The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

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Harper Collins, Jun 15, 2010 - Business & Economics - 480 pages
6 Reviews

Life is getting better—and at an accelerating rate. Food availability, income, and life span are up; disease, child mortality, and violence are down — all across the globe. Though the world is far from perfect, necessities and luxuries alike are getting cheaper; population growth is slowing; Africa is following Asia out of poverty; the Internet, the mobile phone, and container shipping are enriching people’s lives as never before. The pessimists who dominate public discourse insist that we will soon reach a turning point and things will start to get worse. But they have been saying this for two hundred years.

Yet Matt Ridley does more than describe how things are getting better. He explains why. Prosperity comes from everybody working for everybody else. The habit of exchange and specialization—which started more than 100,000 years ago—has created a collective brain that sets human living standards on a rising trend. The mutual dependence, trust, and sharing that result are causes for hope, not despair.

This bold book covers the entire sweep of human history, from the Stone Age to the Internet, from the stagnation of the Ming empire to the invention of the steam engine, from the population explosion to the likely consequences of climate change. It ends with a confident assertion that thanks to the ceaseless capacity of the human race for innovative change, and despite inevitable disasters along the way, the twenty-first century will see both human prosperity and natural biodiversity enhanced. Acute, refreshing, and revelatory, The Rational Optimist will change your way of thinking about the world for the better.


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This is an excellent book. Ridley demonstrates the importance of exchange and specialization in human development and the continual improvement of the average person's life. His perspective is well supported and he does a great job of showing the flaws in "doomsday" arguments of the past.
There is a nice symbiosis between this book and David Deutsch's work, even though Ridley does not cite him as a source. Deutsch refers to an optimist as someone who believes that all suffering is caused by ignorance. I agree with this definition and believe that Ridley would as well. So the rational optimist is one that believes that we will continue to close the gap on ignorance at both the individual and civilization level. Given the ability of the Internet to support increased exchange and specialization (both unpaid and paid), this seems like a good outlook on the world.

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Ridley has a great appreciation for history from the perspective of time locked related concepts. His take on "commerce" and the role of change in the human race's past is a great exploratory prose that shows insight.


when ideas have sex
trade after 5000 years ago
population after 1200
energy after 1700
pessimism after 1900
rational optimism about 2100

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About the author (2010)

Matt Ridley is the award-winning, bestselling author of several books, including The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves; Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters; and The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. His books have sold more than one million copies in thirty languages worldwide. He writes regularly for The Times (London) and The Wall Street Journal, and is a member of the House of Lords. He lives in England.

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