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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Here is my latest Wall Street Journal column. It led me into the etymology of the word `optimism' and the realisation that at first it meant almost the opposite of what we now mean by it, namely that the world was at its `optimum' and could not improve.
A Haitian who survived the January earthquake and has so far escaped cholera recently told a reporter that this month's Hurricane Tomas wasn't as bad as he thought it would be, "thank God." I know it's often just a verbal tic, but it has always struck me as odd that people who survive natural disasters thank God for saving them but rarely blame Him for the disaster.
It has been quite a decade for natural disasters: the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Burma's cyclone, Pakistan's floods, China's quake. Only once to my knowledge has there been much media debate about whether these disasters were "acts of God"-after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, perhaps because it happened on the day after Christmas. In any case, I always felt the phrase applied better to 9/11, considering the motivation of the terrorists.
A new paper in Science casts further doubt on the usefulness of
the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) as a warning of what we
face from man-made carbon emissions. Tropical rain forests became
more diverse, not less, during the warm spell.
The paleontologist who made this discovery told Science News:
"We were expecting to find rapid
extinction, a total change in the forest," says study leader Carlos
Jaramillo, a biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research
Institute in Balboa, Panama. "What we found was just the opposite -
a very fast addition of many new species, and a huge spike in the
diversity of tropical plants."
Here is the letter that David MacKay sent me following my
article in The Times and to which I replied.
(I have gone to weblinks for his charts and in one case
come up with a slightly different version -- the sea ice graph I
could not find the exact one he included so I have found another
from the same source which has more years on it than his version,
but it's the same data and the same source.) Update: all
graphs now correct!
Don Boudreaux has a lovely essay in the Christian Science Monitor
(interest declaration: he mentions my book) in which he makes the
point people often miss about markets, that they encourage
diversity rather than one-size-fits-all solutions:
Contrast the multitude of different
market-generated and voluntarily adopted ideas with the ideas of
progressives - for example, progressives' idea thatgovernment must regulate the
fatcontent of foods.
Each of us can decide how much we
value, say,juicy burgersand
double-dark chocolate ice cream compared to how much we value a
trim waistline and longer life expectancy. And each of us values
these benefits differently. The dietary choices that I make for
myself are right for me, but I cannot know if they are right for
anyone else. Progressives, in contrast, falsely assume there's a
single correct metric, for the whole country, that determines for
everyone how to trade off the satisfaction of eatingtasty but fatty foodsfor the benefit of being healthier.
There is a hilarious letter in today's Times from three FRS
professors about my recent artilce on ocean acidification.
Despite conceding the factual truth of my article in detail,
they tell me to brush up on chemistry then give no examples of me
getting anything wrong.
They concede my point that any shift of acidity will be within
natural ranges. Thanks. But say it could be much larger `in the
future'. No numbers, note. They mean in several centuries.
UPDATE: David MacKay's letter is now up in a
separate post here
Some weeks ago I wrote an article for The Times about why I no
longer find persuasive the IPCC's arguments that today's climate
change is unprecedented, fast and dangerous.
Update: I'd like to add one thing to the story
below. Stewart Brand, who I know and admire, played a prominent
part in the Channel 4 film. He's not a `convert' to these views. He
has always been strongly pro-GM food and mildly pro-nuclear. So my
comments here were not aimed at him.
Last night saw a TV programme in the UK called What the Green Movement Got Wrong, in which
various greens admitted that they had done terrible harm by
opposing nuclear power and GM food and indoor DDT. It was a pretty
good programme, especially on Chernobyl.
I have an article in The Times today (behind a paywall) on
ocean acidification. Here's the gist:
Today in Beijing an alliance of
scientists called Oceans United will present the United Nations
with a request for $5 billion a year to be spent on monitoring the
oceans. High among their concerns is ocean acidification, which
`could make it harder for animals such as lobsters, crabs,
shellfish, coral or plankton to build protective
As opinion polls reveal that global
warming is losing traction on the public imagination, environmental
pressure groups have been cranking the engine on this `other carbon
dioxide problem'. `Time is running out' wrote two activists in
Scientific American in August, `to limit acidification before it
irreparably harms the food chain on which the world's oceans - and
people - depend.'
Here (a bit late) is my latest Wall Street Journal column, on
In the debate over whether our fates
as individuals are ruled by nature or nurture-that is, by innate
qualities or personal experience-one of the most baffling features
is the way the nurture advocates manage to cast themselves as the
great foes of determinism. "Genes don't determine who we are," they
insist-all the while positing that environmental causes
often do. Remember how some Freudians tried to blame
autism, schizophrenia and even homosexuality on the way parents
treated their children? True, they claimed these effects were
treatable, but so are many genetic problems. I wear glasses to
correct a partly genetic tendency to myopia.
Nor has environmental determinism
escaped moral stain. When Soviet agriculture was forced to obey
crank theories that environmental conditioning rather than breeding
could determine the frost-resistance of wheat-not coincidentally
echoing the notion that human nature could be remade by
communism-the result was famine.
I have just sent this letter to the Guardian:
In response to Donald Brown's call for climate scepticism to be
classified as a crime against humanity (1st
in which he said `We may not have a word for this type of crime
yet, but the international community should find a way of
classifying extraordinarily irresponsible scientific claims that
could lead to mass suffering as some type of crime against
Over at LIberal Curmudgeon, Steve Budiansky has a
good insight into a subject he knows well, ever since writing the
book Nature's Keepers: claims about species
The whole science behind the
extinction crisis is riddled withcircular reasoning, but this is an
especially fine example. No new research was involved, no field
studies, no nothing that involved actual science as we know it.
(The researchers for example concluded that habitat loss is one of
the "root causes" of global biodiversity loss; this conclusion was
derived from the fact that many of the species listed as threatened
on the IUCNRed Listwere presumed to be threatened, and accordingly placed on
the list in the first place, because of . . . habitat
Like Steve, I care about extinctions. In my youth I worked on
three different projects to try to diagnose and arrest the decline
of rare birds in the Indian subcontinent. But like me he fears that
mega-political statements and exaggerated claims will only do that
Here is Sunday'sNew York Times variety puzzlewhose
solution was a nice surprise for me (hat tip Steve
Tim Worstall has an enlightening essay on his specialist subject,
Rare-earth minerals are the 15
elements in that funny box at the bottom of the periodic table --
known as lanthanides -- plus two others. About 95 percent of global
production takes place in China, largely at one huge mining complex
in Inner Mongolia. The lanthanides are essential to much of modern
electronics and high-tech equipment of various kinds. The magnets
in windmills and iPod headphones rely on neodymium. Lutetium
crystals make MRI machines work; terbium goes into compact
fluorescent bulbs; scandium is essential for halogen lights;
lanthanum powers the batteries for the Toyota Prius. For some of
these products, alternative materials are available (moving to a
non-rare-earth technology would make those cute little white
earbuds about the size of a Coke can, though). For others, there
simply isn't a viable substitute.
In other words, those vast wind turbines depend on surface
mining just as much as the fossil fuel industry does.
Further evidence that ocean acidification is a
non-event, scientifically, even while being a big event for
Thus, both of the investigated coastal
plankton communities were unaffected by twenty-first century
expected changes in pH and free CO2. This may be
explained by the large seasonal, and even daily, changes in pH seen
in productive marine ecosystems, and the corresponding need for
algae to be pH-tolerant.
My latest column in the Wall Street Journal is
about the psychology of bureaucracy. just as we need to understand
the human proclivities that give rise to booms and busts in
markets, so we need to understand the human proclivities that
motivate officials. Here are five identified by Slavisa Tasic,
starting with `illusions of competence':
Psychologists have shown that we
systematically overestimate how much we understand about the causes
and mechanisms of things we half understand. The Swedish health
economist Hans Rosling once gave students a list of five pairs of
countries and asked which nation in each pair had the higher
infant-mortality rate. The students got 1.8 right out of 5. Mr.
Rosling noted that if he gave the test to chimpanzees they would
get 2.5 right. So his students' problem was not ignorance, but that
they knew with confidence things that were false.
The issue of action bias is better
known in England as the "dangerous dogs act," after a previous
government, confronted with a couple of cases in which dogs injured
or killed people, felt the need to bring in a major piece of clumsy
and bureaucratic legislation that worked poorly. Undoubtedly the
rash of legislation following the current financial crisis will
include some equivalents of dangerous dogs acts. It takes unusual
courage for a regulator to stand up and say "something
must not be done," lest "something" makes the problem
Here's anhour long conversationI did on Econtalk
with economist and novelist Russ Roberts about trade, prosperity
and Adam Smith. It includes a discussion of why animals can manage
reciprocity but not, apparently, exchange.
My latest Wall Street Journal column, Triumph of the Idea Smugglers, argues that
from time to time in history good ideas need rescuing from bad
regimes. If Thales of Miletus had not infected Greece with
rationalism after travelling in Egypt, and if 1700 years later,
Leonardo Fibonacci had not infected Italy with Hindu numerals after
growing up in what is now Algeria -- then these ideas might not
The secret of human progress is and always has been to
keep ideas moving, both so that they meet and mate with new ideas
and so that they escape suppression at home. As the philosopher
David Hume was the first to observe, China suffers from a
geographic disadvantage in this respect: It is too easy to unify.
When disunited it grows rich and innovative. But time and again
emperors, from the Ming to the Maoist, have been able to establish
tyrannical centralized rule and shut down trade, diversity and
Europe, with its centrifugal rivers,
its peninsulas and mountain ranges, is very hard to unify by
conquest. Ask Constantine, Charles V, Napoleon and Hitler. So
European states could harbor commercial, intellectual and religious
refugees from each other, keeping flames alive. The history of
technology is littered with examples of Europeans who fled from one
jurisdiction to another to a find a more congenial or generous
ruler: Columbus, Gutenberg, Voltaire, Einstein.
Here's a video of a discussion I had with Richard
Dawkins about `life' back in June: extra-terrestrial life,
artificial life and synthetic life.
Continuing the debate about the industrial revolution with
her reply to me
...We agree at least that innovation
is the key. That's a very, very important agreement. Joel Mokyr,
Jack Goldstone, and our own Greg Clark join Matt Ridley, Robert
Allen, and me in affirming it. It sets us Innovators off from most
economists and historians, who are Accumulators. We say that the
modern world got rich by (at a minimum) 1500% percent compared with
1800 not, as the sadly mistaken Accumulators say,
because of capital accumulation, or exploitation of the third
world, or the expansion of foreign trade. The world got rich by
inventing cheap steel, electric lights, marine insurance,
reinforced concrete, coffee shops, saw mills, newspapers, automatic
looms, cheap paper, modern universities, the transistor, cheap
porcelain, corporations, rolling mills, liberation for women,
Today I read two contrasting articles about the wonderful rescue
of the Chilean miners that I strongly recommend, even though both
are a few days old.
The first, by Brendan O'Neill, in Spiked (hat tip: Frank
Stott), reveals the degree to which the miners helped themselves to
cope by defying the psychological experts 700 metres above
The inconvenient truth is that the 33
miners survived underground not as a result of psychological advice
and intervention but by sometimes rebellingagainst
the psychologists who kept a watchful eye on their every move. The
real story of the Chilean miners, for anyone who cares to look, is
that the interventions of the various wings of the trauma industry
often make things worse rather than better, and people are mostly
happier and healthier without them.
At Cato Unbound, there is a set of essays on the
subject in response to Deirdre McCloskey, one of which is by me, others by Greg Clark
and Jonathan Feinstein.
I champion the theory that coal was crucial, because it showed
increasing rather than diminshing returns (the more people mined,
the cheaper it got) and it amplified productivity and commerce. But
there is more to the story than that.
On the failed promise of genomics.
Is it because common ailments are caused by many different rare
Do you remember how, back in the days when genetically modified
crops were as vilifed as climate sceptics were until recently, one
of the arguments deployed against them was that they would
`contaminate' neighbouring farms with their genetically modified
pollen? This was one justification for a total ban, as there still
is in Britain, rather than a policy of live and let live.
Now comes evidence of a different kind of collateral
contamination by GM crops. Turns out GM maize contaminates
neighbouring farms with extra profits. The fact that farmers are
growing insect-resistant GM crops raises yields for those who are
growing conventional maize, because it reduces the number of pests
that are about.
Robin Marantz Henig hits the nail on the head in the New York
The history of in vitro fertilization
demonstrates not only how easily the public will accept new
technology once it's demonstrated to be safe, but also that the
nightmares predicted during its development almost never come true.
This is a lesson to keep in mind as we debate whether to pursue
other promising yet controversial medical advances, from genetic
engineering to human cloning.
The Nobel prize for Robert Edwards is long overdue. It should
not be forgotten what a gauntlet he and Patrick Steptoe had to run
when they pioneered IVF. Here's a taste, from an article in The Times in
My latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall
An odd thing about people, compared with
other animals, is that the more of us there are, the more we
thrive. World population has doubled in my lifetime, but the
world's income has octupled. The richest places on Earth are among
the most densely populated.
By contrast, it's a fair bet that if you took
a few million rabbits and let them loose on Manhattan island, they
would starve, fight, sicken and generally peter out. Whether you
like it or not, whether you think it can continue forever or not,
you cannot deny that when people come together in dense swarms,
they often get richer.
This video was made by an organisation funded partly by the UK taxpayer.
Francis Crick's letters from the 1950s, supposedly thrown away
by `an over-zealous secretary', have come to light in Sydney
Brenner's papers. Alex Gann and Jan Witkowski found them when they
went through the Brenner archive. The secretary is exonerated. The
Crick Brenner office (they shared a room) was moved twice in the
As one of Crick's biographers I have done some interviews, for
example with the LA Times.
My main reaction is that this is a thrilling discovery that adds
lots of colour and enriches the story but does not rewrite history
in any fundamental way. Not that I have read all the letters
There is a big push on to draw attention to species extinction
in the run up to a Biodiversity Jamboree in Japan.
But something struck me as odd as I listened to the radio this
morning. There was a lot of talk of `extinctions' of thousands of
plants, as turned up by a new report from Kew Gardens. When I
opened the newspapers (online), I found that actually the report
was not about extinctions, but about threats of extinction. Then I
looked at the list cited by the Times and Guardian. Right there at the top:
Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis) -
I am now writing a weekly column in the Wall Street Journal
called Mind and Matter. Here's the first one.
Recently, the psychologist David Buss's team
at the University of Texas at Austin reported that men, when
looking for one-night stands, check out women's bodies. Or as they
put it, "men, but not women, have a condition-dependent adaptive
proclivity to prioritize facial cues in long-term mating contexts,
but shift their priorities toward bodily cues in short-term mating
Like many results in evolutionary psychology,
this may seem blindingly obvious, but that does not stop it from
being controversial. Earlier this month a neuroscientist in
Britain, Gina Rippon, lambasted what she called the "neurohype"
about sex differences: "There may be some very small differences
between the genders, but the similarities are far, far
From Cafe Hayek comes this:
When materials are worth
recycling, markets for their reuse naturally arise. For
materials with no natural markets for their reuse, the benefits of
recycling are less than its costs - and, therefore, government
efforts to promote such recycling waste
Everyday experience should teach
us this fact. The benefits of recycling clothing, for
example, are large enough to prompt us to buy costly
clothes-recycling machines that we routinely use to recycle for
tomorrow the clothes we wear today. We call these machines
"washers and dryers." And when American families no longer
want their clothing, organizations such as Goodwill come by to
gather the discarded garments to recycle them for use by poor
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