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 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
From the Ideas Market Blog at the wall Street Journal:
Last month, the Review columnist Matt Ridley discussed a new book called "Abundance," by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, which argues that the future will be "better than you think." (Diamandis is founder of the X Prizes, which reward breakthroughs in technology, medicine, energy and other areas.) One driver of progress, the authors say, is "dematerialization," defined by Ridley as "a reduction in the quantity of stuff needed to produce a product" (think of computers that grow ever smaller but more powerful). Ridley largely endorsed their vision of greater returns on improved technology, but offered a few caveats:
The authors have submitted a response to that objection: "This may turn out to be the case," they write,
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is about the possibility that some neurological conditions might be caused by infectious agents -- of a sort
Might some forms of neurological illness, such as multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia, be caused at least partly by bacteria, viruses or other parasites? A largely Danish team has recently publishedevidence of a strong association between multiple sclerosis and a retrovirus, together with hints that a gene called TRIM5, which is used by cells to fight viruses, is especially active in people with MS.
Other illnesses have unexpectedly turned out to be caused by parasites. In the 1980s, Barry Marshall of the University of Western Australia ran into a brick wall of official disbelief for suggesting that a bacterium caused stomach ulcers. Only by deliberately infecting and then curing himself did he finally get the medical establishment's attention (and eventually the Nobel Prize).
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:
The island of Gaua, part of Vanuatu in the Pacific, is just 13 miles across, yet it has five distinct native languages. Papua New Guinea, an area only slightly bigger than Texas, has 800 languages, some spoken by just a few thousand people. "Wired for Culture," a remarkable new book by Mark Pagel, an American evolutionary biologist based in England, sets out to explain this peculiar human property of fragmenting into mutually uncomprehending cultural groups. His explanation is unsettling.
Evolutionary biologists have long gotten used to the idea that bodies are just genes' ways of making more genes, survival machines that carry genes to the next generation. Think of a salmon struggling upstream just to expend its body (now expendable) in spawning. Dr. Pagel's idea is that cultures are an extension of this: that the way we use culture is to promote the long-term interests of our genes.
To the nearest whole number, the percentage of the world's energy that comes from wind turbines today is: zero. Despite the regressive subsidy (pushing pensioners into fuel poverty while improving the wine cellars of grand estates), despite tearing rural communities apart, killing jobs, despoiling views, erecting pylons, felling forests, killing bats and eagles, causing industrial accidents, clogging motorways, polluting lakes in Inner Mongolia with the toxic and radioactive tailings from refining neodymium, a ton of which is in the average turbine - despite all this, the total energy generated each day by wind has yet to reach half a per cent worldwide.
If wind power was going to work, it would have done so by now. The people of Britain see this quite clearly, though politicians are often wilfully deaf. The good news though is that if you look closely, you can see David Cameron's government coming to its senses about the whole fiasco. The biggest investors in offshore wind - Mitsubishi, Gamesa and Siemens - are starting to worry that the government's heart is not in wind energy any more. Vestas, which has plans for a factory in Kent, wants reassurance from the Prime Minister that there is the political will to put up turbines before it builds its factory.
This forces a decision from Cameron - will he reassure the turbine magnates that he plans to keep subsidising wind energy, or will he retreat? The political wind has certainly changed direction. George Osborne is dead set against wind farms, because it has become all too clear to him how much they cost. The Chancellor's team quietly encouraged MPs to sign a letter to No. 10 a few weeks ago saying that 'in these financially straitened times, we think it is unwise to make consumers pay, through taxpayer subsidy, for inefficient and intermittent energy production that typifies onshore wind turbines'.
For those who think my recent report on ocean acidification and plankton is unrepresentative, do check out this comprehensive database that has collated all studies. The conclusion is very, very clear: PH reduction has a negative effect only at greater changes than are likely in the twenty-first century. At likely changes, the effect is positive. Can we have some honesty from scientists, please?
In the final graphical representations of the information contained in our Ocean Acidification Database, we have plotted the averages of all responses to seawater acidification (produced by additions of both HCl and CO2) for all five of the life characteristics of the various marine organisms that we have analyzed over the five pH reduction ranges that we discuss in ourDescription of the Ocean Acidification Database Tables, which pH ranges we illustrate in the figure below.
April's Reader's Digest carries an article based on excerpts from my book and an interview with me:
"The world has never been a better place to live in," says science writer Matt Ridley, "and it will keep on getting better." Today, in a world gripped by global economic crisis and afflicted with poverty, disease, and war, them's fightin' words in some quarters. Ridley's critics have called him a "denialist" and "shameful" and have accused him of "playing fast and loose with the truth" for his views on climate change and the free market.
Yet Ridley, 54, author most recently of The Rational Optimist, sticks to his guns. "It is not insane to believe in a happy future for people and the planet," he says. Ridley, who's been a foreign correspondent, a zoologist, an economist, and a financier, brings a broad perspective to his sunny outlook. "People say I'm bonkers to claim the world will go on getting better, yet I can't stop myself," he says. Read on to see how Ridley makes his case. Brilliant or bonkers? You decide.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on dematerialisation:
Economic growth is a form of deflation. If the cost of, say, computing power goes down, then the users of computing power acquire more of it for less-and thus attain a higher standard of living. One thing that makes such deflation possible is dematerialization, the reduction in the quantity of stuff needed to produce a product. An iPhone, for example, weighs 1/100th and costs 1/10th as much as an Osborne Executive computer did in 1982, but it has 150 times the processing speed and 100,000 times the memory.
Dematerialization is occurring with all sorts of products. Banking has shrunk to a handful of electrons moving on a cellphone, as have maps, encyclopedias, cameras, books, card games, music, records and letters-none of which now need to occupy physical space of their own. And it's happening to food, too. In recent decades, wheat straw has shrunk as grain production has grown, because breeders have persuaded the plant to devote more of its energy to making the thing that we value most. Future dematerialization includes the possibility of synthetic meat-produced in a lab without brains, legs or guts.
The fruit of a narrow-leaved campion, buried in permafrost by a ground squirrel 32,000 years ago on the banks of the Kolyma river in Siberia, has been coaxed into growing into a new plant, which then successfully set seed itself in a Moscow laboratory. Although this plant species was not extinct, inch by inch scientists seem to be closing in on the outrageous goal of bringing a species back from the dead. I don't expect to live to see a herd of resurrected mammoths roaming the Siberian steppe, but I think my grandchildren just might.
The mammoth is the best candidate for resurrection mainly because flash-frozen ones with well-preserved tissues are regularly found in the Siberian permafrost. Occasionally these have been fresh enough to tempt scientists to cook and eat them, usually with disappointing results. Just last week a Chinese paleontologist in Canada, Xing Lida, filmed himself frying and eating what he said was a small mammoth steak. Cells from such carcasses have been recovered, encouraging a rivalry between Japanese and Russian scientists to be the first to revive one of these huge, elephant-like mammals by cloning. Four years ago the mammoth genome was sequenced, so we at least now know the genetic recipe.
The news of the resurrected flower does, apparently, remove one obstacle. After 32,000 years the plant's DNA had not been so damaged by natural radioactivity in the soil as to make it unviable, which is a surprise. Mammoth carcasses are often much younger - the youngest, on Wrangel Island, being about 4,700 years old, contemporary with the Pharoahs. So the DNA should be in even better shape.
For people who profess to be kind and tolerant, the defenders of Christianity can be remarkably unpleasant and intolerant. For all his frank and sometimes brusque bluster, I cannot think of anything that Richard Dawkins has said that is nearly as personally offensive as the insults that have been deluged upon his head in the past few days.
"Puffed-up, self-regarding, vain, prickly and militant," snaps one commentator. Running a "Foundation for Enlightening People Stupider than Professor Richard Dawkins," scoffs another. Descended from slave owners, smears a third, visiting the sins of a great-great-great-great-great- great-grandfather upon the son (who has made and given away far more money than he inherited).
In all the coverage of last week's War of Dawkins Ear, there has been a consistent pattern of playing the man, not the ball: refusing to engage with his ideas but thinking only of how to find new ways to insult him. If this is Christian, frankly, you can keep it.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on the good and the bad consequences of our surprising internet honesty:
It is now well known that people are generally accurate and (sometimes embarrassingly) honest about their personalities when profiling themselves on social-networking sites. Patients are willing to be more open about psychiatric symptoms to an automated online doctor than a real one. Pollsters find that people give more honest answers to an online survey than to one conducted by phone.
But online honesty cuts both ways. Bloggers find that readers who comment on their posts are often harshly frank but that these same rude critics become polite if contacted directly. There's a curious pattern here that goes against old concerns over the threat of online dissembling. In fact, the mechanized medium of the Internet causes not concealment but disinhibition, giving us both confessional behavior and ugly brusqueness. When the medium is impersonal, people are prepared to be personal.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on citizen science:
The more specialized and sophisticated scientific research becomes, the farther it recedes from everyday experience. The clergymen-amateurs who made 19th-century scientific breakthroughs are a distant memory. Or are they? Paradoxically, in an increasing variety of fields, computers are coming to the rescue of the amateur, through crowd-sourced science.
Last month, computer gamers working from home redesigned an enzyme. Last year, a gene-testing company used its customers to find mutations that increase or decrease the risk of Parkinson's disease. Astronomers are drawing amateurs into searching for galaxies and signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. The modern equivalent of the Victorian scientific vicar is an ordinary person who volunteers his or her time to solving a small piece of a big scientific puzzle.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is about the exodus from Africa, either 125,000 years ago or 65,000 years ago.
Everybody is African in origin. Barring a smattering of genes from Neanderthals and other archaic Asian forms, all our ancestors lived in the continent of Africa until 150,000 years ago. Some time after that, say the genes, one group of Africans somehow became so good at exploiting their environment that they (we!) expanded across all of Africa and began to spill out of the continent into Asia and Europe, invading new ecological niches and driving their competitors extinct.
There is plenty of dispute about what gave these people such an advantage-language, some other form of mental ingenuity, or the collective knowledge that comes from exchange and specialization-but there is also disagreement about when the exodus began. For a long time, scientists had assumed a gradual expansion of African people through Sinai into both Europe and Asia. Then, bizarrely, it became clear from both genetics and archaeology that Europe was peopled later (after 40,000 years ago) than Australia (before 50,000 years ago).
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about the role of disease in species conservation:
Some beekeepers, worried by the collapse of their bee colonies in recent years, are pointing a finger this month at a class of insecticide (neo-nicotinoids) that they think is responsible for lowering the insects' resistance to disease. They may be right, but I'm cautious. History shows that, again and again, blaming chemicals for the decline of a species has prematurely exonerated the real culprit, which is often disease alone.
The role of parasites in causing species to decline is often overlooked. Native European red squirrels, for example, have long been retreating in Britain at the hands of the American gray squirrel, which menagerie-owning aristocrats introduced in the 19th century. For years it was thought to be the competition for food that prevented the squirrels' co-existence, but now scientists place most of the blame on a parapox virus that causes a mild illness to the grays but kills the reds.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on gene-culture co-evolution:
Human beings, we tend to think, are at the mercy of their genes. You either have blue eyes or you do not (barring contact lenses); no amount of therapy can change it. But genes are at the mercy of us, too. From minute to minute, they switch on and off (i.e., are actively used as recipes to make proteins) in the brain, the immune system or the skin in response to experience. Sunbathing, for example, triggers the expression of genes for the pigment melanin.
As a recent study confirms, on a much longer time scale, genes are even at the mercy of culture. The paradigmatic example is lactose tolerance. All mammals can digest lactose sugars in milk as babies, but the lactase gene switches off at weaning when no longer needed. In much of Europe and parts of Africa, by contrast, most people can digest lactose even as adults, because the lactase gene remains switched on. (About 90% of East Asians and 70% of South Indians are lactose-intolerant to some degree.)
One of my favourite writers these days is Willis Eschenbach, whose essays at wattsupwiththat often combine ingenious scientific rationality with lyrical prose. Here he is on the subject of the sea ice off Alaska:
My point in this post? Awe, mostly, at the damaging power of cold. As a seaman, cold holds many more terrors than heat. When enough ice builds up on a boat's superstructure, it rolls over and men die. The sun can't do that. The Titanic wasn't sunk by a heat wave.
The thing about ice? You can't do a dang thing about it. You can't blow up a glacier, or an ice sheet like you see in the Bering Sea above. You can't melt it. The biggest, most powerful icebreaker can't break through more than a few feet of it. When the ice moves in, the game is over.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal: Even a rational optimist is pessimistic about some things. Here's one: the gradual distortion of the human sex ratio by sex-selective abortion. A new essay by the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt concludes that "the practice has become so ruthlessly routine in many contemporary societies that it has impacted their very population structures." He finds "ample room for cautious pessimism" in the fact that this phenomenon is still very much on the increase.
For obscure reasons, the human sex ratio is always slightly male-biased, but in the natural state it rarely goes above 105 male births per 100 female ones, except in small samples. In China's last mini-census in 2005, the ratio was nearly 120 to 100 and in some districts over 150. That this is caused by sex-selective abortion (and not, for example, by a hepatitis-B epidemic, which can favor male births) is proved by a ratio of 107 to 100 among first-born children but nearer 150 among ones born later.
China is not the only country where this is happening. By the early 21st century, all four Asian "tigers"-South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan-had a "naturally impossible" ratio of 108 or higher. India has an increasing ratio, as high as 120 in some states. Even some European and central Asian countries (including Albania, Georgia and even Italy) have unnaturally male-biased births. Nearly half the world falls in this category.
Each year, John Brockman's website, The Edge, asks a question and gets many answers to it. This year, the question is: What is your favourite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation? Some of the answers are fascinating. Here's mine:
It's hard now to recall just how mysterious life was on the morning of 28 February 1953 and just how much that had changed by lunchtime. Look back at all the answers to the question "what is life?" from before that and you get a taste of just how we, as a species, floundered. Life consisted of three-dimensional objects of specificity and complexity (mainly proteins). And it copied itself with accuracy. How?
How do you set about making a copy of a three-dimensional object? How to do you grow it and develop it in a predictable way? This is the one scientific question where absolutely nobody came close to guessing the answer. Erwin Schrodinger had a stab, but fell back on quantum mechanics, which was irrelevant. True, he used the phrase "aperiodic crystal" and if you are generous you can see that as a prediction of a linear code, but I think that's stretching generosity.
Here's my latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal, with added links and charts. On interglacials. The entire 10,000-year history of civilization has happened in an unusually warm interlude in the Earth's recent history. Over the past million years, it has been as warm as this or warmer for less than 10% of the time, during 11 brief episodes known as interglacial periods. One theory holds that agriculture and dense settlement were impossible in the volatile, generally dry and carbon-dioxide-starved climates of the ice age, when crop plants would have grown more slowly and unpredictably even in warmer regions.
This warm spell is already 11,600 years old, and it must surely, in the normal course of things, come to an end. In the early 1970s, after two decades of slight cooling, many scientists were convinced that the moment was at hand. They were "increasingly apprehensive, for the weather aberrations they are studying may be the harbinger of another ice age," said Time in 1974. The "almost unanimous" view of meteorologists was that the cooling trend would "reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century," and "the resulting famines could be catastrophic," said Newsweek in 1975.
Since then, of course, warmth has returned, probably driven at least partly by man-made carbon-dioxide emissions. A new paper, from universities in Cambridge, London and Florida, drew headlines last week for arguing that these emissions may avert the return of the ice age. Less noticed was the fact that the authors, by analogy with a previous warm spell 780,000 years ago that's a "dead ringer" for our own, expect the next ice age to start "within about 1,500 years." Hardly the day after tomorrow.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal: Coral reefs around the world are suffering badly from overfishing and various forms of pollution. Yet many experts argue that the greatest threat to them is the acidification of the oceans from the dissolving of man-made carbon dioxide emissions.
The effect of acidification, according to J.E.N. Veron, an Australian coral scientist, will be "nothing less than catastrophic.... What were once thriving coral gardens that supported the greatest biodiversity of the marine realm will become red-black bacterial slime, and they will stay that way."
This is a common view. The Natural Resources Defense Council has called ocean acidification "the scariest environmental problem you've never heard of."
My Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal on 1 January 2012 is here:
Here's a New Year's thought. With some nine million species on the planet, and with each species lasting a million years on average, about nine species will go extinct naturally this coming year (with more, almost certainly, going extinct unnaturally). But about nine new species also will be born in 2012.
Here is the Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal, published on 24th December.
Which American city has more inhabitants: San Antonio or San Diego? More Germans than Americans get the answer right (San Diego). What about Hanover or Bielefeld? More Americans than Germans get the answer right (Hanover). In each case, the foreigners pick the right answer by choosing the city they have heard more about, assuming that it's bigger. The natives know too much and let the excess information get in the way.
This is an example of a "heuristic," a highfalutin name for a "rule of thumb" or "gut feeling." Most business people and physicians privately admit that many of their decisions are based on intuition rather than on detailed cost-benefit analysis. In public, of course, it's different. To stand up in court and say you made a decision based on what your thumb or gut told you is to invite damages. So both business people and doctors go to some lengths to suppress or disguise the role that intuition plays in their work.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on metaphors for the Higgs Boson.
In 1993 a British science minister, William Waldegrave, was sitting on a train reading the speech that his staff had prepared for him for a physics conference. Finding the draft "unspeakably dull," he decided instead to challenge the assembled scientists to answer, on a single sheet of paper, the question: "What is the Higgs boson, and why do we want to find it?" He pledged to the winner a bottle of vintage Champagne.
Even before its existence was at last tentatively suggested by an experiment this week, many people had heard of the Higgs boson, the mysterious manifestation of the field that causes matter to have mass, according to a theory minted in 1964. Yet almost nobody, myself included, knows what a Higgs boson is, or at least can give a sensible description of it. This is a serious handicap if Higgsism, as I hereby christen it, is to have an impact on human culture, let alone on technology.
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