Thoughts on “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley


Living in Japan, it’s hard to get a hold of English books in bookstores. There are very few book stores having an English section (at least in Nagoya) and even fewer with some variety in fiction and non-fiction, so I was pleasantly surprised to see an English section in a second-hand bookstore and bought Matt Ridley’s “The Rational Optimist” (which I henceforth call TRO). I had heard quite a lot of good things about Ridley’s book Genomes from my colleagues, while pursuing my studies in biotechnology. This was the main motivation behind buying this book and the really low price didn’t hurt.

As the title of the book suggests the author here plays an optimist with respect to the overall state of human society on earth and gives a series of rational reasons for the same. Throughout the book the author primarily explores the progress of humans starting from hunter gatherer to modern times and argues in favor “evolution” of prosperity. Before I get into the details of my views on this book, a short detour. It was perhaps by sheer coincidence that I picked up “The Communist Manifesto” at same time as this book and it made understanding the undertone of the book much easier. This gives me an opportunity to describe this book in one word – “Anti-communist”.  Now, this may sound a slightly negative term but that is not how I perceive it. In fact, in my opinion, if anyone has read The Communist Manifesto (at least in today’s world) and has not been utterly repulsed by the systematic nonsense of it, needs to get a course in logic and reasoning.

Now coming to TRO, in the first chapter, author describes with numerous examples and statistics, as to how better off the humans are in every respect from their predecessors. I partially agree that we are better off in almost all respects from our predecessors. The important difference that lies here and one that I would like to emphasize is that we are “better off” but not necessarily “better”.

Where I could not agree with the author, is when he got carried away in proving how we are better off, by comparing the humans with other species. I find it slightly disconcerting how often, in trying to understand the behavior of human or other animals, people tend to anthropomorphize animals and compare them on scales made by humans, for humans. As an example, the author at one point in first chapter, writes “Imagine you are a deer…” and then goes on to compare the daily activities of a deer with that of a human. I find this whole line of reasoning quite flawed.

Next chapter onwards, the line of reasoning followed by the author to explain the rise in prosperity of human is much more focused. The author introduces the “exchange” or “trade” as the vital factor that led to where we are today. The author goes on to explain how exchange has led to rise of prosperity from ancient times and how stagnation in trade and exchange has caused the thriving societies to collapse.

As the book progresses, author gives more convincing arguments in favour of being optimistic about our future while constantly reminding us of the extraordinary prevalence of pessimistic notions with respect to different aspects of lives like climate, diseases etc. However, the author does seem to get slightly carried away by the passion with which he supports certain causes and technologies like the fossil fuels, GM food etc.

Now coming to biggest flaw of the book – the assumption that there can be a single idea or factor that can possibly explain the course of entire human cultural evolution and more. Trade, exchange and innovation certainly played a major role in the evolution of society as it is today but these certainly are not the all-encompassing universal explanation to entire course of human evolution on earth.

Finally, even with its flaws the book is worth a read and particularly for someone who is a proponent of a free market economy.

Trip to Mt Fuji

Mt Fuji is probably, the most popular tourist destination in Japan  and since moving to Japan in 2015, Arpita (my wife) and I were trying to go there. We went to Tokyo in February, 2016, but due to lack of time, we could not visit Mt. Fuji then. So, when we found out that we will be going for a conference to Tsukuba to attend the annual meeting of Biophysical Society of Japan, we thought of going a day before and make a trip to Mt. Fuji.  With great help from our friend Nagai-san we planned our trip to Mt. Fuji. Nagai-san booked one day tour to Mt. Fuji and Hakone from Hato tours. I did not know about this tour operator at the time. It turns out that they run several one day tours from Tokyo  with english speaking guide and an option of vegetarian meal for lunch which was a great relief for us. Our trip was scheduled to start at 9.20 from Hamamatsucho bus terminus in Tokyo.
We live in Nagoya and we had to reach Hamamatsucho by 9 so we took the first Shinkansen from Nagoya bound to Tokyo at 6.41 AM. Thanks to punctuality of trains in Japan we reached the Hamamatsucho bus terminus well before time.
Our bus started at exact 9.20 AM.There were 40 people in total in our trip group. The weather was cloudy and we were quite sceptical if we will be able to see Mt. Fuji.
Our tour guide Masayo- San was an excellent guide and quite a manager. Our bus took the Chuo express way to Mt Fuji fifth station. The entire way was quite beautiful and we could still see autumn colors.
On our way to Mt. Fuji, we passed through something called “Melody road” . Driving on these roads produces a distinct melodious sound. The music created by this particular road was from some Japanese song that our guide taught us and we sang it together while driving over that stretch of road. We reached Mt Fuji fifth station at about 11.40. Fortunately as soon as we reached there, the weather cleared and we got a nice view of snow covered Mt Fuji. The weather there is really unpredictable and it changed again after few minutes with fog and mist all around but by then we had already enjoyed the view and taken plenty of pictures.

The first view of Mt. Fuji


A clearer view from the way


From Fifth station

We started for Hakone from Mt Fuji at around 12.20. Our driver was kind enough to stop at several places on our way back to help us take pictures of Mt Fuji.
On our way to Hakone we stopped for lunch at Fuji premium resort. The lunch turned out be surprisingly good. My wife being a vegetarian often faces problems in eating out but to her delight they served salad, Veg spaghetti, bread and some kind of matcha flavoured mousse.
We reached Hakone at about 3 and from there took a cruise on Lake Ashi. Its a beautiful lake surrounded by several hills.

Lake Ashi

The cruise boat took us to the starting point of the Komagatake Ropeway that took us to the summit of Mt. Komagatake. The view from the summit was breathtaking.

View from Mt. Komagatake

We started our return to Tokyo from Hakone at around 5 PM and reached Tokyo station at around 8 PM. We thanked our guide Masayo-san and headed to our hotel.

Masaya-san, Arpita and Me

Overall the trip was excellent, however I would like to visit Mt. Fuji at least once more during hiking season ( July-August) and try the hike to the summit. But, that’s in future…