Cafe Sci: ‘The Rational Optimist' - why we should be more positive about the fu




Ian Howarth

Emeritus professor of psychology

The future is brighter than anyone yet realizes. Matthew Ridley, acting like an intellectual aristocrat of the 18th and 19th centuries, justifies optimism, rather than pessimism, in his latest book ‘The Rational Optimist: how prosperity evolves’ (4th Estate, 2011).

As the 5th Viscount Ridley, he was Chairman of Northern Rock in 2007, when it was effectively nationalized. Despite this, he is best known as a distinguished zoologist and evolutionary theorist. He has written six very serious, but popular books; all of which have been well received. However, many distinguished people, such as Bill Gates and George Monbiot, have criticized his latest book, which justifies optimism for two reasons.

The vast amount of evidence that life is better now, than at any time in the past.
Evolution ensures that better things (physical, biological, mental) survive longer.

Articles in Wikipedia, the Guardian, and in Google, summarize the debate. Ridley seems to have the better of the argument in most cases. However, in contrast to most of his critics, I think he understates his case, because he does not fully recognize that the processes of evolution operate, simultaneously, at many different levels, in an infinite variety of contexts, with most of them interacting cooperatively. A small number of things compete to discover what is the “fittest”, but the importance of this is usually exaggerated.

MEETING FORMAT: Our speaker talks, uninterrupted for 20 minutes, to introduce his topic. During a break to get drinks, the Hat goes round. Then there is an hour’s chaired question and answer session. Cafe Sci is funded by the Hat (no sponsors). We suggest a contribution £5 (waged) or £2 - £3 (unwaged). Full details here

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  • Rosa p.


    November 11, 2013

  • Rosa p.

    I am reading the book.

    1 · November 6, 2013

  • Bill G.

    This will be interesting. Whether we should be optimistic or not, Ridley's argument collapses since it rests on "Evolution ensures that better things (physical, biological, mental) survive longer." The problem with that statement is the two uses of the word better. Evolution creates, at many levels on a complexity scale, and with complex co-evolution, structures "better" able to survive in the evolving environment. This use of "better" has nothing to do with the use of "better" in terms of prosperity, humanity or morality. On the contrary, Evolution, in all its magnificent blindness, will ensure that whatever ends up destroying man's creations and consuming mankind, will do so efficiently.

    2 · November 4, 2013

    • Bill G.

      I have a very limited right to comment (none?), not having read his book. However I have learned a little about the man and his views in this podcast­s/2010/10/ridley_on_trad­e.html and other articles. He likes his own jokes and has odd ideas on renewable & non-renewable resources, on climate change and ecology. He seems on the one hand to like "Capitalism red in tooth and claw" to combine his political and evolutionary view, and believes wealth trickles down­5syy8. In spite of his denial at the end of this article­tt_Ridley he does seems to be of the right.

      November 6, 2013

  • Rȯy

    Maybe a bit late

    November 6, 2013

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