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The Rational Optimist Paperback – 27 May 2010

4.0 out of 5 stars 85 customer reviews

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Paperback, 27 May 2010
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Product details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate (27 May 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007378904
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007378906
  • Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 3.7 x 23.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (85 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 3,161,658 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Reviews for Nature via Nurture:

‘Nature via Nurture sets the modern terms for an ancient debate, and at the same time delivers a superb tutorial on contemporary genetics; the feedback loop that embraces genes and environment is generally not well understood. And yet this plasticity, this elegant mutuality, seems crucial if our new understanding of human nature is to inform public policy. These times need a book like this.’ Ian McEwan

‘Lucidly explains the most recent discoveries on what makes us what we are, and how we should think about these discoveries as we ponder who we want to be…A treat, written with insight, wisdom, and style.’ Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate

‘Bracingly intelligent, lucid, balanced – witty, too. Nature via Nurture is a scrupulous and charming look at our modern understanding of genes and experience.’ Oliver Sacks

‘A real page-turner. What a superb writer he is, and he seems to get better and better.’ Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene

From the Back Cover

For two hundred years the pessimists have dominated public discourse, insisting that things will soon be getting much worse. But in fact, 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. Africa is following Asia out of poverty; the Internet, the mobile phone, and container shipping are enriching people's lives as never before.

In his bold and bracing exploration into how human culture evolves positively through exchange and specialization, bestselling author Matt Ridley does more than describe how things are getting better. He explains why. An astute, refreshing, and revelatory work that covers the entire sweep of human history from the Stone Age to the Internet The Rational Optimist will change your way of thinking about the world for the better.

" --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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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.
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Format: Paperback
An enjoyable and thought provoking read, if somewhat lacking proper intellectual rigour or originality. Ridley's Hayekian approach to markets and the role of the state are nothing new and his up-beat analysis is too often journalese masquerading as something deeper (you often get the impression he's doing all his research on Wikepedia). But his views on climate change and food production are clearly thought through and are genuinely strong and heartfelt arguments. To my mind this is when the book succeeds the most. The problems arise in Ridley's general lack of nuance in understanding the subtleties of human psychology and emotion (e.g. when he's describing the social changes caused by the industrial revolution or enclosure acts). This is not helped by the book's sometimes geeky, lecturing and boffin-like tone which lacks a certain gravitas. But putting these criticisms aside, I would definitely recommend the book, if only for the reason that he demands an intellectual response and makes you question your ideological and political assumptions. Now that can't be a bad thing.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The book is fine; certainly not great. The premise is that everything is getting better and has been since almost the dawn of time, so we shouldn't worry about the future. Yet the author's tone is somehow highly irritating despite this apparently pleasant viewpoint. It seems poorly researched, too. I'm not saying I necessarily disagree with his points but whether I agree or not, it seems he has cherry-picked data to support his arguments. He also seems absolutely certainly of several points and chastises others for not believing him. For example, he asserts that trade makes everything good and that humans only ever develop because of trade. He provides backup for this, but it is hardly a balanced argument. He is also vociferously anti-organic and it doesn't even seem to be in the book for any reason other than he hates proponents of organic agriculture and wants to insult them. I'm tempted to give this book a lower rating than 3 but it's not awful. He does make some good points and is probably right in his overall premise.
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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I really enjoyed this book, it can labour some points but it's highly readable and engaging. However sometimes you do feel the author is determined to get to a particular conclusion on a given topic and spins it in a certain way to do so. A valid counter-point to this might be that the book is called the 'Rational Optimist' afterall but I do feel it falls down in these areas objectively speaking. The most glaring example being his brief discussion of nuclear arms and the potential for mankind to wipe itself out. Whilst he's right that the threat of nuclear annhiallation is reduced now in comparison to where we were in the 80's, he could do with re-reading the closing remarks of Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos' and ponder the fact that we are still in a position where, in the long perspective, we are at risk of destroying our entire existence.
Overall though a great read and it has gave me a newfound respect for the human propensity for trade and specialisation. To be read with an open-mind and prior knowledge of the authors political and economic views.
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