The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

On The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010)

Author Matt Ridley provides a sweeping summary of human and technology evolution, going back roughly 200,000 years.  He asserts that the development of trade led to specialization which led to agriculture which led to cities.  I find this by far the most plausible theory, but it is at odds with the “received academic wisdom” of the past 100+, which asserted that agriculture came before trade.

This book is a wonderful and thorough antidote to all the hysteria about catastrophic “climate change”, GMO “frankenfoods”, rising “income inequality”, “evil” corporations, “too big to fail” banks, and all the other Bogeymen being peddled today.

In Chapter 11, Ridley writes: “In this book I have tried to build on both Adam Smith and Charles Darwin: to interpret human society as the product of a long history of what the philosopher Dan Dennett calls ‘bubble-up’ evolution through natural selection among cultural rather than genetic variations, and as an emergent order generated by an invisible hand of individual transactions, not the product of a top-down determinism. I have tried to show that, just as sex made biological evolution cumulative, so exchange made cultural evolution cumulative and intelligence collective, and that there is therefore an inexorable tide in the affairs of men and women discernible beneath the chaos of their actions. A flood tide, not an ebb tide.

And a bit further along in the same chapter: “I have presented the case for sunny optimism. I have argued that now the world is networked, and ideas are having sex with each other more promiscuously than ever, the pace of innovation will redouble and economic evolution will raise the living standards of the twenty-first century to unimagined heights, helping even the poorest people of the world to afford to meet their desires as well as their needs. I have argued that although such optimism is distinctly unfashionable, history suggests it is actually a more realistic attitude than apocalyptic pessimism. ‘It is the long ascent of the past that gives the lie to our despair,’ said H.G. Wells.

Here is the Table of Contents:
Prologue: When Ideas have Sex
Chap. 1: A better today: the unprecedented present
Chap. 2: The collective brain: exchange and specialization after 200,000 years ago
Chap. 3: The manufacture of virtue: barter, trust, and rules after 50,000 years ago
Chap. 4: The feeding of the nine billion: farming after 10,000 years ago
Chap. 5: The triumph of cities: trade after 5,000 years ago
Chap. 6: Escaping Malthus’s trap: population after 1200
Chap. 7: The release of slaves: energy after 1700
Chap. 8: The invention of invention: increasing returns after 1800
Chap. 9: Turning points: Pessimism after 1900
Chap. 10: The two great pessimisms of today: Africa and climate after 2010
Chap. 11: The catallaxy[*]: rational optimism about 2100
Prologue: The General Theory of Evolution

* Catallaxy: A marketplace of ideas, goods, or services, where the emergent properties of the market (prices, division of labor, growth, etc.) are the outgrowths of the diverse and disparate goals of the individuals in the market.

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