Tim Harford gets better and better, now with a whole thoughtful book exploring the concept of evolution as applied to markets and other complex systems. He is really becoming the UK's Paul Krugman with his colourful analogies that bring to life economic concepts for the lay person - Coco bonds as airbags and 'economic Bulldogs' for the unintended consequences of well intended policy. So why only four stars? Well, most unfortunately, Tim (who, as we all know, is himself a highly competent presenter, well able to read his own book) delegated this task to some actor who decided to deliver various lengthily quoted passages in the supposedly appropriate accent. So Adam Smith appears with a rich scottish burr, and various Americans with a transatlantic drawl. This is irritating and unnecessary (and probably inaccurate) but tolerable. It becomes unbearable when we have third world economists such as Muhammad Yunus (founder of the Grameen bank). The narrator can't actually face the horror of putting on a faux-Bengali accent so he does a sort of 'humble peasant voice' instead. Made me squirm. Tim - read your own books - please.
This is a great subject - why we should be optimistic about the future, after all, the human race has not done too badly so far, from hot baths to antibiotics - and there is much to enjoy in this book. I was particularly amused by the section that reviewed calamities that never happened (e.g. acid rain, Y2 bug, Malthusian starvation). There is also a serious and thoughtful message about eco-friendliness and 'green' politics: technology and going forward may be a better solution than trying to put the clock back to an idyllic rural past that never really did or can exist. Green policies, driven by emotions, can lead to mistakes and errors (e.g. the disaster of bio-fuels and the folly of wind farms). However, I also found the book rambled a bit and would be improved by a good edit. Also, some of the material seemed a bit derivative – but it was possibly just out of date, since the book was written in 2008. I have read several books in recent years - Pinker's 'Better Angels' and 'Why Nations Fail' that cover many of Ridley's points, but a do a better job.
Narration: Awful! Matt Ridley mentions in the book that he 'grew up in London in the 1970s' He does not, therefore, have a grating American accent. I could not get over this contradiction. I like it when the author reads - Tony Blair, George Bush, Sarah Palin, Christopher Hitchens - but if you don't have the skills to do that then get somebody who sounds like the author would. Am I bigoted to want that?
Mr Gladwell has collected an interesting set of anecdotes loosely connected to short time spans and pulls them together without much logic or structure and with many internal contradictions. Sometimes experts are people who have analysed their topic (e.g. food) so that they have access to their sub-conscious whereas non-experts flounder around with holistic impressions, sometimes experts have such finely tuned intuitions that they can instantly say that, for example, a statue is fake, but they have no access to the (highly trained) sub-conscious that tells them this. Ignore pedants like me, Mr Gladwell's amiable muddle-through will provide entertainment and food for thought (especially about prejudice) for any reader.
A book that will challenge and change your attitudes and opinions. Refreshing, forthright, and above all encouraging. All politicians should read it, but they won't dare to espouse it. Most people are 'part smart' and this book goes to the heart of so many issues. It takes a positive view of the world and the future, and is an antidote to the relentless pessimism we are being fed most of the time.