The Rational Optimist

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

Presentation to the Unitarian Philosophy Forum, Sunday May 2, 2011

1.0 Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist

1.1 The Rational Optimist is the title of a book by Matt Ridley, a zoologist by academic background (DPhil, DSc) turned editor and author on popular science. Previous publications include The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (1993), The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (1996), Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters (1999), Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, & What Makes Us Human (2003), Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code (2006), and most recently The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010).

1.2 In previous texts Ridley has argued that sex flourishes because genetic mixing provides a greater defense against parasites and human intelligence is at least partially due to sexual selection (through wit, charm, inventiveness, individuality etc). Altruism is also explain from a genetic standpoint, that co-operation enhances survivability and therefore is likely to passed on to the next generation. Ridley argues that "nurture works via nature", that learning, socialisation, enculturation and so forth are effective only because specific genes.

1.3 The overall philosophical approach used by Ridley is a combination of political and economic libertarianism, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology. This has serious implications for that component of ontology which deals with "being". It is also a challenge to the discipline of sociology which seeks to explain behavioural differences primarily through social systems and culture.

2.0 When Ideas Have Sex

2.1 In "The Rational Optimist" Ridley claims that "Wealth and happiness arise when ideas have sex". By this he means that through the exchange and combination of memetic code (i.e., ideas), adaptability and efficiency improves. Ridley suggests that this also allows for specialisation and a division of labour (starting with the sexual division of labour) and eventually leads to free markets and trade, which drives political freedoms, secularism, universal suffrage etc. Further he declares that it is innate to the species that we do so. Drawing from Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage, he argues for a "declaration of interdependence" and claims that "self-sufficiency is poverty".

"The message from history is so blatantly obvious - that free trade causes mutual prosperity while protectionism causes poverty - that it seems incredible that anybody ever thinks otherwise. There is not a single example of a country opening its borders to trade and ending up poorer..."

2.2 However he also claims that business corporations are often opponents of free enterprise through corporate welfare, barrier regulations, monopolistic orientations. Less directly, landlordism is also treated with disdain (comments on Ireland during the famine, contemporary Botswana). Structured economic and political freedom has a greate correlation with prosperity over time than mineral wealth, education or physical infrastructure.

2.3 This general proposition is carried out on a historical scale; closed, subsistence economies are notorious for the inter-tribal warfare and pre-emptive raids. In traditional societies the arts and philosophy only flourished in those states were commerce was encouraged (classic Athens, Abbassid Baghdad, the Italian city-states). Looking post-WWII, the failure of protectionist Latin American states, India under Nehru, North Korea, Albania under Enver Hoxha, China under Mao Zedong. Countries that went the other way include Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and post-Mao China.

3.0 Pessimism and Criticism

3.1 Ridley confronts the major causes of 'pessimism' in the same manner and rejects nostalgic notions of the past with vivid descriptions. In particular he counters population growth, poverty (especially in Africa), and the prospect of environmental disaster. In the former he claims that non-coercive measures to reduce population growth are successful. For poverty he argues that institutions are more important than aid. For environment issues he claims that concerns are (a) overstated and (b) solvable.

3.2 Ridley has come under some criticism; in an unfriendly exchange between himself and Geogre Monboit the latter accused him of highly selective examples and serious errors, especially in relation to climate change. Monboit also accussed Ridley of seeking to implement the very policies that led to the near collapse of Northern Rock bank, which Ridley was chairman. There was also a debate between Ridley and Bill Gates, with the latter being critical of Ridley's approach to aid.

3.3 The critical issues, from a philosophical perspective, is (a) is Ridley's approach to human ontology correct? (b) is he being rational; are his propositions testable, do the results say that what he says they do? and (c) is there cause for optimism?

Links for the Debate Between Matt Ridley and George Monboit

Links for the Debate Between Matt Ridley and Bill Gates