What if we were rationally optimisitc?

Readers of my English Language blog:

You may notice that on this blog’s big brother site, every Sunday is what I call “The Day of the Thinker” devoted to a living intellectual. These posts occasionally show up on this blog, translated. I would like to remind readers that I am open to accepting guest contributions for this topic. If there is a thinker that you feel worthy of this blog, please leave me a comment or contact me via Twitter.


The below post is a contribution from Vincent Garel, head of strategy at TBWA\PARIS, who shared with me The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, by Matt Ridley. If you want to get a taste for Matt Ridley, then check out his fantastic lecture called “When Ideas Have Sex” that he gave at TED in Oxford this July (see above). Ridley’s book struck a chord with me, as I too, am a big believer in the importance of optimism. In fact, in 2006, I wrote an editorial in Le Monde titled “Optimism? A civic duty”. Anyway, enough about me, here’s Vincent’s take on the book:

“Matt Ridley, born in 1952, has a rather unconventional personal history. After receiving a PhD in Zoology, he decided to become a journalist for the Economist where he headed up the “Science” section; he later on became the magazine’s Washington correspondent. From 2004 to 2007 he was the Non-Executive Chairman of Northern Rock bank. Despite these various job titles, Ridley is best known as an essayist. He has written many books about the human genome; and books about the role that evolution has had in shaping human beings abilities to cooperate and create social contracts. For Matt Ridley, the human brain and the human spirit have “adapted” over time to “select” (to use Darwinian terms) our aptitudes for sociality. According to Ridley, humans ability to collaborate, divvy up work and exchange with one another is what

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has sustained our species—more so than brain size (the cursed Neanderthals had brains as big as ours) and reciprocity (great apes practice basic sharing). As a species we began first by exchanging our genes and then we started to exchange our ideas– and now the ideas have started reproducing.

In his latest book The Rational Optimist: How prosperity evolves, Matt Ridley uses a multi-disciplinary scientific analysis – from economics, to molecular genetics, to anthropology, and game theory—to investigate the evolution of prosperity. Ridley sees our talent for collaborating and sharing as the sole motor for human prosperity and an elevated quality of life. In his mind, our having access to goods, services and in particular ideas that would otherwise be inaccessible, has allowed us to specialize our work and diversify our consumption. Increasing exchanges have given us an even greater access to collective intelligence, taking us further away from self-sufficiency. Our overall quality of life has improved dramatically because as Ridley puts it, “everybody is working for everybody else”. All arguments in this book are illustrated with various studies—one in particular, conducted by the economist William D. Nordhaus examines the amount of time on average it takes to finance an hour of electricity. In ancient Babylonia, it took some 50 hours to create 1 hour of light from a sesame oil lamp. In 1800, more than 6 hours of labor were necessary for 1 hour of light from a suet candle. Today, thanks to the division of labor and the specialization of thousands of participants in electricity production and lightbulb fabrication, it takes less than 1 second of work to create 1 hour of light from a lightbulb! This logic can be applied historically to all units of measurement in relation to quality of life: calories, watts, lumens, square meters of space, giga-octets, megahertz, miles run and even life expectancy and revenues. Progress is everywhere and is ascending: life expectancy in Mexico is today higher than life expectancy in Britain in 1955. Median revenue in contemporary Botswana is higher than Finland’s in 1955. Today, infant mortality in Nepal is lower than Italy’s was in 1951.


A book about optimism in this day and age—when we are in a global recession and an environmental crisis—may seem somewhat provocative. Indeed, Ridley believes that despite some apocalyptic Cassandras, there is no reason to believe that our improvement will stop. Our ideas will continue to multiply, and if we continue to encourage them, human ingenuity and inventiveness will provide greater prosperity, technological progress, public health, shared knowledge – and even a restored environment. In other words, our ideas will be our means of escaping a global disaster, just as they always have been.

How can we be sure? This is where Ridley takes the opposite stance on popular opinion: according to him, the fastest way to destroy Earth and humanity is to stop the free circulation of ideas and exchanges. Measures such as protectionism, localized agriculture and energy as well as rejecting globalization are barriers to worldwide idea sharing. To put it bluntly, Ridley sees today’s solutions as part of the problem: the more defensively we think, the more closed-off we become. At times, I wondered how much of Ridley’s book was a self-motivated defense of neo-liberal economic ideals. However, the author’s scientific background is reassuring, as are his historical analyses.”

Vincent Garel

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