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The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity…

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (original 2010; edition 2010)

by Matt Ridley

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5431118,474 (3.91)24
Title:The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves
Authors:Matt Ridley
Info:Harper (2010), Hardcover, 448 pages
Collections:Your library, Wishlist

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The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley (2010)


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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 |
Very tempting title and first several chapters - life has been steadily improving. However, some of these happy platitudes seem to fall apart the further I read.

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

What does bother me is the incomplete and baffling treatment that global warming received. The good effects are a surprising touch, yes, but the bad effects are not wholly neutralized. He dismisses them breezily. I am finding this to be more worrisome than most.

This is a refreshing breath of fresh air, yes, but one should be prepared to evaluate and analyze all statements, optimistic or otherwise. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
A British author and one time non-executive chairman of British bank Northern Rock, which experienced a meltdown in the 2008 sub-prime mortgage debacle leading to his resignation, Matt Ridley is better known for his writing exploring human economics, anthropology, evolution and other cross discipline topics.

This book addresses topics right at that intersection arguing persuasively at times that human kind will have a bright future even as populations increase, the atmosphere warms, fossil fuels become scarce, species go extinct, etc. Claiming he picks up on the ideas developed by Adam Smith and Charles Darwin, viewing man's progress built on the concepts of exchange and natural selection, he derides the pessimist's, the environmentalist, the bureaucrats who support a dire outlook for the world.

His optimistic viewpoint is refreshing and occasionally compelling. Other times I thought his arguments were specious.
  rbartholomew | Aug 15, 2011 |
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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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