Book Review: The Rational Optimist

I’m fortunate to live in a period of history in which my life is materially abundant (as is anyone’s who is reading this review). We should all be thankful for that. My naturally curious mind, however, wonders where all this stuff comes from. How did we Homo Sapiens transition from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering on the savannas of Africa to an urban dwelling lifestyle burgeoning with technophiles?  The acclaimed science writer, Matt Ridley, answers this question (and more) in great detail in his book The Rational Optimist.

Ridley’s answer to the question I posed is really quite simple. Unlike any other species of hominid, Homo Sapiens engage in trade. “Exchange is to cultural evolution,” Ridley writes, “as sex is to biological evolution.” The great lesson from history, according to Ridley, is that civilizations flourish when merchants are able to trade freely and collapse when unproductive bureaucrats overstep their role. In other words, Ridley clearly understands economics. The book, however, is about much more than promoting the brilliant ideas from the likes of Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek.

Optimism is in no way fashionable amongst the intelligentsia, but that is no reason to dismiss the logical claims that show life is actually largely improving for most humans.  Despite what we generally hear in the mainstream media, life is getting better for most humans at an accelerating rate.  Pessimism sells largely because no news is good news and the media is in the business of selling news.

Oddly, people are feeling unhappy and pessimistic about the future despite all the cheery statistics that show otherwise.  This observation was also the thesis that Gregg Easterbrook presented in his book The Progress Paradox. While the world continues to get better people are, in reality, paradoxically feeling worse about the future. There are, of course, many psychological reasons for this that I will not even attempt to explain here. Ridley demonstrates that are numerous rationally compelling reasons (far too many to list here) to be optimistic about humanity and our future. Is the world perfect? No, far from it, and Ridley openly acknowledges this. That doesn’t, however, change the fact that life is, almost across the board, getting better for everyone.

I am no Pollyanna myself and I harbor a great deal of suspicion towards some of Ridley’s dietary claims, but on the whole I have to agree with him. My main point of contention, as I already alluded to, is in his argument about food and the food supply. I’m afraid, unfortunately, that Ridley oversimplifies many of the complexities surrounding human nutrition. His biggest mistake, I believe, is that he implies that all calories are created equal. In America, many people are overfed and undernourished which I think stems from commoditizing food as if the quality doesn’t matter. The goal shouldn’t be to replace the worlds hunger problems with nutritional problems. Nonetheless, Ridley’s arguments for GMO’s forced me to question my own beliefs and leave me in a state of ambivalence over the issue that I still need to reconcile in my own mind.

As Ridley points out, it’s easier to wax elegiac about modernity than it is to be optimistic. There is indeed a sound psychological explanation for that phenomenon: most of us are wired that way for evolutionary survival reasons.  This book is a refreshing read in today’s world and it will challenge even the staunchest pessimists to think more rationally about our world. I think unchecked optimism is dangerous, but ultimately, I agree with Ridley. It is indeed a wonderful world after-all.

[click the following for amazon.co.uk and amazon.ca copies of the book]

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3 Comments on “Book Review: The Rational Optimist”

  1. […] (the one I would add) “Book Review: The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley” […]

  2. […] level and people are feeling worse and more unhappy.  And, in 2011, Matt Ridley reminded us in the Rational Optimist that there is damn good reason to be optimistic about the future too.  So where does all the […]

  3. […] Read my review of The Rational Optimist here. […]


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