Since I consider myself a anti-rational pessimist, I expected to disagree with most of what was in Mr Ridley’s book. The book is actually not a defense of what I would consider to be "rationalism" or "optimism."
As far as rationalism goes, Ridley specifically opposes the rationalist way of governing described by Michael Oakeshott. Ridley doesn’t define or discuss "rationalism" at all in the book, so I don’t really know what he means by describing himself as a rationalist. Maybe he just likes the word.
Moving on to optimism, Ridley only takes on left-pessimists. He correctly points out that technological innovation is capable of solving lots of problems. For example, he devotes most of the time he spends criticizing pessimists to criticizing the environmentalist movement. Technological innovation will almost certainly solve environmental problems. (The formalists will also enjoy his discussion of Africa. He holds up Botswana as an example of a good country in Africa. He doesn’t mention that it’s basically a corporate monarchy).
If I could re-title Ridley’s book, I’d call it "A Critique of Progressive Pessimism." Or perhaps "The Glories of Trade."
Most of the book is actually an attempt to analyze all of human history. The book therefore fits in with other books like: Guns, Germs and Steel; Understanding Human History; The 10,000 Year Explosion; and others.
Instead of crediting geography. for example, with the rise of certain civilizations, Ridley credits trade (and only trade). Thus, Ridley explains the technological inferiority of Australian aborigines by the fact that they were so isolated. They regressed because they couldn’t trade. Ridley thus rejects the idea that the aborigines were technologically inferior because they have an average IQ somewhere in the 60s. I find this example to be incredibly poor. He couldn’t have found a group with a lower average IQ. If this is the best example to bolster his case, his case must be pretty weak. (He actually seems to deny that the average IQ among aborigines is low, "It was not that they were ‘primitive’ or that they had mentally regressed." Really?)
I should say that I agree that trade is a powerful force for good. Adding trade to the mix is helpful in understanding the rise of civilizations, but trade Ridley goes way too far by insisting that trade alone explains all variation in human populations.
His story also seems to be way to politically correct. He makes several statements like, "Can there be any doubt that it was woman, the diligent gatherer, rather than man, the dilettante hunter, who first had the idea of sowing grain?" Civilization is thus "undoubtedly" the creation of woman. No doubt soon after she pushed for the end of slavery. Why is man a dilettante? Why is woman diligent? When "scientists" write shit like this, I assume that they’re full of shit.
Ridley does not answer conservative or reactionary pessimists. One can imagine a hypothetical meeting between Ridley and Don Colacho. Don Colacho would say something awesome like, "In the society that is starting to take shape, not even the enthusiastic collaboration of the sodomite and the lesbian will save us from boredom." Ridely would respond by saying something like, "but the iPhone 7 will be really sweet."
For Ridley, progress is one-dimensional – technological.
He correctly criticizes the leftist for ignoring technological change, "It is a common trick to forecast the future on the assumption of no technological change, and find it dire. This is not wrong. The future would indeed be dire if invention and discovery ceased." However he does not recognize that he is ignoring all other dimensions, particularly the moral and the political.
He admits that, "Empires, indeed governments generally, tend to be good things at first and bad things the longer they last." Ours has been around a long time. Technological innovations seem to be coupled with declining quality in governance.
Innovation also seem to be coupled with declining morality. Which innovations have bolstered marriage? I can’t think of any. Ridley doesn’t seem to care.
Ridley is correct that the future will be filled with incredible new technologies that make everyone’s life better. This is progress – if all other dimensions are held constant. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that all other dimensions will be held constant. We are in need of innovations that make women less slutty, that strengthen families and marriages, and that improve governance. Unfortunately, in these areas, we seem to be regressing as technology improves. Is this a coincidence? Probably not.