The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

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Matt Ridley
438 pages | Buy this book

Ridley takes aim at the nattering nabobs of negativity—“the bookshops are groaning under ziggurats of pessimism,” he writes—and sets out to prove that now is by far the best of times, and it’s only going to keep getting better. Even today’s greatest challenges, such as African poverty and climate change, are surmountable because of a remarkable human insight: that specialization and division of labor allow us to constantly improve our lot.

What's the Big Deal

In recent years, authors like Gregg Easterbrook and Steven Pinker have argued that, despite the torrent of bad news gushed forth by 24/7 media organizations, we are living through the most prosperous, peaceful times in history. Ridley eloquently weaves together economics, archeology, history, and evolutionary theory to take the argument a step further. When humans learned to trade and barter 100,000 years ago, “ideas began to meet and mate, to have sex with each other.” Copulating concepts, he says, have spurred a gradual but ceaseless cultural and technological evolution, leading to the happy times we’re now living through.

Buzz Rating: Hum/Rumble

The author has plenty of high-profile friends. Author Ian McEwan, DNA codiscoverer James Watson, and linguist Steven Pinker all contribute blurbs. As a former journalist, Ridley knows how to work the press. The book’s slick Web site even features an animated trailer. A pre-release review in The Economist says Ridley’s theory is “the glorious offspring that would result if Charles Darwin’s ideas were mated with those of Adam Smith.”

One-Breath Author Bio

Ridley is descended from British nobility, Eton- and Oxford-educated, and heir to a lordship. In other words, he has plenty of reasons to be rationally optimistic about life. After a successful career as a journalist for The Economist, he became a bestselling author, writing mostly on evolution and genetics. But these days he’s better known as the former chairman of Northern Rock, the failed British bank that had to be nationalized during the financial crisis.

The Book, in His Words

“Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution. By exchanging, human beings discovered ‘the division of labor,’ the specialization of efforts and talents for mutual gain … And the good news is that there is no inevitable end to this process. The more people are drawn into the global division of labor, the more people can specialize and exchange, the wealthier we will all be” (page 7).

Don’t Miss These Bits

1. To trade is human. Homo sapiens is the only species that trades with one another. “There is strikingly little use of barter in any other animal species,” Ridley writes (page 56). “There is sharing within families, and there is food-for-sex exchange in many animals including insects and apes, but there are no cases in which one animal gives an unrelated animal one thing in exchange for a different thing.” Why us and not, say, koalas? Ridley speculates that our “discovery” of fire probably had something to do with it. Fire is hard to start but easy to share, creating incentives for trade. It also led to the invention of cooking, which had a huge evolutionary bonus: because we no longer had to spend hours of time and energy digesting raw food (like cows, apes, and every other animal), our bodies could dedicate more nutrients to growing larger, more intelligent brains.

2. Never forget the shriveling of the Tasmanian mind. Just as physical evolution benefits from a larger gene pool, “a good idea, manifest in bone, stone, or string, needs to be kept alive by numbers” (page 77). When humans arrived in Tasmania 35,000 years ago, they had barbed spears, needles, fish traps, and other advanced tools. But after rising seas cut the Tasmanians off from the mainland—and the rest of humanity—10,000 years ago, that knowledge was gradually lost. By the time Westerners arrived, the Tasmanians no longer had the ability to make clothes or catch fish. “There was nothing wrong with individual Tasmanian brains,” writes Ridley. “There was something wrong with their collective brains. Isolation—self-sufficiency—caused the shriveling of their technology” (page 79).

3. Give thanks to the Black Plague. After a population boom in the 13th century, labor had become cheap, and it was more profitable for a shopkeeper to hire additional sweepers than to figure out how to invent a better broom. This reliance on cheap labor is what kept populous China from industrializing and innovating. But in Europe, the Black Death decimated the population—“by 1450, the population of England had been reduced to roughly where it had been in 1200” (page 196)—raising the cost of labor and giving merchants an incentive to design cheaper technologies. In other words, low-cost labor is like an economic drug, and it’s hard to kick the habit.

4. Despite his fervent admiration for innovation and technology, Ridley says that alternative energy is an inadequate solution for today’s environmental problems. He calculates that to provide power for 300 million Americans, the United States would need a solar-panel array the size of Spain or a wind farm the size of Kazakhstan. Today’s coal, oil, gas, and nuclear setup supplies the whole U.S. “with nearly all their energy from an almost laughably small footprint” (page 239). “If you like wilderness, as I do, the last thing you want is to go back to the medieval habit of using the landscape surrounding us to make power.”

Hidden Agenda

There’s no smoking gun here, but remember that Ridley cut his teeth at The Economist, a libertarian flagship. In Ridley’s mind, there is very little the free market can’t do;in fact, the book is a not-so-subtle glorification of capitalism. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, hosted an event to celebrate the book’s release

Swipe This Critique

Like other free marketeers, Ridley mostly ignores the role of government. “Today a car emits less pollution traveling at full speed than a parked car did in 1970 from leaks,” he writes (page 17), without acknowledging that this advancement was due in large part to governmental policies like Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. There’s also plenty to make environmentalists—and particularly climate scientists—cringe. Ridley spills a lot of ink justifying the hydrocarbon industry, and he argues that “there is just no sign of most renewables getting cheaper.” Besides being untrue—the price of a five-kilowatt rooftop solar array, for instance, has dropped from $40,000 to $25,000 in two years—it’s a strange claim from a writer who spends the rest of the book lauding the miraculous innovative powers of human culture. He also takes a blasé attitude toward the threat of climate change that is sure to ruffle some feathers.

Gradebook


Prose:
Ridley is a lifelong writer, and it shows. His words effortlessly turn complicated economic and scientific concepts into entertaining, digestible nuggets.

Argument: Ridley is at his best when he’s talking about the deep past and the history of innovation. When he gets to present day, ideology at times overtakes reason.



Bottom Line:
Unless you’re an environmentalist or a WTO protester, there’s plenty to be rationally optimistic about here.

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