Book review: “The rational optimist” by Matt Ridley

May 27th, 2012 at 4:51 am

Do you ever wonder why, while human life is very obviously improving in the last few centuries (and the rate of improvement has been greatly accelerating in the past decades), practically all news you hear and almost all predictions about the future are gloomy and pessimistic? If you find this contrast objectively puzzling, then this book is for you.

With this book Matt Ridley sets on an unpopular endeavor of explaining that life if vastly better for most people today than in had ever been in the history of mankind and that, moreover, it will go on improving. He challenges most of the widely accepted pessimisms – population explosion, the inequality inherent in capitalistic economies, pollution, the sad state of the poor, hunger, disease epidemics, genetic engineering, fossil fuels, destruction of the planet’s natural resources and even such touchy issues as Africa and the climate change.

Fully a quarter of the book is a section of references for all the data he presents, so the author did his reading – these are not just statements made up of thin air – there are books, articles and otherwise published research to back up every claim.

That said, one should not take this book wholly word for word. Research results tend to be fickle, especially in areas where things are hard to define and to measure (and even in experimental physics, as we’ve recently seen). Too often a consensus gets completely overthrown by later research, and this can yet happen for many of the tenets we take for granted today. In other words, the probability that every last thing this book says is indeed true is very low. However, even if a sizable portion of it is true, this book is very important to read.

The warning above notwithstanding, I must admit I’m completely sold on the authors’ ideas, simply because the basic view of life he tries to promulgate exactly parallels mine. Specifically: (1) that nature is governed by the process of evolution by natural selection; (2) further, the human culture and body of knowledge is governed by memes in a manner similar to biological genes; (3) memes benefit from free exchange of knowledge and specialization; and finally that (4) free markets with as little regulation as possible, and free, bound-less exchange of ideas is the best path to economic abundance – not only because it closely mirrors human nature and thus is most compatible with it, but also because history has proved its superiority over the alternatives enough times at this point.

Phew, enough philosophy. Now I want to list a few quotes I found really interesting in this book:

"Ricardo’s law" – noted by David Ricardo in 1817 [emphasis here and in other quotes is mine]:

England may be so circumstanced, that to produce the cloth may require the labour of 100 men for one year; and if she attempted to make the wine, it might require the labour of 120 men for the same time. England would therefore find it her interest to import wine, and to purchase it by the exportation of cloth.

To produce the wine in Portugal, might require only the labour of 80 men for one year, and to produce the cloth in the same country, might require the labour of 90 men for the same time. It would therefore be advantageous for her to export wine in exchange for cloth. This exchange might even take place, notwithstanding that the commodity imported by Portugal could be produced there with less labour than in England. Though she could make the cloth with the labour of 90 men, she would import it from a country where it required the labour of 100 men to produce it, because it would be advantageous to her rather to employ her capital in the production of wine, for which she would obtain more cloth from England, than she could produce by diverting a portion of her capital from the cultivation of vines to the manufacture of cloth.

From page 276, about the limits of knowledge. This should be useful when explaining to others why software is so complex:

The wonderful thing about knowledge is that it is genuinely limitless. There is not even a theoretical possibility of exhausting the supply of ideas, discoveries and inventions. This is the biggest cause of all for my optimism. It is a beautiful feature of information systems that they are far vaster than physical systems: the combinatorial vastness of the universe of possible ideas dwarfs the puny universe of physical things.

A quote borrowed from John Stuart Mill:

I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.

It kind-of makes sense that being cautious and pessimistic is an evolutionary advantage, but apparently this has backing in actual gene frequencies as well:

And it seems that pessimism genes might quite literally be commoner than optimism genes: only about 20 per cent of people are homozygous for the long version of the serotonin transporter gene, which possibly endows them with a genetic tendency to look on the bright side.

Related posts:

  1. Book review: “Genome” by Matt Ridley
  2. Book review: “A short history of nearly everything ” by Bill Bryson
  3. Book review: “The Third Chimpanzee” by Jared Diamond
  4. Book review: “The seven daughters of Eve” by Brian Sykes
  5. Book review: “The emergence of man” by John Pfeiffer

2 Responses to “Book review: “The rational optimist” by Matt Ridley”

  1. DimaNo Gravatar Says:

    Hi Eli,

    after reading the title I thouhg that you might enjoy “Learned Optimism” by Martin Seligman (http://www.amazon.com/Learned-Optimism-Change-Your-Mind/dp/0671019112). But it seems like Seligman’s book is much more practical and less phylosophic… Here is nice review of Seligman’s book: https://github.com/raganwald/homoiconic/blob/master/2009-05-01/optimism.md.

  2. Norman Benson (@Timberati)No Gravatar Says:

    Though it was printed in 2010, The Rational Optimist remains my favorite book. Until he put the argument out there about trade and how it benefits everyone, I was not able to make sense of things. I believed the pessimistic greens more often than not. The book has made me much more hopeful for my grandkid’s futures.

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