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The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity…

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010)

by Matt Ridley

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Imagine a reasoned argument that states, in spite of all the Chicken Littles constantly bemoaning "This Is The End" with regard to whatever change du jour is trending in the news, humans are in fact prospering. Not just the privileged 1%, but everyone. And not just for a limited time, but indefinitely. This is no fairy tale assertion. The facts speak for themselves. Why we don't hear more about it is probably because a headline like "Everything's Getting Better" doesn't sell.

Does the thought of globalization keep you up at night? Or how about larger-than-life calamitous events like climate change, over-population or running out of food? Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist may convince you your fears are unfounded if you read with an open mind, but also know that pessimism is a hard habit to get around. We humans are apparently wired for it.

This book is the David that stands in direct opposition to all the blowhard media Goliaths proclaiming that "things are bad and gonna get worse." As a whole, things are certainly not getting worse. The opposite is true in fact. For a comparable reference, see Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. ( )
  Daniel.Estes | Apr 19, 2016 |
This is an engaging, eye-opening and thought provoking book. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, but it did make me think about some of the ways media can shape your responses and the way your gut reactions to people, organizations or ideas can lead you to think less carefully about what is real. You do need to challenge your assumptions, and his fundamental premise that things will improve, that we have the potential to come up with innovative and successful solutions to issues as they arrive seems worth considering. ( )
  ehousewright | Jan 23, 2016 |
As suggested by the book's subtitle, How Prosperity Evolves, Matt Ridley's central premise is that there is a strong analogy between the fundamental principles driving biological evolution and those that have driven economic growth over the course of human history. To begin with, he argues that specialization and exchange have driven development and progress both at the biological level (e.g., increasing specialization of cells driving the evolution of increasingly complex, sophisticated, and adaptive multicellular organisms) as well as the economic. Further, he develops a comparison between sexual reproduction and the cross-fertilization of ideas giving rise to new innovations, which is more than mere metaphor.

Ridley isn't the first to notice similarities between living things per se and how we make our livings. (That honor actually goes all the way back to Aristotle, as discussed in Armand Marie Leroi's The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science.) And this shouldn't be surprising, since economic activity is ultimately an aspect of life. Ridley writes that he is building on both Adam Smith and Charles Darwin, but he goes far beyond this, incorporating ideas from several other domains into a sweeping integration of biology, anthropology, history, economics, and more. This book is its own best example of its thesis: it is the result of a veritable orgy of ideas.

After the opening chapter cataloging how good we really have it today, The Rational Optimist takes us an a grand tour of the course of human progress to explain how we got here, from the specialization and exchange that set our species apart from our hominid cousins and allowed us to adapt to nearly every niche on the planet, through the rise of agriculture to the explosion of innovation in recent centuries. Two of these later chapters, on how slavery was abolished by the use of fossil fuels (for more on which, read The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein) and then how the rise of technology has led to an ever accelerating rate of innovation and increasing returns, were particularly inspiring, along with the final one containing Ridley's thoughts about the present century and the promise it holds.

I could quibble with Ridley on some relatively minor points, such as his emphasis on the idea that knowledge is collective. This is true in the sense that no one person can know everything and so progress is limited by population size and the degree to which specialization and exchange occur. But it is also true that each new idea originates in the minds of individuals, so while specialization and exchange are of fundamental importance to progress, the role of the individual creative thinker is ultimately primary. Still, this is a small complaint when the book provides so much of enormous value that it still easily earns my five stars. Perhaps the highest recommendation I can give is to say that this book helped change my view of the world radically for the better. Pick it up. It might change yous, too.

www.amazon.com/review/ROF236BQWY5B4 ( )
  AshRyan | Apr 21, 2015 |
Very thought-provoking. While I don't agree with all Ridley's arguments, the overall thesis is interesting, and the book is definitely worth reading.
( )
  castiron | May 10, 2013 |
I am an optimist - and do think that people and the world will adapt and continue to flourish. But there was a lot in this book that I either don't really agree with or that was over simplified. ( )
  reddragonfly | Apr 12, 2013 |
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"In the second century of the Christian Era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury." Thus the first paragraph of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and thus, more or less, the entire contents of Matt Ridley's latest book.
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The "New York Times"-bestselling author of "Genome" and "The Red Queen" offers a provocative case for an economics of hope, arguing that the benefits of commerce, technology, innovation, and change--cultural evolution--will inevitably increase human prosperity.… (more)

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