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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: 07-2010

Intergalactic idea sex

Rational optimism for the universe

In The Rational Optimist, I argue that the human technological and economic take-off derives from the invention of exchange and specialisation some time before 100,000 years ago. When people began to trade things, ideas could meet and mate, with the result that a sort of collective brain could form, far more powerful than individual brains. Cumulative technology could begin to embody this collective intelligence.

Of course, I did not invent this idea. In keeping with the theory, I merely put together the ideas of others, notably those of Joe Henrich (collective intelligence), Rob Boyd (cumulative culture), Paul Romer (combinatorial ideas), Haim Ofek (the invention of exchange) and many others.

There was also the important thought that came from Adam Powell, Stephen Shennan and Mark Thomas, namely that temporary `outbreaks' of new technology in Paleolithic Africa probably have a demographic explanation. That is, when population density rose, it resulted in a spurt of innovation; when population density fell, it resulted in technological regress (as happened in Tasmania when it was isolated). Technology was sophisticated, in other words, in proportion to the number of people networked by exchange to sustain and develop it.

The oil runs out

That damned elusive slick

I noticed a curious thing recently. The BBC's coverage of the Gulf oil spill for the last two nights was missing one thing: oil.

A reporter went down in a minisubmarine and looked at a pristine coral reef. Newsnight interviewed lawyers, fishermen and politicians.

But there was no sign of a slick, a slimed pelican or even a tar ball in their reports.

Collaboration or growth

Who thinks they are in conflict?

Through the letterbox drops a begging letter from the head of a university. Fair enough. The needy beg. The first sentence reads as follows.

Today, the defining struggle in the world is between relentless growth and the potential for collaboration.

This is very odd in all sorts of ways.

German language interview

`Optimisten brauchen diesen Text nicht zu lesen. Pessimisten sollten ihn auswendig lernen.'

German language interview just published in Das Magazin, based in Zurich. It calls me `notorisch zuversichtlichen'.

Includes this picture of the author looking pessmistic because about to be eaten by sabre-toothed cat, and because he has his head by the rear end of a monkey.

No golden age of air travel

Whenever somebody gets nostalgic about the past, I get suspicious. In the eigth century BC, Hesiod was already moaning about how things aint like they used to be.

The Wall Street Journal has a great article about how nostalgic people get for the way air travel used to be in the 1950s -- with more leg room, less hassle and more romance.

Piffle. Compard with today, it was expensive, dangerous and slow:

The true price of power

I have long known that there is nothing remotely `green' about putting wind farms all over the countryside, with their eagle-slicing, bat-popping, subsidy-eating, rare-earth-demanding, steel-rich, intermittent-output characteristics. But until I read Robert Bryce's superb and sober new book Power Hungry, I had not realised just how dreadfully bad for the environment nearly all renewable energy is.

Bryce calculates that one Texas nuclear plant generates about 56 watts per square metre. This compares with 53 for gas turbines, 1.2 for wind, 6.7 for solar or 0.05 for corn ethanol. Sorry, but what is so green about using 45 times as much land - and ten times as much steel - to produce the same amount of power? It does not surprise me that those with vested interest in renewables close their minds to this, but it genuinely baffles me that other people don't get it.

I've dealt with bird killing elsewhere, but Bryce contrasts the prosecution of Exxon for killing 85 birds in uncovered tanks with the fact that:

Homo stramineus

On the use of straw men in scientific arguments

I found this on John Hawks's anthropology blog. He's writing about the sometimes heated debate over whether Homo floresiensis is a species or a deformity:

What I notice is that when I write about this, I have to correct a lot of false claims about what the anti-floresiensis scientists have said. Why do I so rarely have to correct false claims about what the pro-floresiensis scientists say? This is a generalization, but I've written enough about this to have a good impression. The media reports skeptical arguments very poorly. I think it's a systematic problem with science writing.

With the H. floresiensis issue, the science writers have been abetted by some careless scholars. A reporter may quote a pro-floresiensis scientist who says his critics believe something totally nonsensical, and they report that uncritically. This is another example of the same. I challenge anybody to find an anti-floresiensis scholar who has written that "nature moves inexorably towards bigger brains".

Daniel Ben-Ami on pessimist puritans

Scepticism about economic growth is a reactionary, not a radical philosophy

Daniel Ben-Ami's new book `Ferraris For All', published by the Policy Press, is a great read. Ben-Ami's point is to defend the idea of economic development against the `growth sceptics' who have emerged in various blue, green and red guises recently.

What he does especially well is to point out how conservative, how elitist and anti-aspirational, so many of the critics of economic growth are. In a fascinating chapter he explores the way in which the Left has abandoned the idea of progress, and turned conservative:

Nowadays it has reached the stage where what passes for radical thinking is typically imbued with deep social pessimism and hostility to economic growth. Paradoxically, to the extent that any current is associated with advocating prosperity, it is often the free market Right.

Natural resilience

What happens after oil spills

I have written an op-ed article in The Times today. It's behind a paywall, but here's my last draft before editing by the newspaper, together with links.

So long as the cap holds, and assuming that is the end of it, the Deepwater Horizon spill (up to 600,000 tonnes in total) will now take its place in the oil spill hall of shame. BP's cavalier incompetence has made this probably the worst oil-spill year since 1979, the year that saw not only the previous worst rig spill - the Ixtoc 1 platform off Mexico - but also the worst tanker spill, a collision of two supertankers off Trinidad.

All this, just when things were going so well in the oil-spill business. The number and collective size of oil spills (over 7,000 tonnes) has declined in each of the last four decades, from 25 large spills and over 250,000 tonnes a year in 1970-1979 to three spills and about 20,000 tonnes a year in 2000-2009: that is a drop of more than 90%.

The Rational Optimist live on stage

Matt's TEDGlobal talk in Oxford

My TED talk is now live online.

At TEDGlobal 2010, author Matt Ridley shows how, throughout history, the engine of human progress has beenthe meeting and mating of ideas to make new ideas. It's not important how clever individuals are, he says; what really matters is how smart the collective brain is.

Mountains and molehills

Today at TED Global in Oxford, among other great talks, I was blown away by this graph, shown by David McCandless.

The burden of proof

Remember who needs to persuade who on climate change

I have just one comment on the Climategate reports and that is this.

People who ask the world to spend $45 trillion on a project are surely under an obligation to show their raw data and their workings. If instead, they

publish only `adjusted data' rather than raw data,

Go Dutch

Ten reasons I want the Netherlands to win the World Cup

Ten reasons I want the Netherlands to win the World Cup

1. More than almost any nation since the Phoenicians, the Dutch traded rather than plundered their way to prosperity in their Golden Age.

2. They were cheated out of winning (hosting?) the industrial revolution by invasions and attacks from jealous neighbours, especially Louis XIV.

In the Sun

Rational Optimism reaches the tabloids

I am in today's Sun newspaper. Fully clothed.

WHEN I was growing up in the 1970s we were warned the ice age was returning, the population explosion was unstoppable and we'd all be poisoned by chemicals in the environment.

None of these things happened.

Green greed

Green politicking can do real harm

Tim Worstall has a superb rebuke to the idiotic argument that greedy speculation, rather than greenie politicking, was the real cause of the high food prices, hunger and food riots of 2008:

In short, futures allow speculation upon the future: which is why we have them, for speculation upon the future allows us to sidestep the very things which we do not desire to happen in that future.

Now, of course, you could design an alternative method of doing this. The wise, omniscient and altruistic politicians and bureaucrats could send a fax to all farmers telling them to plant more. Signs could appear in every breadshop telling us all to eat our crusts.

Down with Doom

Where are the pressure groups for good news?

have written a blog at the Huffington Post called Down with Doom. Here's an extract:

I now see at firsthand how I avoided hearing any good news when I was young. Where are the pressure groups that have an interest in telling the good news? They do not exist. By contrast, the behemoths of bad news, such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF, spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year and doom is their best fund-raiser. Where is the news media's interest in checking out how pessimists' predictions panned out before? There is none. By my count, Lester Brown has now predicted a turning point in the rise of agricultural yields six times since 1974, and been wrong each time. Paul Ehrlich has been predicting mass starvation and mass cancer for 40 years. He still predicts that `the world is coming to a turning point'.

Testing past consensi

Previous declarations of scientific consensus have often proved wrong

Update: apologies for formatting problems in a previous version of this blog post.

Last week a study claimed that 97-98 percent of the most published climate scientists agree with the scientific consensus that man-made climate change is happening.

Well, duh. Of course they would: it's their livelihood. Anyway, so do I. So do most `sceptics': they just argue about how much and through what means. You can believe in man-made carbon dioxide causing man-made climate change but not in net positive feedbacks so you think the change will be mild, slow, hard to discern among natural changes and far less likely to cause harm than carbon-rationing policies: that's still within the range of possibilities of the IPCC consensus.