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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Archive for date: 01-2013

Farewell to the myth of the noble savage

Napoleon Chagnon was right about war in small-scale societies

Here's my latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

A war within anthropology over the causes of war itself seems to be reaching resolution. The great ethnographer of the gardener-hunter Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela, Napoleon Chagnon, has long been battling colleagues over whether men in prestate societies go to war over protein or women. Next month he'll publish a memoir, "Noble Savages," detailing (as the subtitle puts it) "My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes-the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists." This is a good time to look back at how his argument has fared.

Genes and social networks in monkeys and people

The heritability of having many friends

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Not only is the capacity for forming large social networks in monkeys partly genetic, but some of the genes that affect this ability may now be known. So suggests a new study of an isolated population of free-living macaques on an island off Puerto Rico.

Precision editing of DNA

Changing one letter in the genetic code at a precise location now possible

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rockefeller and Harvard universities have found a new method of editing DNA with great precision. This and another new technique mean that scientists can now go into a cell, find a particular sequence in the genome and change that sequence by a single letter.

Just to get your mind around this feat, imagine taking about 5,000 different novels and reprinting them in normal font size on 23 very long cotton ribbons. Since each word takes up about half an inch, the ribbons, placed end to end, would stretch for roughly three million miles-120 times around the world. But to be a bit more realistic, twist and tangle the ribbons so much that they only go around the planet once.

One of the books written on your ribbons is "A Tale of Two Cities," but you don't even know which ribbon it is on, let alone where on that ribbon. Your task is to find the clauses "It was the beast of times, it was the worst of times" and correct the misprint.

Mark Lynas and green orthodoxy

A conversion over GM food

Well done, Mark Lynas, for changing his mind over genetically modified food.

Here's Mark Lynas on those who still oppose GM food: "I look forward to their opening up an honest and self-critical debate on this, rather than attacking others like myself who challenge green orthodoxy where it likely harms society and the environment."

Here's Mark Lynas on wind power: "Matt Ridley's massive Spectator anti-wind rant seems completely fact-free. Any references to back this up, @mattwridley?" [There were scores of facts and references, starting with my assertion that wind power provides 0.3% of the UK's total energy, a fact that Lynas challenged, then called specious, then conceded].

The greening of the planet

Satellites confirm that green vegetation is increasing

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on the greening of the planet:

Did you know that the Earth is getting greener, quite literally? Satellites are now confirming that the amount of green vegetation on the planet has been increasing for three decades. This will be news to those accustomed to alarming tales about deforestation, overdevelopment and ecosystem destruction.

Global outlook rosy; Europe's outlook grim

We are copying the Ming empire

I have an op-ed in the Times on how even a global optimist can foresee absolute as well as relative decline for Europe if it continues to emulate the Ming Empire:

A "rational optimist" like me thinks the world will go on getting better for most people at a record rate, not because I have a temperamental or ideological bent to good cheer but because of the data. Poverty, hunger, population growth rates, inequality, and mortality from violence, disease and weather - all continue to plummet on a global scale.

But a global optimist can still be a regional pessimist. When asked what I am pessimistic about, I usually reply: bureaucracy and superstition. Using those two tools, we Europeans seem intent on making our future as bad as we can. Like mandarins at the court of the Ming emperors or viziers at the court of Abbasid caliphs, our masters seem determined to turn relative into absolute decline. It is entirely possible that ten years from now the world as a whole will be 50 per cent richer, but Europeans will be 50 per cent poorer.