like to say something about the difference between "Rational Optimists" and "Paranoid Optimists". I will take the paranoid optimism of Bill Gates and Elon Musk over Matt Ridley's rational optimism any day. Why? Because the paranoid optimists work for a better future like the barn is on fire. If you look at anytime the world was grappling with a problem, whether it be slavery, great power warfare, nuclear proliferation, gender inequality, a lack of protection for the poor, etc...there are always those who work against these evils like the barn is on fire. And it takes people like these to wake others (unfortunately people like me) from their apathy. So, I'm glad Bill Gates is fighting global poverty... and the evil potentials of AI keep Elon Musk up at night. Because their "paranoia" is as much a public good as their "optimism". Efficient markets and coal might have ended slavery, but there was also that gloomy bit about the effort of abolitionists and the personal risks they took...if they hadn't slavery might have persisted longer; if their had been more fervent abolitionists, slavery might have ended sooner. Either way, a few years here and there adds up to a lot of human misery added and subtracted.

So, rationality is fine and optimism can give your life meaning and happiness, but don't be afraid to be passionate about other things besides trade and commerce. Social and political entrepreneurs also make the world a better place. Or, as Richard Branson once said, "Business is everything that concerns us. If you care about something enough to do something about it, you're in business."
Profile Image for Koen Crolla.
729 reviews179 followers
December 31, 2011
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 shameless historical revisionism in support of unfettered free enterprise and against any kind of government regulation, and irrelevant anthropological stories which are sometimes interesting, often incredibly dodgy or internally contradictory, but never strictly meaningful.
What he does not do, however, is make any sort of case that these upward trends will continue indefinitely; if anything, he makes the opposite case, because he repeatedly overestimates the significance of precisely those metrics that led people to declare the recent situations involving the financial sector ``crises'' (which is ironic, considering that by Ridley's own word, part of his motivation for writing The Rational Optimist was his part in the first one in his capacity as chairman of Northern Rock in the years leading up to its bank run).

The book makes a lot more sense when you realise there's a reason the review quotes on the front cover are by Dominic Lawson (who seems to think it's an indictment of the Left) and Boris Johnson: The Rational Optimist is a book from one brand of conservative (the cheerfully-oblivious-but-occasionally-nastily-ignorant Boris Johnson type) to another (the Daily Mail-reading ornery pessimist), calling on them to exchange one kind of ignorance for another.
It's a parade of Tory shibboleths (among which incessant calls against ``too much'' government (including the obligatory notion that monopolies can only exist because of government regulation, the fashionable notion that sweatshops are a good thing, and the much quainter one that the New Deal could easily have made the US a fascist nation) and far too much bashing of almost every aspect of environmentalism (including climate change, of course, where he hits all the usual talking points), which I'm told has been debunked at length elsewhere on the Internets), and will no doubt see extensive use as a way to get the more vocal conservatives to shut up in an effort to make the Tory party more appealing to middle-of-the-road people who are put off by the wrong kind of enthusiasm (to be fair, I really doubt that was Ridley's intention when he wrote it).
It works well as that kind of book, but it's not likely (I would hope) to appeal to anyone else. What Ridley calls rational optimism, most people would consider blinkered naïvety and wilful ignorance.

After the first few chapters, I was ready to give this book three stars, because while its main point was obvious, at least it was still pretty much true. After a few more, I decided on two, because no matter how deeply he had his head up his own ass, at least he wasn't as bad as Ayn Rand or some of the other people I feel define the absolute worst in writing. In the end, only one will do. By the last pages, more than just being annoyed at Ridley for the glass on the cover apparently being half-full of right-wing Kool-Aid, I was genuinely questioning his sanity. The alternative — that his reasoning is merely breath-takingly disingenuous and that he thinks his readers are the sort of undereducated sheep who would buy it — would worry me more, because that kind of conservatism isn't supposed to exist on this side of the Atlantic.
Either way, The Rational Optimist is an embarrassment, and someone with more interest than me could fill a book thrice its length with line-by-line rebuttals.

I gave Ridley's 1993 book The Red Queen five stars when I read it in 2008, and I still think it deserved it. I don't know what happened to Ridley in the intervening years. Maybe he's always been this way, but I never noticed because The Red Queen doesn't deal with things Tories have opinions on. It seems likely.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,657 followers
June 17, 2019
I wanted to like this, but it was filled with total nonsense so I couldn't. Some of it is mildly interesting. None of it is new. And most of the verifiable stuff is distorted into his markets-can-do-no-wrong libertarianism. I even like books that are libertarian. This one was irritating though because it was so blatantly manipulating data and facts. If you want to be an optimist, go read more rational ones like: Abundance, or Pinker, or Sapiens, etc. This is empty nonsense
Profile Image for Andrew.
47 reviews
March 18, 2012
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 point to wake people up; I am certainly an optimist now about the future of the human race and where we are headed.

This is the author's purpose in this 369 page romp through human history. "In this book I have tried to build on both Adam Smith and Charles Darwin: to interpret human society as the product of a long history of what the philosopher Dan Dennett calls 'bubble-up' evolution through natural selection among cultural rather than genetic variation, and as an emergent order generated by an invisible hand of individual transactions, not the product of a top-down determinism."

In other words, free-market economics should be viewed as an evolutionary concept and has done nothing but improve our situation. It is a bottom-up force. It is not dictated by government or intellectual fiat. The author undeniably proves this point throughout his book.

The book is set-up rather brilliantly. Ridley starts out by introducing his argument in chapter 1. "The cumulative accretion of knowledge by specialists that allows us each to consume more and more different things by each producing fewer and fewer is, I submit, the central story of humanity. Innovation changes the world but only because it aids the elaboration of the division of labour [sic] and encourages the division of time. Forget wars, religions, famines and poems for the moment. This is history's greatest theme: the metastasis of exchange, specialisation [sic], and the invention it has called forth, the 'creation' of time. The rational optimist invites you to stand back and look at your species differently, to see the grand enterprise of humanity that has progressed - with frequent set-backs - for 100,000 years. And then, when you have seen that, consider whether that enterprise is finished or if, as the optimist claims, it still has centuries and millennia to run."

Ridley runs through the last 200,000 years of human history through the next nine chapters.

Chapter 2: The collective brain: exchange and specialisation [sic] after 200,000 years ago

In this chapter Ridley looks at what sparked the path toward modernization after 200,000 years ago. His argument is brilliant and something I have often played with in my mind. "The answer lies not in climate, nor genetics, nor in archaeology, not even entirely in 'culture', but in economics. Human beings started to do something to and with each other that in effect began to build a collective intelligence...The effect of this was to cause specialisation [sic], which in turn caused technological innovation, which in turn encouraged more specialisation [sic], which led to more exchange - and 'progress' was born, by which I mean technology and habits changing faster than anatomy....what Friedrich Hayek called the catallaxy: the ever-expanding possibility generated by a growing division of labour [sic]."

The very thing that makes us better as people is the very thing the leftists decry and try to destroy in American society: free-trade. "The extraordinary thing about exchange is that it breeds: the more of it you do, the more of it you can do. And it calls forth innovation."

Chapter 3: The manufacture of virtue: barter, trust and rules after 50,000 years ago

This chapter is quite interesting. Ridley takes a look at how trust has evolved and why it's such a fundamental part of human society. "Collaboration between unrelated strangers seems to be a uniquely human achievement. In no other species can two individuals that have never before me exchange goods or services to the benefit of each other, as happens routinely each time you visit a shop or a restaurant or a website."

Ridley destroys the arguments of so many modern Americans, especially those that support the mentality that capitalism is 'evil' or that it's selfish. "The notion that the market is a necessary evil, which allows people to be wealthy enough to offset its corrosive drawbacks, is wide off the mark. In market societies, if you get a reputation for unfairness, people will not deal with you.

Ever bought something on eBay? How do you know you will get your product? Simple, you trust in the free-market that exists. You know that bad operators are expelled from the community of traders because other traders rat them out through seller reviews and ratings. (Hey, look ma, no government regulation!) The traders on eBay simply want to make money, they want to financially enrich their lives. At their core they are fundamentally expressing what the free-market capitalism system is supposed to be about: wealth through trust.

Ridley goes on to further demonstrate the moral nature of the free-market. "There is a direct link between commerce and virtue. 'Far from being a vice,' says Eamonn Butler, 'the market system makes self-interest into something truly virtuous.' This is the extraordinary feature of markets: just as they can turn many individually irrational individuals into a collectively ration outcome, so they can turn many individually selfish motives into a collectively kind result."

Ridley makes an amazing point in this chapter that reflects the American political landscape right now. "Politically, as Brink Lindsey has diagnosed, the coincidence of wealth with toleration has led to the bizarre paradox of a conservative movement that embraces economic change but hates its social consequences and a liberal movement that loves the social consequences but hates the economic source from which they come." This in a nutshell describes your average American of both political stripes. The fundamental problem is Americans are so poorly read on economics, the end result is the current political reality that we have. Ignorance is not bliss.

Chapter 4: The feeding of the nine billion: farming after 10,000 years ago

I'm not going to dig greatly into this chapter. Ridley's basic point here is that trade actually proceeded farming and that you can't have farming on the scale we need in the world without trade. The most important thing Ridley does in this chapter is point out the danger that the organic food craze actually proposes to our future growth.

Chapter 5: The triumph of cities: trade after 5,000 years ago

Ridley takes a look at the importance of cities and how they evolved. In a word, trade. "Cities exist for trade. They are places where people come to divide their labour [sic], to specialise [sic] and exchange.

There is an important discussion on the intersection between government, cities, and trade in this chapter. It's something so many Americans don't seem to grasp, "...merchants make wealth; chiefs nationalise [sic] it."

Probably the best section in this chapter is called 'The virtue of fragmented government'. "Political fragmentation is often the friend, not the enemy of economic advance because of the stop which it gives 'both to power and authority'."

"...there is something beneficial to the growth of the division of labour [sic] when governments are limited (though not so weak there is widespread piracy), republican, or fragmented. The chief reason is surely that strong governments are, by definition, monopolies and monopolies always grow complacent, stagnant and self-serving. Monarchs love monopolies because where they cannot keep them to themselves, they can sell them, grant them to favourites [sic] and tax them. They also fall for the perpetual fallacy that they can make business work more efficiently if they plan it rather than allow and encourage it to evolve."

"Empires, indeed governments generally, tend to be good things at first and bad things the longer they last....governments gradually employ more and more ambitious elites who capture a greater and greater share of the society's income by interfering more and more in people's lives as they give themselves more and more rules to enforce, until they kill the goose that lays the golden eggs...but a greater threat comes from 'government failure'. 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."

"The message from history is so blatantly obvious - that free trade causes mutual prosperity while protectionism causes poverty - that it seems incredible that anybody ever thinks otherwise. There is not a single example of a country opening up its borders to trade and ending up poorer."

Chapter 6: Escaping Malthus's trap: population after 1200

This chapter is a fascinating study on how and why population rises and falls. The important thing to understand is that a Malthusian crisis is a result of decreasing specialisation [sic].

Ridley destroys the pessimists argument that the world is headed toward overpopulation. I used to somewhat subscribe to this (what appears to be) utter nonsense. The argument goes something like if we don't do something to control population then we will not be able to feed the mouths in the world and calamity will result. The fascinating thing that Ridley proves that as a society becomes more specialized birth rates naturally fall. In other words it's a natural evolutionary result, we don't need some intellectual or government agency to figure out how to survive, we just do it. "But remarkably few people seem to know that the rate of increase in world population has been falling since the early 1960s and that the raw number on new people added each year has been falling since the late 1980s...Population growth is slowing even while death rates are falling....the entire world is experiencing the second half of a 'demographic transition' from high mortality and high fertility to low mortality and low fertility." There is actually a peak in population and it will happen somewhere around 2075 at 9.2 billion. In reality we will be able to feed the world forever.

Chapter 7: The release of slaves: energy after 1700

This chapter is incredibly important. In it Ridley argues 'that economic growth only became sustainable when it began to rely on non-renewable, non-green, non-clean power." What really matters, "non-renewable resources such as coal are sufficiently abundant to allow an expansion of both economic activity and population to the point where they can generate sustainable wealth for all the people of the planet....and can then hand the baton to some other form of energy."

The green movement is the enemy to progress, growth, and ironically a natural transition to a more green form of energy. They are effectively their own worst enemies, not to mention ours.

Chapter 8 The invention of invention: increasing returns after 1800

"The most fundamental feature of the modern world since 1800...has been the continuing discovery of 'increasing returns' so rapid that they outpaced even the population explosion...The concept of a steady final state, applied to a dynamic system like the economy, is as wrong as any philosophical abstraction can be."

Ridley destroys the belief that governmental top-down innovation works. Innovation is an evolutionary concept and governments don't innovate very well.

"The perpetual innovation machine that drives the modern economy owes it existence not mainly to science; nor to money; nor to patents; nor to government. It is not a top-down process at all...It is the ever-increasing exchange of ideas that causes the ever-increasing rate of innovation in the modern world."

The real good news about the future, the thing that should make you most optimistic, is "the world is turning bottom-up again; the top-down years are coming to an end." I know it's hard to believe even in America, but Barack Obama, the far-left, and the center-left Republicrats are the last breath of this mentality. They may win for a little while longer and cause severe damage in the short-term, but the reality is the world and America is changing. Truth is truth, it cannot be denied, once denied it will rear it's head again with a vengeance.

Chapter 9: Turning points' pessimism after 1900

This was an interesting chapter. Ridley runs through the great pessimism scares of the last century; cancer, nuclear Armageddon, famine, running out of resources, clean air, genes, and plague. He effectively demonstrates how the pessimists were wrong every time.

Ch. 10: The two great pessimisms of today: Africa and climate after 2010

Yet another intriguing chapter. Global warming wackos beware, I know exactly who and what you are. The important part of his argument is that he effectively demonstrates how these modern day pessimists are a danger to the future growth of the human race. They are the enemies to progress and growth, and they must be stopped.

"I am testing my optimism against the facts, and what I find is that the probability of a rapid and severe climate change is small; the probability of net harm from the most likely climate change is small; the probability that no adaptation will occur is small; and the probability of no no new low-carbon energy technologies emerging in the long run is small. Multiply those small probabilities together and the probability of a prosperous twenty-first century is therefore by definition large."

Go away you green nuts, you are the enemy of modern progress. And yet so many of you call yourselves "progressives."

Chapter 10: The catallaxy: rational optimism about 2100

"Said Lord Macaulay, 'We see in almost every part of the annals of mankind how the industry of individuals, struggling up against wars, taxes, famines, conflagrations, mischievous prohibitions, and more mischievous protections, creates faster than governments can squander, and repairs what invaders can destroy."

"So the human race will continue to expand and enrich its culture, despite setbacks and despite individual people having much the same evolved, unchanging in nature. The twenty-first century will be a magnificent time to be alive."

Mr. Ridley you have convinced me, I am now a rational optimist! To think, I bought your book as a result of specialization and progress. The economy had deemed the book seller Borders no longer a survivor, I bought it in a close-out sale at 70% off suggested retail.

Profile Image for Steve.
36 reviews36 followers
September 18, 2016
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 criticize Ridley for his incivility, then it hardly seems appropriate for her to pungently describe the author as “full of shit”, and to insult his readers as ignorant.

She began by writing about “biodiversity”, but oddly, she confused that issue with the issue of genetic engineering. The dangers of monoculture are so well-known that she need not have explained them in such tedious and inarticulate detail. What is more important is that she sought to equate genetic engineering (hereafter, GE) with monoculture, when, in fact, they are completely separate issues. I am bewildered by her attempt to equate the two. The practice of monoculture precedes GE by many decades, and is based on economics, not on biology. Furthermore, humanity is already sadly dependent on a very small number of staple crops. This is an important problem in its own right, but again, it is an issue entirely unrelated to, and long-predating GE.

GE does nothing to compel monoculture, and there is no logical reason that it ought to reduce biodiversity. Furthermore, seed-banking and other methods of conserving a diversity of germ-plasm ought to be part of any wise approach to long-term management of our agricultural heritage.

No one with any detailed understanding of biology, certainly not Dr. Ridley, who holds a doctorate in zoology from Oxford, would advocate that we rely on a hand-full of crops, and let our heritage cultivars disappear. Furthermore, the greater efficiency of GE crops, by increasing yields, would potentially allow us to reduce the number of acres under cultivation, releasing marginal land to return to the wild, and therefore fostering biodiversity.

Grant wrote that “You can be a cautious optimist...” But, to advocate caution, or any other virtue, is meaningless without some fine-grained detail. What kind of caution? How much caution? What is missing from her advocacy of caution is any admission that excessive caution, is, in itself, dangerous. Yes, we want to be wise in our adoption of new technology. However, to err always on the side of caution is not an example of wisdom. Rather, it is a certain recipe for stasis, at a time when we have billions of people living in desperate poverty, and even outright starvation.

Grant complained that Ridley’s examples were poor, but she gave no examples, herself, so I’m left without purchase to know how to respond with any specificity. I can only say that this reader, at least, found his examples wonderfully illustrative. To take only one, I loved his describing the cost of an hour of reading light through the ages, quantified, quite handily, in terms of the amount of labor at an average wage needed to purchase this commodity that we take so much for granted. To wit:

Currently: less than half a second, using a compact fluorescent bulb
1950: eight seconds, using a conventional incandescent bulb
1880s: fifteen minutes, using a kerosene lamp
1800s: over six hours, using a tallow candle
1750 BC: more than fifty hours, using a sesame-oil lamp in Babylon

Frankly, I found this example beautiful in its simplicity, importance, and relevance. He could have given us some high-tech example, but instead, he chose simple reading light, an essential of every day life. The profound importance of this example stuck me through the heart, as one who cares deeply about the third-world poor. As I say, we westerners take ubiquitous and inexpensive light for granted, but we should not. How many of the world’s poor still have no affordable source of light?

Nightfall means bedtime for them. Can you imagine how confining this is? We, in the west, have no conception. If you are a poor, third-world parent, and you achingly yearn for your children to get an education, so as to have a better life, then pray, how is that possible without light? You cannot afford lamps or candles, much less a solar array.

Finally, in her discussion of the Klebsiella planticola issue, Grant took a position that has long been thoroughly discredited. The mere fact that she still referred to the organism in question by its old name, eleven years after its genus was reclassified as Raoultella, is telling. She represented this as a case of a near world-ending biological catastrophe, in which very a dangerous GE organism, Klebsiella planticola, was nearly released commercially.

Fortunately, according to anti-GE mythology, a champion arose, one Elaine Ingham, a professor at Oregon State University, a school well-known for its agricultural programs. She and her graduate student, Michael Holmes, cowrote and published some original research in 1999 on the organism in this paper:

"Effects of Klebsiella planticola SDF20 on soil biota and wheat growth in sandy soil" Applied Soil Ecology 11 (1999) 67-78

Dr. Ingham testified before the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Genetic Modification of New Zealand on behalf of a the Green Party of Aotearoa in February of 2001 regarding this research. For this, she was hailed as a heroine by anti-GE activists. Some of those political partisans went on to wildly exaggerate the facts, to claim that K. planticola could propagate promiscuously in the natural environment, and that its ability to produce ethanol could destroy every living thing on earth. 

Ingham, and the Green Party, itself, subsequently issued retractions and apologies to the Royal Commission, admitting that in her conclusions, Ingham had gone well beyond what the data actually showed. She had also cited a paper that did not exist, and had said some things that quite simply were not true. Specifically, the organism had not cleared regulatory testing, and was not on the verge of being commercially released. Yet, here we are, more than a decade after Ingham admitted that these things were not true, and we still find people such as Grant repeating them as if they are important, damning facts in an ongoing controversy.

Shortly after she issued this written apology, 2001, Ingham resigned from her academic position at OSU. Some sources say that she was forced to do so. Rather predictably, when one reads the analysis of this aftermath by "greens", this event only enhanced Ingham’s role as a heroine to the movement, elevating her to the status of martyr. They characterize her resignation as something engineered by agribusiness companies, because they say that her truth-telling had threatened their bottom lines. 

One can only marvel at the workings of the conspiratorial mind. This skeptical reviewer suspects that there is a far simpler and more believable explanation. That is, the university forced her out because she had brought embarrassment on them as an institution, and she had ruined her professional reputation.

In the interest of full disclosure, I do not work in the field of genetic engineering, nor do I have any financial interest in agribusiness. Politically, I am a liberal Democrat, not a Libertarian. I’m an ardent environmentalist, and an avid home gardener of heirloom varieties. I grow heirloom varieties for historical nostalgia, and for flavor, not because I fear GE varieties. I never stop to worry whether the tortilla chips that I buy at the local store contain GE cornmeal. Of course they do. Almost all Americans eat GE foods, almost daily, without a single, documented case of harm.

I take it as a given that we will always see paranoid conspiracy theories, as well as frank hostility to science and rationality, on the political right, where it takes the form of such things as a belief in creationism. However, I'm sad to see similarly dangerous anti-intellectual nonsense coming from the left. I am deeply dismayed to find virulent, irrational opposition to wonderfully useful technology, such as vaccines and genetic engineering, coming from the ostensibly progressive end of the political spectrum. These tools are essential to solving pressing issues that I care about even more passionately than the environment. That is to say, poverty, hunger, and disease.

I will close by recommending Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline for his discussion of GE. He is a Stanford-trained ecologist, best known for founding and editing The Whole Earth Catalog.

Science is by far our sharpest tool. Let’s use it. As Ridley, himself, wrote:  "I am certainly not saying, ‘Don't worry, be happy.’ Rather, I'm saying, ‘Don't despair, be ambitious.’ " 

One thing that struck me again and again in this book, beyond any polemics, is Ridley's heartfelt commitment to solving the issues of hunger, poverty, and the environment. He spends much of the book explaining how this can be done. Yes, he is often abrasive in his expression of his political opinions, I will grant you. However, his heart is very much in the right place.

Here's Ridley speaking about the book at Long Now, introduced by Stewart Brand:

355 reviews9 followers
July 28, 2010
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 just been killed in a disastrous war.

Perhaps the unique point in the book is arguing that cultural memory was critical in human evolution, especially if we can substantiate that Neanderthal predecessors didn't develop specialization of labor like later humans.

But in the midst of it we get essays on Hayek and absurd generalizations like this: "Markets in goods and services for immediate consumption works so well that it is hard to design them so they fail to deliver efficiency and innovation ... while markets in assets are so automatically prone to bubbles and crashes that it is hard to design them to work at all." As with other generalizations in the book, Ridley ignores one of the first documented speculative crashes -- the tulip mania of 1637 -- which caused single bulbs to sell for as much as 10 times the annual income of skilled craftsman.

You'll find this an interesting window into economics and anthropology but the generalizations about markets, income distributions and other topics are maddening.
Profile Image for Sense of History.
389 reviews434 followers
December 26, 2020
This book leaves me puzzled. It offers a dazzling overview of human history drenched in an optimistic progression approach. Especially the emphasis on the evergrowing and intertwined role of exchange, specialisation and innovation is an eye-opener. For me, Ridley is also rather convincing in his condemnation of the always returning doom thinking, especially on the climate-change issue.
But, on the other hand, this is also a radical, ultra-liberal pamphlet. Ridley glorifies in one-sided freemarket retoric, scorches governments and bureaucracies as catastrofical instruments, and he is extremely apologetic about the record of corporations (although he keeps silent about his own role in the Northern Rock-debacle).
So, I'm puzzled: this book is breathtaking ("thoughtprovoking") and horrible at the same time. It doesn't leave you indifferent, for sure. Let me conclude with a cliché: this is a must-read!
Profile Image for Max.
384 reviews26 followers
October 18, 2010
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 the author did a fantastic job of presenting it in the first few chapters. In particular, I found convincing his description of how much better (for humans) the world is now than ever before in our history.

Where the book falls a part a bit is in his attempts to explain the history and future of humanity through his grand theory of innovation. Like all grand theories of everything, this one has flaws, and the author groped around quite a bit trying to make all of the pieces fit. He criticized other arguments for minor flaws, but then left gaping holes in his own theories. This was unsatisfying, though I should note that it was at least fast-paced and rarely boring. All in all, though flawed, this was an intelligent, original book.
Profile Image for Ints.
735 reviews72 followers
January 13, 2018
Tā nu ir iegājies, ka cilvēks, lai arī kādā laikā nedzīvotu, vienmēr uzskata, ka pirms tam viss ir bijis labāk, veselīgāk un pilnvērtīgāk. Jau senie grieķi mīlēja sacerēt stāstus par to, kā jaunieši ir kļuvuši tik izlaisti, ka neprot vairs ne lāgā rakstīt, ne lasīt. Arī mūsdienās cilvēki ar nostalģiju atceras vecos labos laikus, kad desā bija gaļa un benzīns maksāja praktiski neko. Kad cilvēki neēda ģenētiski modificētus produktus un vispār bija tuvāk dabai. Nākotne, kā likums, mūs nekad neiepriecina, resursi izsīks, dzīvosim pusbadā, cilvēku skaits tā pieaugs, ka nebūs vairs kur dzīvot, un tad vēl tā globālā sasilšana.

Grāmatas autors gan piedāvā uz visām šīm augstāk minētajām problēmām nedaudz optimistiskāku skatījumu. Iespējams, ka nākotne nemaz tik slikta nebūs. Standartā pie visām nelaimēm tiek vainots kapitālisms, tas paverdzinot cilvēkus un sagandē dabu. Patiesībā, lai cik tas dīvaini nešķistu, tad tieši kapitālisms ir tas , kas ir uzlabojis cilvēku dzīves apstākļus, sevišķi nabadzīgo cilvēku daļā. Un pie reizes jāatzīmē, ka mēs dzīvojam arī salīdzinoši labākā vidē nekā mūsu senči.

Standarta žurnālisti un distopisti savās prognozēs ietver pamatnostādni, ka cilvēcē nekas nemainīsies, enerģijas patēriņš pieaugs tāpat kā līdz šīm, cilvēku skaits pieaugs eksponenciāli, mežu izciršana turpināsies, un viss būs slikti. Tas jau nav nekas neparasts un tā tas ir bijis vienmēr no Maltusa laikiem. Realitāte rādās nedaudz savādāka, šķiet, ka cilvēku skaits uz mūsu planētas nepārsniegs deviņus miljardus, jo cilvēku dzimšanas tempi jau no piecdesmitajiem gadiem katastrofāli samazinās. Cilvēku skaita pieaugums vairāk ir skaidrojams ar to, ka vecie ļaudis dzīvo ilgāk nevis, ka jaunie dzimtu vairāk.

Ļoti pie sirds gāja autora kritiskais vērtējums pret atjaunojamo enerģiju. Ja paskatās ciparus, tad, lai saražotu biodegvielas litru, tiek patērēts gandrīz tāds pats daudzums parastās netīrās degvielas un atņemta lauksaimniecībai zeme, kas savukārt paceļ degvielas cenas un arī pārtikas cenas. Baltie ļaudis jau to nemana, bet Āfrikas badacietēji gan. Tomēr autors arī nesaka, ka cilvēkiem jāturpina resursu izšķērdēšana tādā pašā garā kā līdz šim. Cilvēkiem ir jāmainās un ir jāattīsta jaunas tehnoloģijas, tomēr mēs nevaram cerēt, ka spēsim saglabāt savu esošo dzīves kvalitāti aizejot mežā un pārtiekot no dabas dotā. Mobilo telefonu tak no krūma nenoplūksi.

Kopumā grāmatai dodu 10 no 10 ballēm. Ne visam autoru teiktajam es piekrītu, dažu apgalvojumu avoti nav diez ko autoritatīvi, bet piekrītu es galvenajam nākotne tik sūdīga jau nu nebūs.
12 reviews7 followers
August 26, 2016
Journalist famed for his books on biology writes about economic issues. He should have stuck to biology. All materials are covered in too simplistic manner without any attention to the nuances. This is not rational. This is far from rational. This is Ridley being a fool.

Like he pointed out that the costs of buying food produced and grown from afar is less costly than getting similar produces that are grown nearby. That's fine. I can accept that. But then a few sentences down the line I found that he's came to this conclusion without accounting for the costs of freezing / cooling so that the food remain fresh while they are being transported. Then he stated that women are liberated by the more effective household appliances to join the labour market. Well, no this isn't what I was taught in economic history class. We were told that economists have found that the wives are now held to higher standard of house keeping than before. So basically the amount of time women (or human being as a whole as now men are doing more housework than say a 100 years ago) spend on doing housework is the same, just that the floor is now kept cleaner, clothes are washed everyday instead of every week, etc.

I have came to read this book via the Facebook book club in 2015. I really regret having bought this book. I have got to chapter 3, I'm not sure if I can read this to the end. I am deeply disappointed. I used to think of Ridley as a good writer when I was reading some of his books during my high school/undergraduate years (that's back in the 1990s) now with this hindsight I think I should reassess. I wonder if I had only thought of him as a fine writer because I didn't (still don't) know much about biology.

Update: Flipping through the rest of the book very quickly - the book is filled with repeated examples (and few references) about trades and exchanges have had occurred in the past. Isn't that kinda obvious? It's just basically the author padding up the book - the paperback edition is 464 pages, I reckon a volume of 100 pages would have dealt with the central themes pretty thoroughly already. The people who shortlisted this book for Samuel Johnson prize have they actually read the book? I very much doubt that. The author talks about the goodness and greatness of free market and then condemns people who have preferences that he doesn't like (e.g. organic food, renewable energy) - even though these people definitely consitute part of the free market. Ridley is happy that you having your freedom as long as you agree with him. I am so glad that he is only a journalist.
Profile Image for A Man Called Ove.
915 reviews219 followers
June 10, 2018
“I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” - JOHN STUART MILL
And to make up for it, I will be generous and rate it 5/5. This is a slightly counter-intuitive book that argues for a bright, prosperous future of humanity despite climate change, despite clueless politicians, despite human nature itself and ofcourse despite the Left-liberals :) And religious radicalism doesnt even get a mention so theres a lot of work to do guys.
According to the author there has been a tradition of prediciting armageddon - famines, global wars, acid rain and now climate change since the invention of the printing press. And each time, the pessimists have been proven wrong. The reason is that humans are blessed with the ability to innovate in ways that are impossible to predict. And a genuinely free market makes these possible.
Another theme is that we humans have always imagined a better/perfect past. It should be painfully obvious that our lives much better - today than a century ago, in cities r rather than villages, with technology and markets rather than Thoreau/Gandhi’s self-sufficient and self-denying poverty.
But more than all of the above, views on climate change were counter-intutive and seemed balanced. He is perhaps the second author (I have read) after Michael Crichton to question the mass hysteria around it. Really eager to read both sides of the topic now.
Lastly, the book is lucid and a fast yet deeply satisfying read. And it is also short at 300 pages, compared atleast to Pinker’s Enlightenment Now which I have picked up on the same subject.
Profile Image for Douglas Wilson.
Author 286 books3,534 followers
March 13, 2017
Very valuable read overall. Apart from the secularism and the evolutionary assumptions, Ridley does a great job of describing things in a way that counteracts the very common and insistent cultural pessimistic narrative. Postmillenialists need to read this kind of stuff together with their scriptural studies. Eschatology, markets and progress all go together.
Profile Image for Leo Walsh.
Author 3 books94 followers
September 8, 2015
I really thought I would like "The Rational Optimist." First off, Ridley is a science writer, and I'm a science geek. As a science writer, I'd figure that Ridley would be firmly grounded in facts. And where Ridley stuck to the science and the facts, the book is excellent.

What's more, like Ridley I am convinced that humans are safer and freer today than we ever were. And whenever people yearn for "the good old days," I cringe.Even the "good old days" of the 50's were horrific for African Americans being lynched in the Jim Crow south. Or smart women, who were confined to traditional roles. Or free-thinkers, who had to face Joseph McCarthy.

Yikes. And things get worse when you look at the advantages we have today versus the past.

Ridley does an masterful job illustrating the magnitude of our advance by bringing to life a rural working-class family in 19th century England. Instead of idyllic, the reality is that life "back in the day" was a lot harder, and our access to information that would free us from the doldrums of every-day life hard to come by. And life cold, dark and constrained. No light at night, candles being ridiculously expensive. Pneumonia brought on by the particulate matter in the smoke they burnt to both cook and stay warm.

Yep. We're better off... by miles. Despite the neo-Romantic "back to the golden ages" rhetoric, I'll take life in the Silicon Age any day. Since this is more golden than the past ever was. Not perfect, but better.

So I heartily agree with Ridley's core argument. Which begs the question why I disliked this book so much.

It boils down to Ridley's running afoul a lot of academic and scientific research in archaeology and anthropology. Instead of interviewing people who have spent lifetimes learning and understanding the archaeological record, and recognizing their research, Ridley creates his own idiosyncratic version of prehistory. And proclaims, sans evidence, that humans became the dominant species because (somehow) Ricardo's preferential exchange theory is somehow hard-coded into our DNA. And "economic man" existing in "free markets" is somehow natural.

Which makes me laugh. It takes Rousseau's Nobel Savage, but dresses it up in contemporary Libertarian/ Austrian school dress. So instead of Rousseau -- whom Ridley scorns -- we have another abstract-fiction of prehistory that is equally as questionable: "Homo Economicus."

Standard anthropology frames the rise of society as based in genetics, specifically an extrapolation of behaviors rooted in other primates. They focus on two key behaviors: reciprocity -- bolstered by game theory -- and the ability to communicate information. And human evolution is a story of the increasing power of those key aspects of primate behavior.

By and large all humans (and primates) trust our band. Based on studies, it seems our brains are wired to live in clans of about 120 individuals. In those bands, we learned to communicate, with language developing as we passed along more and more complex information to our kin -- like who was trustworthy, and who not. And we began applying the successful (albeit unconsciously) the successful "Tit-for-Tat" strategy for dealing with other "antonymous actors" in a zero-sum or non-zero-sum game.

Tit for tat is successful because most often collaborating makes things better for both parties. For example, most primates like meat, but meat is boom or bust -- unsteady. On the other hand, nuts, fruits and tubers are always with us. So in early human clans, the women gathered, while men hunted, and both shared their goods. And if a man or woman was discovered to be hoarding or free-loading, your would cease sharing -- Tit-for-Tat.

This ensured 1) That you were acting pro-socially to help both yourself and the clan, and 2) Rules breakers and untrustworthy, self-centered people were forced to the periphery.

The other key, language/ information was vital for keeping the game straight. Neighbors could gossip about others in the tribe. "Don't share with Adolph... he'd rob his grandmother given a chance." And as our bands grew larger, we needed this language to pass along not only survival skills but info regarding people.

Eventually, tribes began meeting other tribes, and through language they were able to pass along which tribes to trust, and which not to trust. Now, instead of individuals playing Tit-for-Tat, whole clans were playing it with other clans. Over decades, the accumulated information and trust grew until clans coalesced into tribes then chiefdoms then city-states... Early on, since information was scarce, the meetings were bloody affairs. But as time went on, both information, and trust grew. And people realized, like the initial hunter/ gatherer pact that between-group pacts could also prove beneficial.

You know the rest. Mesopotamia. Egypt. China. Incas in Peru, etc. Empires. Nation-states and international networks of growing complexity. And our information-gathering moved onto other useful things. Like using trigonometry to size fields and lay straight foundations. Or how to raise a cow for milk, etc.

These assumptions seem reasonable. And they square with the historical, archaeological and anthropological record quite well. This is the theory that has passed peer-review and, with a few odd exceptions, the one agreed upon.

But Ridley, who is neither archaeologist nor anthropologist, turns this standard model on its ear. Instead of extrapolating from the observed behavior of our primate cousins to envision how we evolved, he starts with an advanced assumption: Humans come equipped with a desire to trade. So mercantilism -- not reciprocity and communication/ information gathering -- is the key to human dominance.

Worse, he often dismisses main-stream academics as "Marxists" whose assumptions are incorrect. Without addressing why the standard view holds the views they do, he resorts to an ad hominum attack.

Which gave me pause, questioning much of his argument. Considering that peer-review ends up weeding out extreme views that do not support the observed record.

I cannot say Ridley is wrong. Nor can I say he's right right. But Ridley merely asserts -- and over and over again. He comes off as a bit of a crank with an idea-fixe. He seems to think his own hypothesis better than the considered hypotheses of the professional scientists who have studied these matters.

Odds are, people who have spent their lifetimes studying cultural development, both historically and by observing contemporary hunter-gatherers are better judges than either Ridley or I.

And it's not just that Ridley places markets in the center of human cultural evolution. It's that his economics arguments -- Austrian School -- are presented without insight. So entrepreneurs are always good, government regulation always bad for the people. Yet he seems unaware that entrepreneurs often abuse people -- think of Walmart paying $8 an hour while the Walton clan makes billions off of the "rent." Or the facts that an odd irony of free markets is that they freeze capital in an increasingly concentrated monopolies.

For example, regardless how talented or inventive a programmer you are, the odds of you unseating either Windows or the Mac OS is near zero. Gates and Jobs/ Wozniak locked up them markets nearly forty years ago.

There is no doubt that a government can over-regulate. But a good government creates the conditions of stability that allows economies to thrive. Things like infrastructure, courts to enforce contracts in, a stable currency, etc.

An example from "The Rational Optimist" is in order. There are many, but late in the book Ridley mentions that Nashville grew to prominence because of its music, not the TVA. Problem is, Nashville and the rural south were all powered by the TVA. No TVA, no King Biscuit Flour Hour from Nashville to grow the market for country music. In short, Nashville is a perfect example of how the public sphere (TVA and services to poor, rural areas like the US Postal Service) created the conditions that helped the private sphere flourish.

Instead, Ridley jousts with a straw man. Saying it was creativity alone, and not the government, that created Nashville. Probably because of his dogmatic Hayek-inspired economic outlook.

As usual when dealing with dogma, things are more complicated than adherents suggest.

On a positive note, Ridley does an excellent job peering into the the IPCC's numbers and raises some objections that I'd never thought of. Unlike many dogmatic free market advocates, he believes in the science. He knows that burning fossil fuels causes global warming. But he also makes some valid points about penalizing the poor in Africa TODAY to pay for possible damage in 100 years. He goes in the question the "discount rates" -- a bit of financial math that economists use to predict the present-day cost of something in the future -- used to model the current and future costs.

Better, he makes it clear that even the worst IPCC predictions assume that the poor in Africa, Latin America and Asia will become more wealthy. And that is a good thing. While the main-stream-media focuses on the questionable financial math and ignores the growth.

Like Ridley, I believe humanity will survive. I believe that there is an excellent possibility that humans will rise to the technical challenges before us. But, sad to say, I don't believe that humans are innately economic optimizers. Facts are, we're pretty bad at optimizing, our minds filled with cognitive holes that he seems to ignore when convenient. Because of this selective thinking, I can only give Ridley's "The Rational Optimist" two-stars. Where he sticks to the data (and numbers), it's excellent ant thought-provoking. But where he philosophizes and grows dogmatic, it's cringe worthy. And where the data runs afoul his beliefs (like the positive effect EPA regulations have had on acid rain), his treatment of the facts runs close to duplicitous.

And he does too much postulating and dogma here, and not enough data analysis to make the book better than Okay. At least in this reviewer's opinion.
Profile Image for Jim.
Author 7 books2,030 followers
March 11, 2020
A much needed shot of optimism in the best of worlds (so far) that is drowning in pessimism. He discusses why in length toward the end of the book. He's an advocate of free trade & minimal government oversight, themes that run throughout this book. His overall point that the world is getting better all the time is well made. It's important & occasionally difficult to keep in mind that he's speaking to overall trends & populations as a whole.

While he is persuasive & I generally agreed with him throughout the book, quite a few of his examples threw up flags in my mind. They seemed a bit too slick. For instance, his ideas of complete freedom of the markets are taken so far that he dismissed monopolies as being a problem that governments need to address. Indeed, it's the government monopolies that he fears the most. While he has a point, he took it too far & preached about it. I detest preaching, but he didn't descend into that very often nor for too long.

Very well narrated & thoroughly interesting. Highly recommended, although I'd take some of his arguments with a grain of salt. Of course, I don't believe all the doomsayers either.

Table of Contents
Prologue: When Ideas have Sex: Mixing it up with others in the world creates progress.

Chapter One - A better today: the unprecedented present: The world is far better for most people today than ever before & Ridley has plenty of examples. We tend to lose track of that since bad news sells.

Chapter Two - The collective brain: exchange and specialization after 200,000 years ago: Specialization isn't just for ants since many people can do what one can't. Our social learning & collective intelligence is unique.

Chapter Three - The manufacture of virtue: barter, trust and rules after 50,000 years ago: was amazing. He says trade started a lot earlier than I or most previously thought & drove other developments such as farming & cities.

Chapter Four - The feeding of the nine billion: farming after 10,000 years ago: I was familiar with quite a bit of this & really appreciated his thorough drubbing of organic farming. It's a terrible & ridiculous hoax. He mentions Borlaug & I'll recommend reading The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World for a better look. He correctly slams Greenpeace & others for keeping the poorest & hungriest from gaining access to GMOs.

Chapter Five - The triumph of cities: trade after 5,000 years ago: A lot of good info, but he goes on his Libertarian kick again & simplifies the failure of nations as bureaucratic pillaging of trade economies. I think he takes it too far, but it is a good point to keep in mind.

Chapter Six - Escaping Malthus’s trap: population after 1200: The idea of 'going back to the land' is a ridiculous idea today. There are too many mouths to feed & a city-dweller has a much smaller footprint than small rural farmers.

Chapter Seven - The release of slaves: energy after 1700: From human labor to harnessing animals to using fossil fuels led to a staggering rise in our standard of living. It's no coincidence that slavery ended with the Industrial Revolution & he makes the point well. He also makes a great point for why we should love fossil fuels. Yes, we should replace them, but vilifying them is ridiculous. they've given us the portable power & materials to make the world the best it's ever been for us. He properly gives biofuels the drubbing they deserve.

Chapter Eight - The invention of invention: increasing returns after 1800: It's incredible how much we've progressed in all areas over the past couple of centuries.

Chapter Nine - Turning points: pessimism after 1900: Great examples of pessimistic prophecies that were often hilarious. He's quick to point out that they were generally right IF things had stayed the same, but they never do.

Chapter Ten - The two great pessimisms of today: Africa and climate after 2010: The Africa section was really interesting. It's not something I've paid much attention to. I have with Climate Change & agree with him entirely. The current craze is getting out of hand & we need to be careful not to cut our own throats while trying to save our grandkids.

Chapter Eleven - The catallaxy: rational optimism about 2100: An excellent wrap. He made his point well throughout the book, too.
Profile Image for Λευτέρης Πετρής.
Author 1 book31 followers
April 19, 2020
"Το ανθρώπινο είδος έχει εξελιχθεί σε μια συλλογική μηχανή που επιλύει προβλήματα εφαρμόζοντας διαρκώς νέες μεθόδους. Το λάθος που κάνουν οι πεσιμιστές είναι ο προεκτατισμός: υποθέτουν πως το μέλλον θα είναι απλώς μια διευρυμένη εκδοχή του παρελθόντος. Ο κόσμος δεν θα συνεχίσει να είναι όπως σήμερα. Εκεί βρίσκεται όλη η ουσία της ανθρώπινης προόδου, όλο το νόημα της πολιτισμικής εξέλιξης, όλο το περιεχόμενο της δυναμικής αλλαγής. Ο πραγματικός κίνδυνος έγκειται στην επιβράδυνση της αλλαγής."
Profile Image for Void lon iXaarii.
214 reviews77 followers
December 11, 2010
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 understands economics and society... Just mind blowing stuff.

To name a few big thoughts that hit me in this book:

- history not as seen through the "heroes" but as those people coming often just before the downfall of a civilization, the parasites that grew on the solid groundwork made by hard working people trading

- society as bigger than the parts, because of trading

- specialization is the reason we all have it so good today: people aren't smarter as individuals, but because they specialize they're smarter overall

- a minimum population is required for any technology/culture to survive, otherwise it reverts to simpler states because it cannot susain specialization

- I also love the section where he computes through time how many hours you'd have had to work to get the privilege of reading a book after sunset)

- the limits of the planet are much bigger than scare people keep saying for many decades and centuries

- many of the eco-friendly things proposed actually would hurt nature more, kill more people, while many counter intuitive economic development stuff will actually enable us to give more forest back to the planet

- a lot of fascinating historical facts, about civilizations... the reasons for their rise and falls

- all sorts of "ancient", "primitive" stories told with modern language... and u realize that some stuff in an ancient city were local branches of a big corporation, or thow historic figures are actually just the modern company boss trying to talk state into some monopolistic gains.

- fascinating stuff, ancient temples functioning like banks in the money system, even a civilization in which the word for high preast is the same as that for accountant, as well as why first writing stuff
was trade related. Reasons why migrations occurred, differences between modern and old farmer as they moved towards Europe fertilizing lands by burning forests and then moving on... fascinating!

- we are truly very privileged to live today. I was especially in love with the calculations of just how many slaves each of us has today because of availability of power (yes, even the word for electricity nails it), how in choices we're richer than kings, and in resources we have much more than any in the past... and most importantly, we are not rich in money but in the one thing that really matters: our time

Can u tell i'm very excited about this book?!?!?
Profile Image for Maciej Nowicki.
74 reviews50 followers
May 7, 2019
As we are constantly bombarded with doom prophesies the book makes a really good job and puts all of that into greater perspective. Rational Optimist starts with a thesis that we are way better off than we ever were. The book states that our lives have improved significantly in terms of wealth, nutrition, life expectancy, literacy and many other measures. Matt Ridley makes convincing arguments that things will continue to improve. The book also serves as a defence of free trade and globalisation. We don’t need to agree with the Ridley theme of optimism for the future to make this book worthwhile to read. The book offers much more than the title suggests.

The Rational Optimist seeks to explain how humans continuously managed to improve their quality of life. Honestly, after 1/3 of the book, I thought that its content will be exactly the same as one of my previous books... (if you like to read my full review please visit my blog: https://leadersarereaders.blog/the-ra...)
Profile Image for Gordon.
212 reviews43 followers
April 9, 2011
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, which was enabled by exchange itself. Once we start trading with each other, we can start specializing -- and as a result, we are all better off. And not just a little bit better off, but spectacularly better off.

Side-note: This argument is reminiscent of V.S. Ramachandran's idea (The Tell-Tale Brain) that the critical "last" piece of evolution of the human brain that made possible the explosive rise of our species was the mirror neuron. By enabling us to communicate with one another and learn skills from one another through imitation, cultural evolution took over from genetic evolution as the driver of our very rapid progress over the last few tens of millennia.

Ridley also makes the argument that greater trade / exchange correlates with higher wealth and income, and that in turn leads to higher levels of happiness. He rejects the idea of some saturation point beyond which increases in material well-being lead to no increase in happiness -- this saturation point being the key idea of the "Easterlin Paradox", named after its discoverer. I suspect that what is going on here may at least as much related to the fact that higher levels of development are typically accompanied by higher levels of equality (the US being a notable exception), but Ridley doesn't really consider that. As he points out: Never before this generation has the average person been able to afford to have somebody else prepare his meals." I think the message here is: eat up and stop whining.

Ridley explains "exchange" as a giant leap beyond the ancient ploy of "you scratch my back I'll scratch yours". He says: "Barter -- the simultaneous exchange of different objects -- was itself a human breakthrough, perhaps the chef thing that led to the ecologic dominance and burgeoning material prosperity of the species." The simultaneous trading of different kinds of goods and services is very different from "You scratch my back now, I'll scratch your back later". The former implies specialization of labor, the latter does not.

And then there's the innovation effect: "Without trade, innovation just does not happen. Exchange is to technology as sex is to evolution. It stimulates novelty." This also leads to an interesting analysis of why some isolated societies actually regressed. For example, when Tasmania became an island as a result of rising seas, the local population actually lost technology over the generations. There just wasn't enough critical mass to support the kind of specialized tool-making skills that were once possible, nor was there the ability to trade with other societies that did have such skills. Population crashes can also have such effects, especially if the population crash happens in an isolated population. Likewise, when the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire in the 5th century put an end to secure long-distance trade networks based on Roman roads, technology and wealth very quickly began to go backwards. No more Roman baths. No more delicacies from far-off corners of the Empire. No more grain trade.

One truly intriguing notion Ridley proposes is that human virtue and exchange are correlated. As he puts it, "History is driven by the evolution of rules and tools." The more market-oriented a society and the more it is trade-based, the greater the effort to be fair and to maintain a reputation for fairness. Otherwise, no one wants to trade with you. It you think of the rampant criminality in places like Russia and Congo, this thesis makes a lot of sense. True, there's a lot of unethical behavior on Wall Street, but not even hedge fund managers arrange to have their competitors gunned down on the streets or tossed into dungeons, nor do they generally rape and pillage (speaking literally, not metaphorically).

And then there's agriculture. Ridley stands the usual notion of the role of agriculture on its head. Rather than arguing that it was agricultural surpluses that drove trade, he says it was trade that drove agriculture. After all, if you can't trade your surplus for other stuff, why bother growing more than you need?

Ridley provides a quick summary of the effect of technology innovation on agricultural yields, from synthetic fertilizers to the tractor (which freed up 1/3 of agricultural land, which otherwise would have been used to feed draft horses) to genetically modified seeds. Not surprisingly, he has a lot of contempt for Greenpeace and other environmentalists who campaign against GMO.

As with agriculture, Ridley also believes that the growth of cities was driven by trade. Exchange is much easier among specialists if they live close to each other. Similarly, when farmers bring their produce to market, they want to have a choice of many buyers for their goods -- and many other products that they can in turn acquire. Cities are very convenient places to do this. And as he points out, the planet hit a critical crossover point in 2008: for the first time in history, the majority of the world's population now lives in cities. Ridley has clearly been very much influenced by urbanization thinkers such as Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser (skyscrapers drive civilization) and futurologist Stewart Brand (living in a slum is a lot better than living in the countryside).

Continuing to turn conventional ideas on their head, Ridley moves on to science: he argues that it is not science that drives technology, it's mostly technology that drives science. In other words, people come up with pragmatic technology solutions that work, and then others look for the science that underlies those technologies. I think this is overstating the case, but there's the germ of a good idea here about the mutually reinforcing interplay between technology and science.

From this idea about technology and science, Ridley leaps to the conclusion that we have been freed from the constraints of diminishing returns to scale. These constraints, so obvious to economist thinkers of the 18th C and 19th C like Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo and Adam Smith, have changed. The critical capital in post-industrial societies is not physical capital, but intellectual capital. Increasingly, industrial firms in the developed countries do less and less of their own manufacturing, outsourcing it to China and other emerging market countries so that they can focus on R&D, marketing, and other areas where they can add more value. Intellectual capital, much more than physical capital, can offer increasing returns to scale. It's not manufacturing economies of scale that power the growth of companies such as Apple, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Google or Novartis, it's their intellectual capital: their brands, their patents, their business methods, their software. Their physical assets are almost trivial in relation to these.

Malthus in particular -- and Malthusian ways of thinking about limits to growth -- come in for strong attack by Ridley. Malthus famously thought that we would breed ourselves into starvation. At various times, major parts of the earth's population have done so. But this is increasingly rare, as more countries go through the "demographic transition", whereby they reach a certain stage of economic growth and urbanization, and then birth rates begin to plummet. Several factors contribute to this: improved access to medicine causes infant mortality to drop sharply; life expectancy rises; children become more of a liability than an asset for urbanites; higher education levels make more women aware of contraception; women enter the paid workforce -- and then stop making babies. The Chinese example notwithstanding, coercive measures are not needed to speed this transition. It happens anyway. In future, the problem in all but the least developed countries will become one of too few babies rather than too many.

One of the most insightful chapters of Ridley's book is the one on slavery and energy. He argues that slavery made sense only in the context of highly labor-intensive, low productivity economic activities such as agriculture. But when industrialization took hold and urbanization took off along with it, agriculture became mechanized. Machines were even cheaper than slaves, sharecroppers, serfs and other forms of low cost labor. But what powered those machines? A key enabling factor behind the industrial revolution was the increasing exploitation of fossil fuels, especially coal (with oil coming along a century or so later). Countries such as England had rapidly begun to bump up against the limits of exploiting water power, wood fuels and peat. These resources dwindled quickly, and rapidly rose in cost. Not so with coal, whose price for the most part has fallen steadily for over two centuries. Goodbye slavery.

Of course, in all of the foregoing, there was no mention of the carrying capacity of the earth's environment as a constraint on growth. In truth, Ridley doesn't really believe in it. He thinks we'll come up with yet another clever innovation that will overcome such limits. Global warming? Not to worry. We'll think of something before too much longer. It's a touching belief, a true leap of faith in fact, but potentially fatal if wrong. It is this failure to consider the near-certain effects within this century of climate change -- rising temperatures, rising sea levels , rising ocean acidification, accompanied by major shifts in rainfall and increases in extreme weather events -- that is the single most glaring weakness of Ridley's book. I think he got so carried away by optimism that he veered from its rational form to its irrational form.

I believe Ridley's failure to appreciate the importance of climate change is largely based on his emotional and ideological aversion to strong governments. If a strong government role is required to lead the fight on climate change, then he wants to pretend climate change isn't important. He doesn't seem to understand the role of government very well, particularly democratic government in developed countries, and focuses instead on the obvious weaknesses of dysfunctional autocratic government in failing countries. Yet it seems curious that the wealthiest countries of the world are precisely those that have strong democratic governments and well-functioning public sectors -- with perhaps the partial exception of the United States. However, the US has benefited extraordinarily from importing educated labor from abroad, from exploiting abundant resources in a large continent, and from living beyond its means as the holder of the world's only major reserve currency. There are limits to growth in that model too.

All in all, this is a book well worth reading. It's thought-provoking, intellectually wide-ranging, mostly well-argued and … definitely optimistic.
Profile Image for heidi.
929 reviews11 followers
July 10, 2020
I am so, so relieved that I finally finished this insufferable book. Which I read because my book club is discussing it this month.

How crazy is it that even though I am an enthusiastic believer in science and technology improving lives (and hopefully the state of the world / planet with it) even before I heard of The Rational Optimist, I end up hating this book AND Matt Ridley? Like wow have I made so many notes in the vein of “Source?” and “Citations please?” next to author's assertions. Has this guy ever read a book that's NOT written by a white anthropologist or economist ever? And he relied on his son to fact check his work? You're a freaking Viscount! Next time pay an experienced professional team with cross-disciplinary scientific cred to go through your shite before releasing it to the public. Duuuude.

If I had to list all the paragraphs where Ridley makes some ridiculous pronouncements and my notes next to them it won't be a Goodreads review anymore it'll be a whole book. I don't really feel like going full William Golding, so.

But let me just state that Ridley's derision towards scientists speaking the truth on environmental issues whom he labels as “pessimists” and “alarmists” very much misses the mark. The world NEEDS these “pessimists” because pessimists are the first to sound the alarm on urgent matters, and they're usually the ones loud enough or persistent enough to push for sociopolitical change or government action. If might be annoying or inconvenient for taxation-is-theft libertarians like Ridley who just wants to quietly enjoy his lah-dee-dah optimism hiding unencumbered behind his sheltered life, but the good thing about these loud “pessimists” is that they get the job done. That's what Ridley failed to understand. H1N1 bird flu didn't become a full-blown pandemic because we Asians took the necessary precautions, we learned to wear masks especially if you have flu-like symptoms so as to not infect others… not because H1N1 wasn't a real threat. Y2K was an actual threat, but it didn't happen because countless programmers and software engineers worked round the clock scouring the codes looking for the Y2K bugs and fixing them, as many as they could, before we entered the year 2000. In this book Ridley seems to be mistaking “optimism” with “not doing shit while ridiculing others who are working hard identifying and solving problems.”

Anyway. I'm just grateful that I finished this book still believing in a better future. Just not in the ways Ridley thinks “optimism” should be. As someone who is switching from traditional engineering to sustainable development after reaching early retirement, and happily spending my free time regreening my neighborhood, I am plenty optimistic. The difference is my optimism comes from taking actions that are in line with scientific consensus, whereas Ridley's “rational optimism” is just intellectual dishonesty stemming from the arrogant belief that he knows better than an entire body of scientists and experts.

And oh, speaking of scientists and experts, I am currently having a much more enjoyable time going on twitter searching for “Matt Ridley” and discovering links to articles / opinion pieces written by historians, climate scientists, economists, anthropologists, renewable energy folks, basically experts in their fields and the like debunking Matt Ridley's dishonest writings. For best result try “Matt Ridley is wrong” or something similar.
Profile Image for David.
652 reviews238 followers
September 10, 2011
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. In addition to the usual libertarian bullying, name-calling, unsupported assertions, cherry-picking of facts, and disregarding of counter-examples, the reader must endure the Full Monty of Ayn Rand-style Orthodoxy, including the contention that Franklin Roosevelt was a barely-controlled menace to American liberty (p. 109 of Kindle edition) and the mocking of those of us soft-minded enough to believe in Christianity (p. 357, end notes to p. 160).

Like many who picked up this book (if comments here at Goodreads are any indication), I am bored with self-serving drumbeat of unimaginative attention-seekers and lazy media hacks predicting the worst in newspapers, magazines, books, movies, and TV. The author documents past predictions that, by now, the world would be a radioactive waste, too hot, too cold, starving, overpopulated, flooded, parched, drained of oil, saturated in smog, or some combination of the above with other horrors thrown in. It isn't (although there are undeniable problems). Personally, I want to demonstrate to the pundits, the fund-raisers, and the hot-button-pushers who keep flooding my email in-box with dire predictions that I am not the easily-manipulated peabrain that they take me to be, but my attempts to find a voice of reason whose example I wish to emulate and communicate to others are stymied by authors like this. While I agree with many of the contentions in this book, Ridley makes reading them as enjoyable as listening to a belligerent drunk shout into his cell phone on a commuter train.

I want to know: where can I find the kind of soft-hearted editors that allow books like this one to go to press? I've got a great idea for a book on the doom-and-gloom industry. Like Ridley, I don't want anybody to tell me that writing this or that particular thing will make me seem like a pompous dolt. I just want it to pound it into my word processor and have it assume the dignity of the widely-distributed printed page. Is that so wrong?
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
804 reviews2,538 followers
November 11, 2011
Pessimists get all the media coverage; optimists are poo-pooed for their naivete. Nevertheless, Matt Ridley puts together a good argument that in general, conditions in the world are improving. Not everywhere, of course; but in general, living conditions are improving, there is less violence, innovation is accelerating, and the dire events predicted by doomsayers are not coming true.

Free trade, cheap energy, and specialization are the things that help grow civilizations. Science is not the cause of, but a by-product of innovation. Innovation is the result of new ideas "having sex" with each other. These and many other interesting concepts are explained in this book, and make it very enjoyable.

Profile Image for Giovanni Bianco.
25 reviews9 followers
November 10, 2019
Excelente. Mas certamente odiado por pessimistas, ecologistas apocalípticos e anti-liberais em geral. Por isso tantas avaliações negativas, politicamente motivadas. O livro continua robusto, baseado em dados, evidências e lógica.
Profile Image for Gizem Kendik Önduygu.
63 reviews93 followers
March 4, 2014

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 bir özet bırakayım.

Aşırı Özet:
Takas, kolektif zeka, uzmanlaşmış iş bölümü, boş zaman, icatlar, fikirlerin çiftleşmesi, tüketim çeşitliliği, serbest ticaret -> refah ve mutluluk ve özgürlük ve en güzel şeyler.

Normal Özet:
Bakın türümüzü anlamak için kafamızın içine bakmak yanlış. Bu, beyinde gerçekleşen değil, beyinler arasında gerçekleşen bir olay. Modern insanın beyni özel falan değil, farkı yaratan unsur, modern insanın sahip olduğu ticaret ağları, yani onların kolektif beyinleri. Bu süreçte yukarıdan aşağıya dayatılan bir belirlenimciliğin ürünü değil bireysel işlemlerin görünmez eliyle yaratılan aniden ortaya çıkmış bir düzen.
Yeter felaket tellallığınız ya. Karamsarlık zaten her dönem modaydı. Felaketin yaklaştığını söylemek ödüllendirildi, dünyanın iyiye gittiğini söylemek de saflık, duyarsızlık, delilik ve sığ bir aklın belirtisi oldu.
Bakın ben size serbest ticaretle refah dolu bir iyimserliğin kapısını açıyorum, beni takip edin.
100.000 yılı aşkın süre önce Afrika’da bir yerlerde, genlerini değiştirmeden, yeni bir türün ortaya çıkmasına izin vermeden alışkanlıklarını sürekli değiştiren yeni bir insansı tür belirdi. Bu canlı türü takası icat etti (Takas nasıl ve neden icat edildi tam bilmiyorum. Yemek pişirmek insanları farklı besin türlerini değiş tokuş etmeye yatkın hale getirmiş olabilir veya insanoğlu karmaşık toplumlar inşa edip refah içinde yaşaması ve işbirliğini teşvik eden biyolojik bir içgüdüye sahip olabilir. Hangisinin önce geldiği bütünüyle net değil: güvenme içgüdüsü mü yoksa takas mı? Olası olan, insanoğlu geçici olarak ticaret yapmaya başlamış, derken karşıl��klı kazanç ve kolektif beynin yararlarını görmüş ve bu da özellikle güven duyup empati kurma konularında becerikli olan insan zihnini mutant biçimlerini öne çıkarma yönünde doğal seçilimi teşvik etmiştir.) ve böylece kolektif bir zekâya kavuştu.
Araya öldürenler, köle yapanlar, el koyanlar girdi ancak yeni takas ve uzmanlaşma biçimleri sayesinde işler yoluna girdi. Yaklaşık 10.000 yıl önce, iklim istikrara kavuşunca türümüz başka canlı türlerini sisteme kattı ve gelişim hızı ivme kazandı. Yaklaşık 200 yıl önce de fosil yakıt enerjisi çıkararak daha çok hizmet alanı yaratacak şekilde faydalanmaya başladı. Verimliliğini arttırmanın sürekli bir yolunu buldu.
Takas, kültürel evrimi birikimli kıldı ve zekâyı kolektif hale getirdi.
Takas da uzmanlaşmayı teşvik etti, uzmanlaşma da bu canlı türünün sahip olabileceği farklı adetlerin sayısını artırdı, her bireyin yapmayı bildiği şeylerin sayısını azalttı. Üretim de uzmanlaşma artınca tüketim çeşitlendi.
Uzmanlar sayesinde bilgi birikimli bir şekilde çoğaldı, böylece her uzmanın üretiminde çeşitliliği gittikçe azaldı, bu da gitgide daha farklı şeyler tüketmemizi mümkün kıldı. Takas, uzmanlaşma ve sonucunda çıkan iş bölümü sayesinde boş zaman yaratıldı. Uzmanın yeni ve zahmetli bir teknik gelişmeye zaman harcamak için bahanesi oldu, icatlar öne çıktı.
Takas icatları getirdi ve icatlar da çağdaş iktisadı doğurdu. Fikirler arası artan takas, yenilikleri hızlandırdı. Fikirler buluştu, karıştı, çiftleşti ve değişim geçirdi (Son iki yüzyılda ekonomik büyümenin bunca hız kazanmasının sebebi, fikirlerin hiç olmadığı kadar çok harmanlanmasıdır).
Yine savaşlar başlatıp, itaat talep edenler, bürokrasi inşa edenler oldu fakat takas ve uzmanlaşma devam ederken türün kolektif zekâsı da görülmemiş sevilere ulaştı. Bütün dünya bir ağ haline geldi ve her yerden gelen fikirler karşılaşıp çiftleşebilir hale geldi.
İnsanoğlunun takası ve uzmanlaşması bir yerlerde palazlandığı sürece, kültür evrimleşecek ve neticede refah yayılacak, teknoloji ilerleyecek, yoksulluk ve hastalıklar azalacak, doğurganlık düşecek, mutluluk artacak, şiddet körelecek, özgürlükler genişleyecek, bilgi serpilecek, çevre iyileşecek, yaban hayat genişleyecek.
Bu yolda karşınıza artan yoksulluk, yaklaşan kıtlıklar, genişleyen çöller, eli kulağında bekleyen salgın hastalıklar, yaklaşan su savaşları, petrolün kaçınılmaz tükenişi, maden kıtlığı, düşen sperm sayısı, incelen ozon tabaksı, asitlenen yağmurlar, nükleer kışlar, vCJD (deli dana) salgınları, Y2K türünde bilgisayar yazılım hataları, katil arılar, cinsiyet değiştiren balıklar, küresel ısınma, okyanus asitlenmesi, göktaşı yağmurlarını anlatacaklar. Hepsi geçti, geçecek. Hepsini hallederiz. Önümüzdeki en büyük problem Afrika ve iklim. Merak etmeyin verimi artırmak için bir yol keşfedilecek, yeni enerji biçimleri çıkacak. Afrika’da ihtiyacı olan yaşam standartlarını ekonomik büyümeyle alacak. Diğerleri zaten konu bile değil.

Matt Ridley'in Öngörüleri:
Bakın, ekonomik ilerleme için yenilik ve değişim konusunda ısrarcı olun, uzmanlaşma ve takas bünyesindeki ticaret, teknoloji ve güven araçlarını serbest bırakın ki refah dolsun. Gelecekle ilgili öngörülerde baştan hata yaptığımı kabul ediyorum ama:
- Takasbilim gelişmeye devam edecek,
- Zeka daha kolektif olacak, yenilik ve düzen çoğunlukla aşağıdan yukarıya dayatılacak, uzmanlaşma gerektiren işler artacak, boş vakit faaliyetleri daha fazla çeşitlilik kazanacak,
- Büyük şirketler, siyasi partiler, devlet bürokrasileri ufalanıp parçalanacak, kısa ömürlü yatırım fonları ve butik şirketler bunların yerine serpilecek,
- Aşağıdan yukarıya işleyen dünya, bu yüzyılın esas konusu olacak, bireyselleşecek,
- İnsanlar, uzmanlık ürünü imalatlarını çeşitlenmiş tüketim karşılığında takas etmenin daha serbest yollarını bulacak.

Matt Ridley’in Bilendikleri:
- İnsanları endişe ve tetikte olmaya ikna edenler, akıl dışı korku körükleyenler, felaket çığırtkanları, her on senelik dönemde karamsar bir dönüm noktasına geldiğimizi söyleyenler,
- Köktenci çevreciler,
- Organik hareket önderleri, Batılı kampanyacıların lobi faaliyetlerini yürütenler,
- GD gıdaların güvenli olmadığını, genlerin tür bariyerini aşmasının doğal olmadığını söyleyen, kar amaçlı alınıp satılıyor diyen lobi örgütleri,
- Greenpeace, Dünya Dostları Vakfı,
- Fosil yakıtlara giydirenler,
- Bioyakıt sanayisi,
- İklim değişikliği tezi savunucuları,
- Doğal dünyanın mükemmel bir denge durumunda olduğunu ve ekosistemin yaşadığı her dengesizlikten sonra bu dengesizliğe döndüğünü söyleyenler,
- Zengin insanların mutlu olmadığını söyleyenler,
- Girişimciliği engelleyenler,
- Kendi kendine yetenler, kendi yağında kavrulanlar (pis fakirler), yerli sanayiciler, korumacılar,
- Sanayi devriminin, kaygısız ve neşeli köylüleri şeytani atölyelere tıkabasa doldurup yaşam alanlarını kirleterek büyük bölümünün yaşam standartlarını aşağıya çektiğine ve insanların orada sağlıklarını iflas edene dek çalıştırıp erken yaşta öksüre öksüre ölmelerine sebep olduğuna inanmak konusunda Karl Marx’ın izini takip edenler,
- Şirketleri canavar gibi gösterenler,
- Çağdaş dünyanın günahkar savurganlığından hayıflananlar,
- Ekonomik büyümenin sona ereceğini karamsar bir edayla tahmin eden ekonomistler,
- Geçmişi özleyen aristokratlar,
- Dindar muhafazakârlar,
- Kızgın anarşistler,
- Devletler, imparatorluklar, büyük bürokrasiler, şefler,
- Büyük şirketler,
- Dinler, rahipler,
- Hırsızlar,
- Geleneksel anlatılar, ticaret tarımla mümkün olducular,
- Geçmişe bugünden çok farklı bir yermiş gibi davranan, geçmişi kendi gizemli ritüellerine sahip bir yer sayan pek çok antropolog ve arkeologlar,
- Yukarıdan aşağı dayatmalar,
- Nüfus kontrolcüleri, patlayan nüfus çığırtkanları, Malthusçular, kentlerin serpilmesinden iğrenen Amerikan Çevreciler, kırsaldan kente göçten iğrenen nüfusbilimciler.
127 reviews4 followers
December 12, 2018
Çok ilginç bir bakış açısı var. Evrim teorisini de içine katarak yaşadığımız iktisadi değişimi -fazla- iyimser değerlendiren bir kitap. Açıkcası yazarla çoğu konuda aynı fikirde olmasak da iktisadi değerlendirme olarak olaylara karşıdan bakmak hoşuma gitti.
Ancak, yazarın sürekli söylediklerini ispat etme çabası ve çevreci/ sosyalistler gibi yazarın düşüncesinin zıttı oluşumları yanlışlamaya çalışması, kendini tekrara sokması kitabın sonunu getirmemi zorlaştırdı.
Profile Image for Helen.
172 reviews1 follower
October 8, 2012
This is a pop economy book that makes bold suppositions but conveniently glosses over the details. All said, I think you can be a well-informed optimist who still sees light at the end of a dark and harrowing tunnel while soaking up all the gritty details Ridley conveniently chooses to ignore. Even so, this is a frustrating book to read. There were so many contradictory arguments, I wouldn't even know where to begin in picking them apart.

It's not that I don't believe things are getting better, or "advancing," it's that his examples are such poor ones, that I have to wonder who his intended audience is. A friend of mine suggested it was aimed at "low information" readers, and maybe she's not wrong. Because in Chapter 4, where he extols GMOs and bashes organic farming practices as slowing down the rate of progress, if not being completely backwards, he completely glosses over the risk involved in using new technologies as if there were no question that we should be seeking to recombine genes to better suit our interests as if nothing could go wrong. You can be a cautious optimist, in fact, I'm pretty sure being cautious is a rational way of thinking! First, there is the issue of biodiversity, because no matter how well you design something, inevitably specializing in just one resource/crop is a very bad idea because it only take one devastating disease, natural born or man made, to destroy that resource/crop. And if that resource/crop has predominately replaced all other forms of the resource/crop, well, everyone is screwed. And then there are the mishaps! Clearly Ridley must not have read anything about K. planticola (a bacteria that had been genetically altered to eat up rotting plant material, but the byproduct of this biological process results in alcohol. So had this bacterium been commercialized before independent testing discovered this devestating side effect, it could have wiped out plants everywhere since the amount of alcohol it produced was very lethal to all forms of plant life.) I want to believe that had Ridley read of this particular case, his chapter on GMOs would have been better informed and more cautionary. As it was, it came across to a more informed reader as blithe and pompous. Actually the whole book could be described as blithe and pompous. And then there was his whole spiel on climate change where he asserts "who are we to say this current climate is perfect?" (never mind that ocean acidification thing which he says, "Ocean acidification looks suspiciously like a back-up plan by the environmental pressure groups in the case the climate fails to warm; another try at condemning fossil fuels."), even though in previous chapter he talks about the end of the ice age and stabilization of climate to allow for agriculture and thus invention, which of course has aptly allowed for our all-hallowed progress to occur ---- honestly, this author is full shit. I could go on about other contradictory examples, but quite frankly, it is a waste of time as is his book.
Profile Image for Joachim.
26 reviews3 followers
November 12, 2012
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 (surprisingly well described using the metaphor of sexual promiscuity) to reach an almost unbelievable standard of living and high-speed adaptation. We have proven time and again, at every major impasse, that we are capable of dealing with the problems we create and the limits we run up against.

Moreover, the crises that await us over the next century are not insurmountable. Our current forecasts make the same mistake that fortune tellers have made since the dawn of humankind - we always tend to see the future through the lens of our own times, without being able to imagine the opportunities that lie ahead, or the sweeping changes that will inevitably take place as we find new ideas and technologies that will drastically change the portrait. Moreover, in spite of all our challenges, we live in an age of unbelievable bottom-up innovation.

Not only is the book beautifully written and thoroughly researched, but it has given me new hope for the future of the planet. We need fresh ideas, different viewpoints and off-the-wall dreamers in today's climate of rampant fear, paralyzing helplessness and cookie-cutter conformity.

I can't help but put in my own two cents. I don't have as much faith in the invisible hand as Ridley does. However, I have to say that it was very refreshing to get a different look at things (I'm usually one of those Chomsky/Klein readers). As a wise man said to me, the truth about our future probably lies somewhere between Ridley's infectious optimism and Gore's stark prophecy.

Hats off!

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