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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Optimistic argument that life on Earth is better than you think
Send your inner pessimist packing - along with organic crops and ethanol. That's the contrarian message of Matt Ridley's insightful, entertaining look at humankind's steady progress over the millennia. Ridley dips into biology and economics to support his case that life is good and getting better. His wide-ranging look at humanity's past and future makes it clear that...
Published on 10 Nov 2010 by Rolf Dobelli

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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, so long as you interrogate it
There is much to admire in this book. Ridley makes a good overall case, based on solid and substantial research. It is a hefty corrective to much sloppy thinking in current political and social debates. It's a pity he mars it by some glib over-simplication in places and by caricaturing his opponents to a silly degree.

On the plus side, he says many things that...
Published on 1 Sep 2012 by J. Goddard


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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, so long as you interrogate it, 1 Sep 2012
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J. Goddard "Jim Goddard" (Shipley) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Rational Optimist (Paperback)
There is much to admire in this book. Ridley makes a good overall case, based on solid and substantial research. It is a hefty corrective to much sloppy thinking in current political and social debates. It's a pity he mars it by some glib over-simplication in places and by caricaturing his opponents to a silly degree.

On the plus side, he says many things that need to be said. It's a book I'd recommend to anybody, simply because of the sheer number of shibboleths of both left and right that he deftly and enjoyably skewers. This sort of thing is essential in a world where too many of all political persuasions have given up thinking for themselves and rely instead on timeworn cliches. He also, true to his rationalist title, leans heavily on a weighty ballast of credible evidence drawn from a range of good sources.

It's a pity, then, that in places he lets his enthusiasm run away with him and writes like a journalist rather than an academic. For example, I'm no expert in primatology, but even I know that you can't make simplistic points about the relative nastiness of our fellow primates (p.65) without acknowledging that there are relevant distinctions between our two closest cousins, the common chimpanzee and the bonobo. Given his academic credentials, Ridley should be better than this (indeed, I'm surprised it wasn't pointed out to him by Frans de Waal, whom he cites in his acknowledgments). Then again, he isn't the first well-known writer to dive into into the exciting field of primatology, grab the first thing he sees to back up his point and rush for the surface to catch breath; see Francis Fukuyama's latest on the origins of political order for an even worse example of exactly the same approach.

I also grew a little tired of his presentation of his opponents, mainly on the left, as a monolithic establishment, with himself and his merry band of fellow free-thinkers engaged in a David versus Goliath struggle. It may make him feel good but if you look around the world it is hardly the case. Likewise I was disappointed by his tendency to characterise those opponents as idiots, narcissists or power-crazed zealots. No doubt this is true in many individual cases, but such a sweeping dismissal is a cheap way of avoiding the possibility that some of their arguments may be worth taking seriously. It also suggests that they are all singing from the same PC-Guardian-Reader crib sheet, which is simply not the case. However, it certainly cuts down on the number of books one might feel obliged to read.

As a result of this mindset, there is a tendency to a panglossian view of the world. Perhaps Ridley feels a need to overcompensate for the doom-mongering that he so rightly criticises. However, one can still feel positive about the human capacity to solve its own problems while discussing the issues that are currently extremely challenging. Indeed, it would have strengthened Ridley's case if, to take just one example, he hadn't blithely skipped over the world-wide growth of obesity. Some of the answers to this problem are implicit in his central thesis. He would have helped his case by deploying them.

For all that, this remains a substantial and worthwhile book. I learned much from it and will doubtless read it again with profit. Much as I would differ very strongly from Ridley politically (notice how daintily he skips over questions of economic inequality by focussing on the - admittedly very positive - good news in many parts of the world), I was impressed by his general approach. It is certainly a far deeper and more thoughtful analysis of current social and economic trends than one gets from the mass media. That might not seem much of a compliment, given that this is a book. However, in a world drowning in unthinking soundbites and rent-a-quote 'experts' it makes a refreshing change to read someone whose arguments are based on hard work and research and who is prepared to present them in an interesting and relevant way to the general reader. So many non-fiction books on social issues these days are little more than journalism writ large (indeed, often written by journalists who have been carried away by their public profile). Ridley is much better than that.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars We're (not) Doomed, 31 Dec 2013
This review is from: The Rational Optimist (Paperback)
To be honest, I was expecting more optimism from this book than I got. Instead of a straight counterblast to much of the doom-mongering we receive from the media today (not that this is a new thing, as Ridley often points out) we get much more about how the free market, and how the trading of goods and ideas has improved mankind's lot. The central argument boils down to this - that if I'm a good cook and you're a good hunter, we'd get a better deal together if we both specialised in what we're good at and shared the spoils. In this way, mankind has flourished. The more we can do to encourage this trade, the better we will improve. And we've just built the best "sharing tool" ever in the internet. There's a lot to be optimistic about, and it's difficult to disagree with Ridley. It's easier, however, to focus on the downside, which is what many people have a vested interest in doing. You could argue that it's this paranoia that drives us forward - if we didn't worry about climate change, would we bother trying to tackle it? If we were all "rational optimists", or even if the majority were, maybe we wouldn't drive ourselves so relentlessly forward? After all, as the old joke goes, just because we're paranoid doesn't mean that they aren't out to get us.
It's a stimulating read and I found the book easier to get through in short doses. I think it could have been a bit shorter, a bit punchier and a bit more aggressive toward the nay-sayers, but overall I found it a refreshing change to a lot of the messages we receive today about us all being doomed.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Optimistic argument that life on Earth is better than you think, 10 Nov 2010
By 
Rolf Dobelli "getAbstract" (Switzerland) - See all my reviews
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Send your inner pessimist packing - along with organic crops and ethanol. That's the contrarian message of Matt Ridley's insightful, entertaining look at humankind's steady progress over the millennia. Ridley dips into biology and economics to support his case that life is good and getting better. His wide-ranging look at humanity's past and future makes it clear that those who long for the good old days just don't realize how rugged hunting and gathering or medieval medical care must have been. Ridley meanders at times, yet, as the title suggests, his book offers a fundamentally optimistic analysis of humankind's ability to solve the planet's problems, even now. getAbstract recommends it to readers seeking a thought-provoking analysis of contemporary issues that doesn't hew to conventional wisdom.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A healthy and contrarian view to the dominant pessimistic viewpoint, 30 Aug 2012
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This review is from: The Rational Optimist (Paperback)
Book Review: The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley
Natural resources are running out, we are polluting a planet that is already overcrowded, the recent rioting in the UK shows crime is everywhere and the free-market system is failing. It seems that we are going to hell in a handcart.

The Contrarian Matt Ridley, in his book 'The Rational Optimist' argues the otherwise, we have never had it so good and we will continue to do so. He goes about dismantling alarmist views from the last 30-40 years, population boom, rising crime levels, intensive farming are all in his sights. You can watch some quick videos on his arguments here and here.

Targeting the environmental movement, he attacks their stances on many topics such intensive farming or Genetically modified foods as counter-productive. Arguing that their position is less based on the economic and environment benefits and more on groundless fears.

His libertarian views do cuts across his book, describing state power in one point as `vermin' and widely blames an overweight, bureaucratic government as a limiter on trade and innovation. While his critical view on the environmental movement means that he is sceptical of climate change and belief in technology does not extend to wind power. Somehow innovation around this sustainable energy source is not happening, its propellers destined to shred birds.

A lack of acknowledgement of recent problems surrounding free trade and market is also quite obvious. We were, by all accounts, only 72 hours away from a complete collapse of the financial infrastructure, but this important event seems to pass the author by.

It may something to do with the author being the Chairman of Northern Rock running up to 2007 when it collapsed, the first banking collapse of the crisis and first one in Britain for over 100 years.

But I couldn't help finding myself constantly agreeing with many arguments. Even if we live a consumerist society, we are living healthier, longer lives with a range of goods, foods and leisure that our even the most richest ancestors could only dream of.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Upside/Downside?, 20 May 2012
This review is from: The Rational Optimist (Paperback)
Matt Ridley's Rational Optimist is the companion piece to the more erudite Stephen Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature. Both take a big picture view -against prevailing wisdom - that life has been getting better rapidly (Ridley) and violence has also become much less prevalent (except for the eruptions of WWI and II - Pinker). Both write well, draw upon tons of evidence and put their cases very clearly. Ridley, however has an agenda, and that is the free-market, anti-government agenda that he puts in throughout. Pinker is not political as such, but a great social scientist.

Well, what's wrong with that? For one thing, Ridley was Chairman of Northern Rock when it failed (because it was so unregulated) - then it and Ridley was rescued by the government, who can do no right, it seems. All government regulation does is stifle innovation. Come again? The Manhattan Project? Putting a man on the moon? Building the motorways? Rescuing capitalism every generation or so?

And that's the problem with Ridley's optimism. He can't help over-turning all his good work with this ridiculous stance that defies logic. He undermines himself and his case for life getting better, for the junk predictions of doom monging activists on every front with some of this political garbage that is anti-government - from a man who was saved by the government! What the hell does he think would have happened if Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling hadn't saved his bacon?

Still, there is much to enjoy in this, so many dumb things about human nature, our profound pessimism and countless examples that do justify the book and it's title.

Read it anyway.
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely essential read, 20 April 2011
By 
Charles "mrfreedom" (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Rational Optimist (Paperback)
Like The God Delusion, this will hopefully come to be thought of as one of the key books of its time.
For me, it articulated every thought I'd ever had about consumer capitalism. What a delight to read someone as intelligent as Matt Ridley eloquently voice my thoughts about the free market, how it has helped bring prosperity, learning, democracy, freedom and charity wherever it has been applied. The book certainly proves that the current intellectual force is with what could loosely be termed the right, if only in the sense that socialism gets another huge battering here.
As the title suggests, Ridley is a rationalist. He's also a humanist and a capitalist which, as he convincingly demonstrates time after time, is anything but a dirty word. It's the opposite: it's the way to health and happiness, the way to the stars. Where financial enrichment appears, so do cultural and scientific enrichment. He exposes those who would wish to stop the economy dead as dunderheads, showing how it is only an advanced, innovative, risk-taking economy that can provide the best solutions to problems that life and the planet can throw at us. Entrepreneurs are the answer, not the clumsy hand of the state.
My only slight criticism would be that there's a few too many historical examples from history of specialisation and exchange working their magic - with a few less we'd still get the point.
But this is still a brilliant book, and note that those who give it low marks are those who do not comment on the book itself but only choose to abuse the author. Ignore these skulking socialists and buy this book to make this planet's future a whole lot better.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Hugely erudite, very readable., 21 Dec 2014
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This review is from: The Rational Optimist (Paperback)
Matt Ridley draws upon a huge base of diverse knowledge. He writes a fascinating book to expound his theories of how H.Sapiens developed culture and how things inevitably improve for mankind. he reserves scorn for the parasites of society - bandit warlords/politicians and bureaucrats.
I borrowed this book from the library but halfway through decided to buy my own copy. Not often I do that!
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars I bought this book because I wanted to cheer myself up, 23 July 2014
This review is from: The Rational Optimist (Paperback)
Unfortunately it depressed me more than anything else I have read because it is the attitude that will ruin us.

He starts off at great length arguing for the benefits of trade and specialisation. Everyone knows there are benefits, this is not difficult to prove but he sees no limits to this, his ideal future is every individual doing just one thing, a tiny cog in a giant machine. Of course the supply chain will never break, so we don't need to worry about it. It is the most extraordinarily irresponsible thinking. It also equates all values, quality of life and fulfilment, with monetary ones.

Throughout the whole book he continues to confuse monetary cost with value in a way that is heartbreaking to read. He brushes off environmental concerns saying we can buy our way out of them with new technology (that hasn't been invented yet). Basically his argument is equivalent to saying we should all be smoking, children should start as young as possible, because it's good for the economy and this will create a higher standard of living for all and will fund new research which will then enable us to defeat cancer with technology at some useful time in the future. That's about as much sense as his arguments make for burning the oil and heating the planet, which he does at least agree is happening.

He claims technology, contrary to all our experience of it so far, will suddenly only be used for good and will allow on a finite world with finite resources, not only every increasing populations but every increasing standards of living.

He has no real shame in admitting to having been on the board of RBS and that he is therefore partly responsible for that disaster and the appalling cost borne by the tax payer. I'm very sorry he got more of my money in this book. Knowing there are people like him in this world makes me hope for annihilation on a day like today.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Things ARE getting better, 30 July 2012
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If you listen to the news, it's hard not to get depressed about how awful things are in the world - war, famine, poverty, ecological disaster, climate change, pollution, global warming, etc etc.
But this book shows that actually, and perhaps counter-intuitively, things are actually getting steadily better in the world as a whole.
For more people, in more places, the indicators of improvement are gradually consolidating and growing - the defeat of childhood diseases, life expectancy and longevity, family incomes, standards of education, travel, growth of democracy or electoral freedom, life choices, and so on.
Each chapter gives statistics and references, and seems to be very thorough. The graphics are easy to understand.
No doubt the book is written from a right-wing-ish point of view, but it's a good antidote to the relentless gloom and doom of the media, which can only survive on bad news and disaster. It does not gloss over the difficulties still faced by too many people, but it provides a viewpoint over time, and not just responding to each crisis or peril as it happens.
In some ways, this is a rather shocking book. There is such a clumpish mass of received opinion about what's wrong in the world, and I have found it is quite hard to challenge the set views about it all, but this book attempts to do that.
It does not say things are 'good' or even 'good enough' but it does say things are getting better - for lots of people, in lots of ways, in lots of places.
I found it an invigorating read, and I wish I had bought it as a 3D version, and not on Kindle, where the whole footnote/indexing/referencing systems are so clunky.
Recommended.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A must read for everyone, 22 Jun 2014
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Great book, covered much more than I expected! - From the beginning of humankind right through to current day :)
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The Rational Optimist
The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley (Paperback - 31 Mar 2011)
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