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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My latest Mind and Matter column at the Wall Street
The astronomer Martin Rees recently coined the neat phrase "Copernican demotion"
for science's habit of delivering humiliating disappointment to
those who think that our planet is special. Copernicus told us the
Earth was not at the center of the solar system; later astronomers
found billions of solar systems in each of the billions of
galaxies, demoting our home to a cosmic speck.
Mr. Rees says further Copernican demotion may loom ahead. "The
entire panorama that astronomers can observe could be a tiny part
of the aftermath of 'our' big bang, which is itself just one bang
among a perhaps-infinite ensemble." Indeed, even our physics could
be a parochial custom: Mr. Rees says that different universes could
be governed by different rules and our "laws of nature" may be
The Times has published my article on Northumberlandia today.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on
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
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
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."
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
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall
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.
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.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:
If, as I argued last week, scientists are just as prone as
everybody else to confirmation bias to looking for evidence to
support rather than test their ideas then how is it that science,
unlike cults and superstitions, does change its
mind and find new things?
The answer was spelled out by the psychologist Raymond Nickerson
of Tufts University in a paper written in 1998: "It is not so much
the critical attitude that individual scientists have taken with
respect to their own ideas that has given science the success it
has enjoyed... but more the fact that individual scientists have
been highly motivated to demonstrate that hypotheses that are held
by some other scientist(s) are false."
latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:
There's a myth out there that has gained the status of a cliché:
that scientists love proving themselves wrong, that the first thing
they do after constructing a hypothesis is to try to falsify it.
Professors tell students that this is the essence of science.
Yet most scientists behave very differently in practice. They
not only become strongly attached to their own theories; they
perpetually look for evidence that supports rather than challenges
their theories. Like defense attorneys building a case, they
collect confirming evidence.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
If all goes well next month, Curiosity, NASA's latest mission to
Mars, will land in the Gale crater, a 3.5-billion-year-old,
96-mile-wide depression near the planet's equator. Out will roll a
car-size rover to search for signs of life, among other things. It
will drill into rocks and sample the contents, using a mass
spectrometer, a gas chromatograph and a laser spectrometer.
In the unlikely event that the project finds evidence of life,
then what? In particular, who is in charge of deciding what we
should do if we encounter living Martian creatures?
The Times published my op-ed on banking reform:
It is not yet clear whether the current rage against the banks
will do more harm than good: whether we are about to throw the baby
of banking as a vital utility out with the bathwater of banking as
a wasteful casino. But what is clear is that the current mood of
Bankerdämmerung is an opportunity as well as a danger. The fact
that so many people agree that some kind of drastic reform is
needed, all the way along a spectrum from Milibands to mega-Tories,
might just open the window through which far-reaching reform of the
financial system enters.
All the actors involved bear some blame. First, investment
bankers and the principals in financial companies that cluster
around them have trousered an increasing share of the returns from
the financial markets, leaving less for their customers and
shareholders, while getting "too big to fail", so passing their
risks to taxpayers.
Two rival designs of plant biochemistry compete to dominate the
globe. One, called C3 after the number of carbon atoms in the
initial sugars it makes, is old, but still dominant. Rice is a C3
plant. The other, called C4, is newer in evolutionary history, and
now has about 21% of the photosynthesis "market." Corn is a C4
plant. In hot weather, the C3 mechanism becomes inefficient at
grabbing carbon dioxide from the air, but in cool weather C4 stops
working altogether. So at first glance it seems as if global
warming should benefit C4.
I wrote the following op-ed in The Times (behind a paywall) on 2
As I cowered in my parked car in a street in Newcastle last
Thursday, nearly deafened by hail on the roof of the car, thunder
from the black sky and shrieking girls from the doorway of a
school, a dim recollection swam into my mind. After inching back
home slowly, through the flooded streets, I googled to refresh the
memory. On 23 March this year, the Meteorological Office issued the following prediction:
"The forecast for average UK rainfall slightly favours
drier-than-average conditions for April-May-June as a whole, and
also slightly favours April being the driest of the 3 months. With
this forecast, the water resources situation in southern, eastern
and central England is likely to deteriorate further during the
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
One of the delights of science is its capacity for showing us
that the world is not as it seems. A good example is the startling
statistic that there are at least 10 times as
many bacterial cells (belonging to up to 1,000 species) in your gut
as there are human cells in your entire body: that "you" are
actually an entire microbial zoo as well as a person. You are 90%
microbes by cell count, though not by volume-a handy reminder of
just how small bacteria are.
This fact also provides a glimpse of the symbiotic nature of our
relationship with these bugs. A recent study by Howard Ochman at Yale
University and colleagues found that each of five great apes has a
distinct set of microbes in its gut, wherever it lives. So
chimpanzees can be distinguished from human beings by their gut
bacteria, which have been co-evolving with their hosts for millions
These days the heritability of intelligence is not in doubt:
Bright adults are more likely to have bright kids. The debate was
not always this calm. In the 1970s, suggesting that IQ could be
inherited at all was a heresy in academia, punishable by the
equivalent of burning at the stake.
More than any other evidence, it was the study of twins that
brought about this change. "Born Together-Reared Apart," a new book by Nancy L. Segal about the
Minnesota study of Twins Reared Apart (Mistra), narrates the
history of the shift. In 1979, Thomas Bouchard of the University of
Minnesota came across a newspaper report about a set of Ohio twins,
separated at birth, who had been reunited and proved to possess
uncannily similar habits. Dr. Bouchard began to collect case
histories of twins raised apart and to invite them to Minneapolis
latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:
Part of the preamble to Agenda 21, the action plan that came out
of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, reads:
"We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities between and
within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and
illiteracy, and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on
which we depend for our well-being."
Update: a couple of small corrections inserted
in square brackets below. Thanks to Stephen Coles of UCLA.
latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal
Human beings love sharing. We swap, collaborate, care, support,
donate, volunteer and generally work for each other. We tend to
admire sharing when it's done for free but frown upon it-or
consider it a necessary evil-when it's done for profit. Some think
that online, we're at the dawn of a golden age of free sharing, the
wiki world, in which commerce will be replaced by mass communal
sharing-what the futurist John Perry Barlow called "dot
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
If you write about genetics and evolution, one of the commonest
questions you are likely to be asked at public events is whether
human evolution has stopped. It is a surprisingly hard question to
I'm tempted to give a flippant response, borrowed from the
biologist Richard Dawkins: Since any human trait that increases the
number of babies is likely to gain ground through natural
selection, we can say with some confidence that incompetence in the
use of contraceptives is probably on the rise (though only if those
unintended babies themselves thrive enough to breed in turn).
Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal
This week saw the announcement of the latest conclusions of
the Copenhagen Consensus, a project founded by Bjørn Lomborg in
which expert economists write detailed papers every four years and
then gather to vote on the answer to a simple question: Imagine you
had $75 billion to donate to worthwhile causes. What would you do,
and where should we start?
Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:
Being maltreated as a child can perhaps affect you for life. It
now seems the harm might reach into your very DNA. Two recently
published studies found evidence of changes to the genetic material
in people with experience of maltreatment. These are the tip of an
iceberg of discoveries in the still largely mysterious field of
"epigenetic" epidemiology-the alteration of gene expression in ways
that affect later health.
Peter Pringle's new book "Experiment Eleven" documents a shocking
scandal in the history of medicine, when Albert Schatz, the
discoverer of streptomycin, was deprived of the credit and the
Nobel Prize by his ambitious boss, Selman Waksman. Streptomycin was
and is a miraculous cure for tuberculosis.
Yet the near disappearance of tuberculosis from the Western
world, where it was once the greatest killer of all, owes little to
streptomycin. Mortality from TB had already fallen by 75% in most Western
countries by 1950, when streptomycin became available, and the rate
of fall was little different before and after. Scarlet fever,
pneumonia and diphtheria all declined rapidly long before their
cures were introduced.
My latest Wall Street Journal column is on the technology of fly fishing
Moore's Law is the leitmotif of the modern age: Incessant
improvements in communication and computing are accompanied by
incessant drops in price. Yet some quite low-tech devices are also
experiencing Moore's Laws of their own, especially those that use
new materials. Even something as mundane as fishing rods.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is about how predictably "primate" we all are in the
Generally, junior professors write long and unsolicited emails
to senior professors, who reply with short ones after a delay; the
juniors then reply quickly and at length. This is not because the
seniors are busier, for they, too, write longer and more punctually
when addressing their deans and funders, who reply more briefly and
tardily. The asymmetry in length and speed of reply correlates with
The Times has published my op-ed on shale gas:
It is now official: drilling for shale gas by
fracturing rock with water may rattle the odd teacup, but is highly
unlikely to cause damaging earthquakes. That much has been obvious
to anybody who has followed the development of the shale gas
industry in America over the past ten years. More than 25,000 wells
drilled have caused a handful of micro-seismic events that can
barely be felt.
The two rumbles that resulted from drilling a well near
Blackpool last year were tiny. To call a two-magnitude tremor an
earthquake is a bit like calling a hazelnut lunch. Such tremors
happen naturally more than 15 times a year but go unnoticed and
they are a common consequence of many other forms of underground
work such as coalmining and geothermal drilling. Earthquakes caused
by hydroelectric projects, in which dams load the crust and
lubricate faults, can be much greater and more damaging. The
Sichuan earthquake that killed 90,000 in 2008 was probably caused
by a dam.
After a break of two weeks, here is my latest Mind and Matter column in
the Wall Street Journal:
April 25 is World Malaria Day, designed to draw attention to the
planet's biggest infectious killer. The news is generally good.
Never has malaria, which is carried by the Anopheles mosquito, been
in more rapid retreat. Deaths are down by a third in Africa over
the past decade alone, and malaria has vanished from much of the
world, including the U.S.
As so often happens in the battle against disease, however,
evolution aids the enemy. The selection pressure on pathogens to
develop resistance to new drugs is huge. In recent weeks, the
emergence on the Thai-Myanmar border of malaria strains resistant
to artemisin, a plant-derived drug, have led to pessimistic
headlines and reminders of the setback caused by resistance to the
drug chloroquine, which began in the 1950s.
A new study of the Great Barrier Reef will
apparently confirm what I argued in The Rational Optimist that
local pollution and over-fishing are a much greater threat to coral
reefs than either climate change or changing alkalinity (sometimes
wrongly called acidification).
The actual paper will appear in Current Biology,
but this is from the press release from James Cook University (I
hate it when scientists announce their results by press release
before the journal article is available).
Update: here's the article in press, but behind a
Belatedly, here is my Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street
Journal on 24 March 2012.
In her remarkable new book "The Rambunctious Garden," Emma Marris explores
a paradox that is increasingly vexing the science of ecology,
namely that the only way to have a pristine wilderness is to manage
it intensively. Left unmanaged, a natural habitat will become
dominated by certain species, often invasive aliens introduced by
human beings. "A historically faithful ecosystem is necessarily a
heavily managed ecosystem," she writes. "The ecosystems that look
the most pristine are perhaps the least likely to be truly
latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street
Scientists, it's said, behave more like lawyers than
philosophers. They do not so much test their theories as prosecute
their cases, seeking supportive evidence and ignoring data that do
not fit-a failing known as confirmation bias. They then accuse
their opponents of doing the same thing. This is what makes debates
over nature and nurture, dietary fat and climate change so
But just because the prosecutor is biased in favor of his
case does not mean the defendant is innocent. Sometimes biased
advocates are right. An example of this phenomenon is now being
played out in geology over the controversial idea that a meteorite
or comet hit the earth 12,900 years ago and cooled the
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