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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: 08-2012

When genes look out for themselves

The antics of selfish DNA in worms and plants

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on selfish DNA:

The theory of selfish DNA was born as a throwaway remark in the book "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins, when he pondered why there is so much surplus DNA in the genomes of some animals and plants.

Apocalypse Not

A history of failed predictions of doom

When the sun rises on December 22, as it surely will, do not expect apologies or even a rethink. No matter how often apocalyptic predictions fail to come true, another one soon arrives. And the prophets of apocalypse always draw a following-from the 100,000 Millerites who took to the hills in 1843, awaiting the end of the world, to the thousands who believed in Harold Camping, the Christian radio broadcaster who forecast the final rapture in both 1994 and 2011.

Predictions of global famine and the end of oil in the 1970s proved just as wrong as end-of-the-world forecasts from millennialist priests. Yet there is no sign that experts are becoming more cautious about apocalyptic promises. If anything, the rhetoric has ramped up in recent years. Echoing the Mayan calendar folk, theBulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock one minute closer to midnight at the start of 2012, commenting: "The global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in Earth's atmosphere."

Over the five decades since the success of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 and the four decades since the success of the Club of Rome's The Limits to Growth in 1972, prophecies of doom on a colossal scale have become routine. Indeed, we seem to crave ever-more-frightening predictions-we are now, in writer Gary Alexander's word, apocaholic. The past half century has brought us warnings of population explosions, global famines, plagues, water wars, oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, Y2K bugs, mad cow epidemics, killer bees, sex-change fish, cell-phone-induced brain-cancer epidemics, and climate catastrophes.

Did your ancestor date a Neanderthal?

And if so where and when?

My latest Mind and Matter column discusses the debate about how non-Africans got their 1-4% Neanderthal DNA:

So did we or didn't we? Last week saw the publication of two new papers with diametrically opposed conclusions about whether non-African people have Neanderthal-human hybrids among their ancestors-a result of at least some interspecies dalliance in the distant past.

That non-Africans share 1% to 4% of their genomes with Neanderthals is not in doubt, thanks to the pioneering work of paleo-geneticists led by the Max Planck Institute's Svante Paabo. At issue is how to interpret that fact. Dr. Paabo originally recognized that there are two possible explanations, hybridization (which got all the press) or "population substructure."

Human uniqueness versus anthropomorphism

Rats rescuing rats looks like empathy, but what about ants?

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

Identifying unique features of human beings is a cottage industry in psychology. In his book "Stumbling on Happiness," the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert jokes that every member of his profession lives under the obligation at some time in his career to complete a sentence which begins: "The human being is the only animal that..." Those who have completed the sentence with phrases like "makes tools," "is conscious" or "can imitate" have generally now conceded that some other animals also have these traits.

Plenty of human uniqueness remains. After all, uniqueness is everywhere in the biological world: Elephants and worms also have unique features. As fast as one scientist demotes human beings from being unique in one trait, another scientist comes up with a new unique trait: grandparental care, for instance, or extra spines on the pyramidal cells of our prefrontal cortex.

The perils of confirmation bias - part 3

Climate science needs gadflies

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is the third in the series on confirmation bias.

I argued last week that the way to combat confirmation bias-the tendency to behave like a defense attorney rather than a judge when assessing a theory in science-is to avoid monopoly. So long as there are competing scientific centers, some will prick the bubbles of theory reinforcement in which other scientists live.