Is The World Really Better Than Ever?
“In the second century of the Christian Era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury.” Thus the first paragraph of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and thus, more or less, the entire contents of Matt Ridley’s latest book. Gibbon went on, in half a dozen thick, square volumes, to chart the collapse of that earthly paradise and its replacement by barbarism. Ridley is more hopeful. The Rational Optimist is an anthem, sung by a celestial choir to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus, of undiluted praise for the free market in cash and ideas, from the stone age to the present day, and on into a sunlit and biologically inevitable future. Its rationale comes from Self-Help, a work published in 1859. As Samuel Smiles put it in his Victorian bestseller: “The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual”, and Matt Ridley agrees. Another volume, published on the same day as Self-Help, gives Rational Optimista theme. The word “evolution” does not appear in The Origin of Species, but plays a large part here. In its Latin form, the term was applied to the unrolling of a scroll. Ridley examines the scroll of history and finds that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. In spite of the earthquakes, literal and metaphoric, that now and again perturb humankind’s placid course, there is inevitability in his view of life, for the laws of nature, inscribed in our bodies and brains, have made us, and our economies, what they are. True indeed, but nothing to do with Darwinism. This long read takes us through why we are living in a better world despite all the terrors, wars, starvation, and the despoiling of our environment. Credit: Steve Jones for The Guardian.
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