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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I just read a wonderful book Hybrid: the history and science of plant
breeding by Noel Kingsbury.
It contains a charming story, of a Moravian priest called Father
Schreiber, who was more interested in horticulture than holiness,
and whose parish included Gregor Mendel's birthplace, Hyncice. As
Kingsbury tells the tale:
Schreiber also had to face opposition,
or at least suspicion, from a conservative peasantry. So in order
to distribute new fruit varieties, he and the countess [Maria
Walpurga Truchsess-Zeil, no less] developed a technique that has
been used more than once down the ages in order to bring new genes
to the countryside: subterfuge. A nursery for trees was established
and word put out that these valuable seedlings were under guard,
the guards being instructed to make a lot of noise if they heard
anybody but not to actually arrest anyone. In a matter of days, all
the seedlings had been stolen.
I have written a longish piece about the human footprint on the
earth, avaliable as a `ChangeThis' manifesto here
Here are a few extracts:
George Monbiot's recent attack on me in the Guardian is
misleading. I do not hate the state. In fact, my views are much
more balanced than Monbiot's selective quotations imply. I argue
that the state's role in sometimes impeding or destroying the
process that generates prosperity needs to be recognised, as people
from enslaved ancient Egyptians to modern North Koreans could
testify. But as I mention in my book, I don't think that free
markets, especially those in assets, should be completely
unregulated. I do argue that free and fair commerce has the
power to raise living standards.
Unlike Monbiot's article, my book isn't about me. It's about the
billions of other people in the world who, through ingenuity,
exchange and specialisation, have generated remarkable
Monbiot, remember is the man who once wrote: ``every time someone dies as a
result of floods in Bangladesh, an airline executive should be
dragged out of his office and drowned.'' (see, George, two can play
at selective quotation).
In my book I quote the English environmentalist Jonathon Porritt
as follows: 'It's blindingly obvious [that] completely
unsustainable population growth in most of Africa will keep it
permanently, hopelessly, stuck in deepest, darkest poverty.'
At first I had assumed that the quote, which I had found in
another book, must be out of context. Surely nobody would say
anything so foolish or so heartless. Surely he was caricaturing
some blimpish view from a reactionary? So I looked up the original
article, in The Ecologist in 2007, to be sure I was not being
unfair to quote him thus. You can read the whole article here. Here's the longer context of the
Yet the facts speak for themselves: the
fewer there are of us, the greater our personal carbon budgets -
and just remember we're starting from a baseline here in the UK of
around 12½ tonnes of CO2 per person!I can't
tell you how politically incorrect it is to spell things out in
those terms. Even those who are getting more and more
enthusiastic about the idea of personal carbon budgets (including
Environment Secretary David Miliband) wouldn't dream of giving
voice to such a crass calculation. Leaders of our
ever-so-right-on environment movement can barely bring themselves
to utter the dreaded "p" word. The Millennium Development
Goals don't mention population. Tony Blair's Commission for
Africa ignored it entirely, even though it's blindingly obvious
that completely unsustainable population growth in most of Africa
will keep it permanently, hopelessly stuck in deepest, darkest
poverty. Our very own Department for International Development
grits its teeth and reluctantly doles out little bits of money for
family planning projects, but the idea that it should be the
Department's No 1 priority - if it was remotely realistic about its
poverty alleviation aspirations - remains anathema to most
officials and ministers.
In my book I point out that an unemployed British father of
three on welfare today receives more in state support than a man on
the average wage received in income in 1957. It's an eye-catching
reminder of how wrong J K Galbraith was to argue that affluence in
the late 1950s had already gone too far.
Now the Institute of Fiscal Studies has compiled data on average incomes in Britain since 1961,
coming to the remarkable conclusion that
in real terms the bottom 25% are now
considerable richer than were the top 25% in 1961.
Tim Black has an excellent article in Spiked about the
hypercautious European reaction to the Icelandic volcano in
We have sincediscoveredthat the maximum density of ash (100
micrograms of ash per cubic metre) over the UK during the ban was
one fortieth of that nowdeemeda safe threshold (4,000 micrograms of ash per cubic metre). In
other words, the ban was nowhere near justified by what is now the
He goes on to give some remarkable numbers from the similar
over-reaction to avian flu:
The Globe and Mail (Toronto) has made a nice new version of my
"handaxe and mouse" image to illustrate their review of The Rational Optimist
There's a lot of debate about the `Medieval Warm Period'. But
I've always been intrigued by the warm period of 7,000 years ago,
known as the Holocene Optimum, and I have been doing some digging
to find out just how warm it was. I've come away rather amazed.
Have a look at this image, which uses stalagmites in caves to
estimate ancient temperatures (as graphed by Wilis Eschenbach)
Listen to my interview on NPR's Leonard Lopate Show
and an MP3 of my interview on PM with Marc Colvin, in Australia
My good friend Dave Sands is not only a brilliant biologist -- I
cite him in The Rational Optimist arguing for genetic modification
to improve the quality rather than the quantity of food -- but a
very fine poet. He's profiled in yesterday's New York Times discussing his
latest theory that ice-forming pseudomonas bactera in the air play
a central role in precipitation:
In the last few years, Dr. Sands and
other researchers have accumulated evidence that the well-known
group of bacteria, long known to live on agricultural crops, are
far more widespread and may be part of a little-studied weather
ecosystem. The principle is well accepted, but how widespread the
phenomenon is remains a matter of debate.
If true, this could have all sorts of implications.
One small fact in my book has caught several readers'
Today, a car emits less pollution
travelling at full speed than a parked car did in 1970 from
My source for this remarkable statistic was Johan Norberg's 2006
book När människan skapade världen. In a translation he
sent me it reads:
nterview in the Guardian today:
"If people are all the same underneath, how
has society changed so fast and so radically? Life
now is completely different to how it was 32,000 years ago. It's
changed like that of no other species has. What's made that
difference? Clearly our genes haven't changed; this process has
happened far too fast for genetic change. My answer, bringing
together my evolutionary knowledge and a lot of economic reading,
is this: sex is to biology as exchange is to culture."
Here is why Craig Venter's new organism carries absolutely
no fears for me: the Red Queen. Evolution is a treadmill.
People speak about artificial life forms getting loose and running amok. But that's not
how life works. It's a jungle out there.
Nature is continually trying new life forms on a truly gigantic
scale and testing them against each other. Very few get to take
over the world even briefly and even they soon succumb to evolving
predators, parasites and competitors.
John Tierney reviews The Rational Optimist in
today's New York Times:
Every now and then, someone comes along
to note that society has failed to collapse and might go on
prospering, but the notion is promptly dismissed in academia as
happy talk from a simpleton. Predicting that the world will not end
is also pretty good insurance against a prolonged stay on the
The Sunday Times printed an edited extract of the book on 16 May.
People love to talk about the energy industry in voices of gloom
and doom. The oil's running out, the lights are going out, the
pollution's getting worse. But pause to consider the good news.
Like shale gas.
Over the past decade, a wave of drilling
around the world has uncovered giant supplies of natural gas in
shale rock. By some estimates, there's 1,000 trillion cubic feet
recoverable in North America alone-enough to supply the nation's
natural-gas needs for the next 45 years. Europe may have nearly 200
trillion cubic feet of its own.
Imagine a source of energy...
As own goals go, this was a stunning shot.
The quantity of cereals harvested in the world has trebled in 40
years [correction: nearly trebled in 50 years!], but the acreage
planted to cereals has hardly changed at all.
(graph from my book)
My good friend the evolutionary biologist and expert on old age,
Tom Kirkwood, has made a splash in my local newspaper, The
Newcastle Journal, by writing to all three British party leaders to
ask them to emphasise the positive rather than the negative aspects
of people living longer.
Our studies are revealing high levels of
capability and good quality life among people who are well into
their 80s. They are not all in poor health needing high levels of
care. Indeed, many view their health as 'excellent' and still live
highly independent lives.
I point out in The Rational Optimist that the average lifespan
has increased by a third during my lifetime; life expectancy is
increasing globally by 5 hours a day. Kirkwood's Changing Age Charter, like my book, says:
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a horror, for people and
for wildlife. It will surely cause huge damage. It is a reminder
that for all the talk of global impacts, the worst environmental
crises are still local ones.
But it is worth pausing to reflect how rare such terrible oil
spills have now become. Here is the data on world tanker spills over the past 40
I've admired Robert Bryce's work since he did such a great job
of exposing the biofuel boondoggle inGusher of Lies.
Now he has a new book, which I have just kindled, on the myths
of green energy, called Power Hungry.
He summarises his argument in the Washington Post. One fact that jumps out is
how much worse the dependence on foregin powers green energy would
be than even oil is:
Matt will be in New York giving a talk at the New York Academy of Sciences on the evening of
19 May. Speaking about `How prosperity evolves' and selling books.
Feel free to spread the word.
Seth Roberts has read three new books about
how emperors are often more naked than people tell them they are.
I've read two of those books and had much the same reaction. The
trust-the-experts inertia of the financial markets described by
Michael Lewis in The Big Short is much like that in the climate
debate described by Andrew Montford in The Hockey Stick Illusion.
Roberts's third book is about Bernie Madoff.
I call these books The Emperor's New
Clothes Trilogy. Their broad lesson:Sometimes the "best
people" aren't right. Sometimes there's a point of view from which
they're glaringly wrong. The Hockey Stick Illusion is
about how Stephen McIntyre found this point of view. In No One
Would Listen Markopolos found this point of view. In The Big Short
several people found this point of view.
In Monty Python's immortal words:
Read this, taken from Roger Crowley's brilliant book Empires of the Sea:
Everyone employed chained labour --
captured slaves, convicts, and, in the Christian ships, paupers so
destitute they sold themselves to the galley captains. It was these
wretches, chained three or four to a foot-wide bench, who made sea
wars possible. Their sole function was to work themselves to death.
Shackled hand and foot, excreting where they sat, fed on meagre
quantities of black biscuits, and so thirsty they were sometimes
driven to drink seawater, galley slaves led lives bitter and
John Brockman's Edge site has lots of short essay-lets on what the ash cloud
episode means. Maybe because of the way it was reported in the
USA, remarkably few of the commentaries seem to get that it was a
huge buearucratic over-reaction to a theoretical model and based on
a zero-tolerance approach to ash that makes no sense. And it caused
real economic and emtoional pain.
No coincidence that the models were built for radioactivity.
Ash, chemicals, fallout and heat are things which are not linear in
their risk. That is to say, a very low dose is not slightly more
dangerous than no dose. It's no more dangerous. This is not true of
burglars and smallpox viruses.
Here's my contribution to the Edge collection:
The always perceptive Indur Goklany has turned his attention to
IPAT, the formula by which some environmentalists insist that
human impact (I) gets worse if population (P), affluence (A) or
technology (T) increases. This simple formula has become highly
influential, but it fails to explain why human well being keeps
increasing as P, A and T climb ever higher:
Tantalising clues have been emerging for some time from human
genomes that Neanderthals may have contributed a few genes to
posterity after all. That `we' mated with `them' occasionally.
The clues come in the form of widely differing DNA sequences
that seem to converge on common ancestors that lived long before
modern human beings came out of Africa 80,000 years ago or so.
There is good reason to be cautious -- it is possible that it
just means lots of very distantly Africans joined the migration --
but now it seems a tipping point is being reached in the debate.
The latest study of 600 microsatellite (fingerprint) sequences from
2,000 people is being interpreted as evidence of two separate
episodes of genetic mixing between Neanderthals (or
heidelbergensis) and ex-African `moderns'. SeeNeanderthals may have interbred with
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