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28 of 29 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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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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Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 25 Sep 2012 09:30:43 BDT
Drew Spencer says:
Great review.

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Jan 2013 21:10:13 GMT
A. Deacon says:
Ditto.

Posted on 26 Jan 2013 21:57:54 GMT
bjsummers says:
And indeed good to see a balanced review - and I agree that the bonobo (free love hippies) vs chimpanzee (canabalistic gangsters) issue is interesting. As I understand it, we are slightly closer to the bonobos genetically, which is reassuring!

Posted on 14 Apr 2013 09:45:47 BDT
Spot on. Exactly the review I would have liked to have written myself.

Posted on 23 Aug 2013 16:35:16 BDT
"notice how [Ridley] skips over questions of economic inequality"

1. There's supposed to be wage inequality, it's related to how humans value different work - otherwise bar glass collectors would be paid surgeon wages.
2 He addresses wealth inequality, in that humans have become wealthier through history in his TED talk,
"How ideas have sex":

http://www.ted.com/speakers/matt_ridley.html

In reply to an earlier post on 4 Sep 2013 14:05:44 BDT
Last edited by the author on 4 Sep 2013 14:35:57 BDT
JB says:
I assume the reviewer is referring to the growth of inequality in the last few decades, a reversal of the trend from the post-war situation. I wouldn't think anyone is suggesting that we pay surgeons and street-sweepers the same wage!
"It.. 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." Spot on! Good review, thanks. I think Ridley is an interesting writer but often wants to arrive at conclusions he seems to have settled on in advance, while he undoubtedly could avoid doing so. That is, in a way, more bothersome than the failings of lesser intellects.
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