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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: 07-2011

The nature and nurture sport: talent versus effort

Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal

"It's strange that I could become a professional athlete," said the Australian winner of this summer's Tour de France, Cadel Evans. "Physically, I was completely unsuitable for almost all Australian school sports. Nearly all Australian school sports require speed and/or size."

Ancient cousins

The new Siberian hominids and the family tree

Belatedly, here is last week's Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal.

I once had a soft spot for the yeti, known in my youth as the "abominable snowman." As a teenager I avidly devoured stories of hairy bipeds glimpsed through snowstorms, strange cries echoing across glaciers, or enigmatic footprints in the snow. Slowly it dawned on me that the testimony was unreliable, the ecology implausible, the demography impossible and the lack of specimens conclusive.

And the band played on

The not so good old days

I heartily recommend a new book called "And the Band Played On" by Christopher Ward, a friend of mine. It's a best-seller already in the UK. It's about his grandfather, who was the violinist in the band that played as the Titanic sank. But it's not about the sinking, but about what happened afterwards, and in particular the feud that broke about between the violinist's father and his pregnant fiancee's family. It's an astonishing tale of fraud, hoaxes, lawsuits, imprisonment and cruelty that would make a fiction writer blush at having exaggerated.

But, for the purposes of this website, what struck this rational optimist most was the examples of how non-good were the good old days. A world in which a ship's musician has to buy his own uniform on credit, to be deducted from his wages, is not very nice. But a world in which those wages were stopped by his employer at 2.20am on 14 April 1912 is shockingly awful. And a world in which his father then receives a letter pointing out that the wages having been stopped, there is still a sum owing for the uniform buttons, which the father should settle by return -- takes the biscuit. This was also a world in which a seventeen year old girl who devised a cruel hoax to get revenge on her father and stepmother was imprisoned in a brutal jail awaiting trial for deception. Yet I suspect Scotland in 1912 was a lot kinder than it was in 1812 or 1712.

Next time the Archbishop of Canterbury or some pontificating busybody tells me the world is getting worse because people are so much more selfish these days, I will suggest they read this book.

Good for the environment, after all

After 13 years, everybody sensible now knows the GM crops were good for human beings and the environment too. But admitting it is hard.

The Scientific Alliance newsletter has an interesting update on GM food. The public no longer feels the visceral fear of these crops that they did 13 years ago, even in Europe. But finding ways for politicians to climb off their high horses, without upsetting their masters in the Big Green organisations, is not proving easier. Here are three extracts:

Many farmers seem to like GM crops. Only 15 years after they were first commercialised, 148 million hectares were sown with biotech seeds around the world in 2010, a 10% increase over the previous year. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (, 15.4 million individual farmers grew GM crops, over 90% of them in developing countries. This is not unexpected: agriculture has evolved over the centuries by farmers trying and adopting new technology if they see a benefit. Crop biotechnology is just one more step on the road, and certainly not the last...

This anti-biotech activity has firm roots in the broader environmentalist and anti-globalisation movements. For most of the public, crop biotechnology is generally now a non-issue, and greater availability of GM crops - without taking away the critical element of choice - would be unlikely to cause a real furore in many countries, except amongst the activist minority. But that relies on governments taking the scientific advice of EFSA and allowing more approvals...


Two environmental trends headed in a good direction

Update: I failed to make clear that negative numbers in the drought severity index implies worse droughts. The two findings below contradict each other. Here is another "greening", of the Sahel:

Britain's economic suicide

A fetish with carbon is driving up the price of electricity and destroying jobs

Here's (belatedly) a piece I published in the Times last week.

British Gas is putting up the cost of heating and lighting the average home by up to 18 per cent, or about £200 a year. Indignation at its profiteering is understandable. But that can only be a part of the story: the combined profits of the big six energy supply companies amount to less than 1.5 per cent of your energy bill, according to the regulator, Ofgem.

Print your own organs?

3D printing may one day work for stem-cell-derived kidneys and concrete building parts

My l atest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on 3D printing:

Serendipity works in curious ways. Earlier this month, on the day before I read news of the successful implanting of a synthetic windpipe grown with a patient's own cells, I happened to have lunch with a civil engineer who told me about the first use of a 3-D printer to print structures in concrete. The two technologies are very different, but as I read more about each, I soon found an eerie convergence.

A debate on labels and acidification

Mark Lynas engages me on several issues

Mark Lynas's new book The God Species contains a few pages that dispute my account of ocean acidification in particular. Mark kindly alerted me to this and asked for my reaction. The result was an exchange, which Mark has put up on his blog here, which I mirror here. I thank Mark for taking my arguments seriously and suggesting an exchange of ideas.

Lynas: In my book The God Species I take science writer Matt Ridley to task for downplaying the dangers of ocean acidification. He responded via email, and I to him. Here is the exchange. Matt's final short responses are also included, indented as 'Ridley2′. Square brackets are mine, for clarification.

Ridley: You say [in The God Species]: "Why not just admit candidly that whilst the human advance has been amazing and hugely beneficial, it has also had serious environmental impacts?" Answer: I do. Human beings have serious environmental impacts. I say so and I do not deny them. For example: "Take coral reefs, which are suffering horribly from pollution, silt, nutrient runoff and fishing - especially the harvesting of herbivorous fishes that otherwise keep reefs clean of algae." From megafaunal extinction to alteration of the composition of the atmosphere, I detail lots of changes wrought by humans. On both climate change and ocean acidification, I accept a human alteration of the environment as real. What I argue with is whether the negative impacts are always as great as claimed or the positive ones always as small as claimed. That's quite different from not admitting that there are impacts, serious and otherwise.

Cheering up others

Brian Eno, the musician and writer, is more positive as a result of reading The Rational Optimist:

"That kind of marks the change I've felt in the past year or two. I wouldn't end an album like that now," he says. Drums Between the Bells has a loose, funky feel; it ends with the words, "Everything will be all right". Eno's new-found positivity - partly sparked by eco-thinker and Eno friend Stewart Brand's book Whole Earth Discipline and popular science writer Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist - boils down to a belief that we've never had it so good.

"Cultures have a tendency to be pessimistic. The whole of the history of humanity is people going, 'It's all going to fall apart, my God it's looking terrible, we're not going to survive for another 20 years.' But, in fact, on average things have actually been getting better for thousands of years. It's like you're playing roulette in the casino and you keep winning and you think I've got to stop, this is not going to carry on. Well, it has been carrying on, by and large. Most of us in this country live a hundred times better lives than we would have done 100 years ago. So things are getting exponentially better for us, and we can't believe our luck, so there's a tendency to say, 'It can't go on'."

Devils and contagious cancer

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on the strange phenomenon of contagious cancer in dogs and Tasmanian devils, and whether it could happen to us. Elizabeth Murchison is speaking about this at the TED Global meeting in Edinburgh next week.

Samuel Johnson prize shortlist

The film of the book

Frank Dikotter's fine -- and vital -- book on Mao's Great famine won the Samuel Johnson prize. But you can see a short film and a discussion about my book on the BBC Culture showhere(from minute 17.17 onwards). It's an honour to have made it to the shortlist.

A Fat tale

Nic Lewis's discovery of a statistical alteration applied by the IPCC lends strong support to lukwarming

Nic Lewis's discovery of a statistical alteration applied by the IPCC lends strong support to lukwarming

As most people know, I am a lukewarmer -- somebody who accepts carbon dioxide's full greenhouse potential, but does not accept the much more dubious evidence for net positive feedbacks on top, and who therefore thinks that a temperatuire rise of more than 2C in this century is unlikely.

Eating your greenery -- and having it too

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

Driving home the other day it occurred to me that almost none of the greenery I could see-trees, garden shrubs, grass shoulders on the highway-was going to be used by humans for food, fuel, clothing or shelter.