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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: 10-2012

Wolves versus lesser predators

The return of top predators is good for prey eaten by "mesopredators"

My latest Mind and Matter column at the Wall Street Journal is on wolves and "mesopredators":

The return of the wolf is one of the unexpected ecological bonuses of the modern era. So numerous are wolves that this fall Wisconsin and Wyoming have joined Idaho and Montana in opening wolf-hunting seasons for the first time in years. Minnesota follows suit next month; Michigan may do so next year. The reintroduced wolves of Yellowstone National Park have expanded to meet the expanding packs of Canada and northern Montana.

The same is happening in Europe. Wolf populations are rising in Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe, while in recent years wolves have recolonized France, Germany, Sweden and Norway, and have even been seen in Belgium and the Netherlands. Nor are wolves the only "apex predators" to boom in this way. In the U.S., bears and mountain lions are spreading, to joggers' dismay. Coyotes are reappearing even within cities like Chicago and Denver.

Why Can't Things Get Better Faster (or Slower)?

The surprising regularity of technological progress

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

In 1965, the computer expert Gordon Moore published his famous little graph showing that the number of "components per integrated function" on a silicon chip-a measure of computing power-seemed to be doubling every year and a half. He had only five data points, but Moore's Law has settled into an almost iron rule of innovation. Why is it so regular?

Epigenetic inheritance is a wild goose chase

Epigenetics matters, but not between generations

This week's award of the Nobel Prize for medicine to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka effectively recognizes the science of epigenetics. Dr. Gurdon showed that almost any cell (in a frog) contains all the genetic information to become an adult. What makes the cell develop a certain way is a pattern of "epigenetic" modifications to the DNA specific to each tissue-turning genes on and off. Dr. Yamanaka showed that if you can remove that epigenetic modification (in a mouse) you can reprogram a cell to be an embryo.

Yet to most people the word "epigenetics" has come to mean something quite different: the inheritance of nongenetic features acquired by a parent. Most scientists now think the latter effect is rare, unimportant and hugely overhyped.

There are several mechanisms of modifying DNA without altering the genetic code itself. The key point is that these modifications survive the division of cells.

The benefits of GM crops

After 15 years, the ecological and economic dividends are big

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on genetically modified crops:

Generally, technologies are judged on their net benefits, not on the claim that they are harmless: The good effects of, say, the automobile and aspirin outweigh their dangers. Today, arguably, adopting certain new technologies is harder not just because of a policy of precaution but because of a bias in much of the media against reporting the benefits.

Shale gas is one example, genetically modified food another, where the good news is deemed less newsworthy than the bad. A recent French study claimed that both pesticides and GM corn fed to cancer-susceptible strains of rats produced an increase in tumors. The study has come in for withering criticism from mainstream scientists for its opaque data, small samples, unsatisfactory experimental design and unconventional statistical analysis, yet it has still gained headlines world-wide. (In published responses, the authors have stood by their results.)

Thinkers, not feelers

The psychology of libertarian views

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal finds that just as liberals and conservatives have predictable personalities, so do libertarians:

An individual's personality shapes his or her political ideology at least as much as circumstances, background and influences. That is the gist of a recent strand of psychological research identified especially with the work of Jonathan Haidt. The baffling (to liberals) fact that a large minority of working-class white people vote for conservative candidates is explained by psychological dispositions that override their narrow economic interests.