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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: 12-2010

New cousins

A new species of Pleistocene Central Asian hominin that left some DNA behind in Melanesians

How new words and new genes are coined

In the evolution of a language, the same principles apply to DNA as to English

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal, with added links:

Don't look for the soul in the language of DNA

Back in the genomic bronze age-the 1990s-scientists used to think that there would prove to be lots of unique human genes found in no other animal. They assumed that different species would have many different genes. One of the big shocks of sequencing genomes was not just the humiliating news that human beings have the same number of genes as a mouse, but that we have the same genes, give or take a handful.

Cancer, chemicals, Carson and smoking

Rachel Carson, in her hugely influential book Silent Spring, wrote that she expected an epidemic of cancer caused by chemicals in the environment, especially DDT, indeed she thought it had already begun in the early 1960s:

``No longer are exposures to dangerous chemicals occupational alone; they have entered the environment of everyone-even of children as yet unborn. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we are now aware of an alarming increase in malignant disease.

The increase itself is no mere matter of subjective impressions. The monthly report of the Office of Vital Statistics for July 1959 states that malignant growths, including those of the lymphatic and blood-forming tissues, accounted for 15 per cent of the deaths in 1958 compared with only 4 per cent in 1900. Judging by the present incidence of the disease, the American Cancer Society estimates that 45,000,000 Americans now living will eventually develop cancer. This means that malignant disease will strike two out of three families. The situation with respect to children is even more deeply disturbing. A quarter century ago, cancer in children was considered a medical rarity. Today, more American school children die of cancer than from any other disease. So serious has this situation become that Boston has established the first hospital in the United States devoted exclusively to the treatment of children with cancer. Twelve per cent of all deaths in children between the ages of one and fourteen are caused by cancer. Large numbers of malignant tumors are discovered clinically in children under the age of five, but it is an even grimmer fact that significant numbers of such growths are present at or before birth. Dr. W. C. Hueper of the National Cancer Institute, a foremost authority on environmental cancer, has suggested that congenital cancers and cancers in infants may be related to the action of cancer-producing agents to which the mother has been exposed during pregnancy and which penetrate the placenta to act on the rapidly developing fetal tissues.''

The strange lack of limits to growth

Why do people have more resources when there are more of them?

Delingpole on Huhne

Britain tries to reverse the industrial revolution

Miller on cognitive behavioral therapy

To cheer people up tell them things are OK

Mental time travel

The longer your past, the longer your future

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about how the human brain deals with the future. Here it is with added links.

I recently came across the phrase "remembering the future." Rather than some empty poetic paradox, it appeared in an article about a neuroscientific experiment that tested a hypothesis of Karl Friston of University College, London, that the brain is more active when it is surprised.

In the study, volunteers watched patterns of moving dots while having their brains scanned. Occasionally, a dot would appear out of step. Although there was the same number of dots, the visual part of the subjects' brains was more active when the dots broke step. According to Arjen Alink of the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, who did the experiment, the brains were predicting what would happen next and having to work harder when their predictions failed. They were "remembering the future."

Worstall on Stern

Economics for environmentalsist in one short volume

Bishop Hill has a review of Tim Worstall's book Chasing Rainbows, which reminds me that I meant to write about this book. I wrote a cover quote for it that described it `fearless, fresh, forensic and funny'.

What is particularly clever about the book is the way that Worstall makes economic theory so digestible, even delicious. He refutes the dreary cliche so popular among environmentalists that economics just `does not get' the environment (by which they usually mean that they would like to do the equivalent of repeal the laws of gravity and make things to happen even if they make no sense for people: like getting people to give up cheap forms of energy to take up expensive ones). Quite the reverse is true: environmentalists all too often just don't get what economists are trying to tell them.

I especially liked this little section which so neatly eviscerates the Stern Report:

The asymmetry effect

Will exagerated claims about ocean acidification provoke responses, or only sceptical ones?

Self-sufficiency is another word for poverty

Why trade restriction lowers everybody's living standards

(picture from Eden's Path)

More on whether the weather is climate

The Economist turns to astrology

Here's a letter I sent to the editor of The Economist:


Last winter, we were told by scientists that it was `stupid' to take the cold weather as evidence against global warming. Yet this winter you are quite happy to speculate, entirely against the consensus view, that the cold weather is evidence for global warming (`A Cold Warming', Dec 4th). In support of this fancy, you cite `some' evidence that summer heat `may' induce shifts in atmospheric circulation that `might' encourage seasonal patterns that would `probably' mean more cold winters in Britain. Spare us the astrology, please.

More on shale gas

The environmental cost of NOT using a new fuel

There is a big new report on shale gas from the No Hot Air website. It is far too expensive for me, but here is a summary of what it supposedly concludes:

The key issue going forward for natural gas is not managing supply, but creating demand.

The US success in shale gas technology can be replicated in multiple locations world-wide.

Bottom-up education

How to guide children to use the internet in groups to educate themselves

My latest Wall Street Journal column is on the work of Sugata Mitra, who is turning education upside down with the help of the internet:

Whether it's weather or climate that matters

Yes, cold weather is just weather. But that's the point.

Sucking the oxygen from the room

Has the climate change obsession harmed conservation?

For some time now I have been aware of environmentalists who dislike the way their agendas have been hijacked by climate change. The orthodox view is that climate change is raising the profile of all environmental issues, but is it?

Can it really be easier to raise money for a wildlife conservation project in Madagascar or Galapagos when everybody is saying that the major threat is not habitat loss or invasive species, but slow warming?

Can it really be helpful for bird conservation when green groups take money from wind companies which kill golden eagles?