Thoughts on “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley

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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.