Home Research Case Studies Sustainability The Book Shelf: Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist (2010)

The Book Shelf: Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist (2010)

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The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley is one of the books that I greater admire and from which I have extracted many insights as a professional coach. I am not alone in expressing enthusiasm for this book — it has received many rave reviews.  In this brief review of The Rational Optimist we want to highlight several key points, indicate where other authors we admire have offered a similar perspective–and most importantly suggest several ways in which Ridley’s analysis can offer guidance and motivation to those of us who do coaching and work in particular with men and women in the professions (thereby honoring the theme of this Future of Coaching issue).

The first point and one that resides at the core of Ridley’s analysis is the important role played by collective learning in the evolution of human beings. We will next turn to the theme of specialization (which Ridley suggests is fundamental in the creation of human societies). We conclude with the importance that Ridley places on the processes of appreciation (a perspective that we think is critical in the field of professional coaching). Each of these key points offers us the opportunity to be rationally optimistic when facing a postmodern world of turbulence, inconsistency and unpredictability.

The Collective Brain

Ridley proposes right off the bat that successful human evolution is a story of collaboration (not competition):

It is my contention that in looking inside our heads, we would be looking in the wrong place to explain this extraordinary capacity for change in the species. It was not something that happened within a brain. It was something that happened between brains. It was a collective phenomenon.

Throughout the book, Ridley refers to the “collective brain.” (pg. 38) He suggests that human beings would never have evolved so quickly if  this evolution was dependent only on the physical properties of the human brain.  A similar case is being made by David Christian in his extraordinary effort to produce “big history” (Christian, 2011). He proposes that the accelerated process of human evolution centers on the ability (and desire) of human beings to  collaboratively learn and to accumulate and pass on this learning to the next generation. While our nearest evolutionary relatives (the primates) tend to replicate the same basic routines from generation to generation, humans learn, accumulate and invent.

This accelerated evolution occurs not through genetic modifications, but instead through modifications in human cultures. This “new” form of evolution is often referred to as “micro-evolutionary theory.” Cultural integration and collective learning and education produce inventions. As Ridley suggests, diverse ideas need to be brought together:  “If culture consisted simply of learning habits from others [as occurs with primates], it would soon stagnate. For culture to turn cumulative, ideas needed to meet and mate.” (pg. 6) Meeting and mating needs to occur in a specific community context (and increasingly in multiple, cross-cultural communities). In this regard, Ridley is echoing the perspective on innovation that is offered by Johansson in The Medici Effect. Communities such as Venice during the Renaissance and Paris in the 1920s become the crucibles of profound and diverse innovations–there is abundant “meeting and mating” among a highly diverse community of interacting men and women.

Ridley’s focus on collaborative learning and interactive diversity provides us, as coaches, with a rationale for serving as ideational provocateurs and networkers – as coaches we can bring together different perspectives and disciplines when working with our clients. It is particularly important for the coaches of professionals to help their clients become “interdisciplinary professionals” and to assist them in getting out of or (better yet) avoiding the disciplinary silos and rigid mind-sets that are all to common in the socialization and stabilizations of professional practices.

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