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, 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
Chris Anderson's brilliant talk at TED Global is now on the
Among the take-home messages:
- that innovation is accelerating thanks to the ability to
compare and combine. Dance is a great example.
Update: George Monbiot has made it clear that he did not ask for the
deletions of comments referred to below, but that the Guardian
moderators made the deletions for legal reasons and without his
knowledge. But he still fails to take the opportunity to discuss
the evidence that Williams and Niggurath produce.
George Monbiot is in trouble. He has already had to make
an apology for his mistakes in an attack on
He's swinging like a weathervane on issues like vegetarianism and feed-in tariffs.
The brilliant philosophical writer (and my old friend) Anthony
Gottlieb has been ruminating on whether science should be
sceptical about itself.
There is no full-blown logical
paradox here. If a claim is ambitious, people should indeed tread
warily around it, even if it comes from scientists; it does not
follow that they should be sceptical of the scientific method
itself. But there is an awkward public-relations challenge for any
champion of hard-nosed science. When scientists confront the
deniers of evolution, or the devotees of homeopathic medicine, or
people who believe that childhood vaccinations cause autism-all of
whom are as demonstrably mistaken as anyone can be-they
understandably fight shy of revealing just how riddled with error
and misleading information the everyday business of science
actually is. When you paint yourself as a defender of the truth, it
helps to keep quiet about how often you are
Very true. On scientific questions where I am orthodox (eg,
alternative medicine, evolution), I notice that the heretics use
precisely the same sorts of arguments as I do in those fields where
I am a sceptic (eg, climate projections, crop circles). There seems
to be no easy answer to the problem: when should you go for a
Here's the text of an opinion piece I wrote, which was published
in the Western Daily Press (link to home page, not
article itself) this morning to publicise a
talk I am giving in Wells Cathedral on Tuesday 14th. Come along
if you live nearby for the peculiar sight of me speaking in a
church. Will I get to use the pulpit?
``If you write a book saying the world is
getting better, you might get away with being thought eccentric.
But if you write a book saying that the world is going to go on
getting better and that in 2100 people will be healthier, wealthier
and wiser -- and have more rainforests too - you will be though
stark, raving bonkers. It is just not sane to believe in a happy
future for people and their planet.
Yet I cannot stop myself. I've looked at all
the statistics, facts, anecdotes, predictions and pronouncements I
can get hold of and they all seem to me to suggest that we will be
better off in 2100 than we are now. Much better off.
Ben Pile at Climate Resistance has a nice essay on the `environmentalist's
paradox'. This is the superficially puzzling -- and to many greens,
infuriating -- fact that people keep on getting healthier and
wealthier when really they should, in all decency, be suffering
terribly because of the deterioration of the earth's
Pile's starting point is a new paper that grapples wih the paradox. It
puts forward four explanations
(1) We have measured well-being
Stephen Budiansky's two essays on the `locavore' movement, one
in the New York Times and one on his blog, have received quite a bit of attention
already. They are remarkably fine rants not least because Steve (an
old friend) is not some pontificator. He actually grows a lots of
his own food on his small farm in Virginia. He knows what he is
talking about. And yet, like me, he concludes that
Twice, while being interviewed about my book I have been told by
the interviewer that it is a bad thing that I can buy green beans
from Africa `because the food should be kept in Africa to feed
people there'. The sheer ignorance of this statement, let alone its
patronising tone, left me open-mouthed on both occasions. Think how
many calories of wheat an African bean exporter can afford to buy
for the price he receives for the few calories in his beans. He is
growing the most valuable crop he can so that he can afford to
import things of greater value to him than surplus beans.
Distant food is efficient, sustainable, safe and moral.
Russ Roberts, over at Cafe Hayek, has this lovely hymn to progress:
In 1979,Sony introduced the Walkman, the first portable music player. It weighed 14 ounces and cost $200. It could play a cassette that could hold about 90 minutes of music. It was a little bigger than a cassette. It was pretty ugly.
A new nano from Apple was announced yesterday. It weighs less than an ounce. The 8GB model is $149. It holds about 60 hours of music. It is smaller than a matchbook. It is very beautiful.
Steve Budiansky has a good piece at his Liberal Curmudgeon blog. He argues -- and I
agree -- that heavy handed legal attacks on climate scientists,
like Attorney general Ken Cucinelli's in Virginia, are
reprehensible, but that to some extent environmental scientists are
reaping what they have sown, for example in their reaction to Bjorn
Lomborg's 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist:
responded with a determination to stamp out this heresy that would
have done Torquemada or Khomeini proud. A dozen scientists served
Cambridge University Press with a demand that it cease printing the
book, fire the editor who oversaw it, and "convene a
tribunal" to investigate the book's "errors." Nature ran a truly
egregious review by the scientists Stuart Pimm and Jeffrey Harvey
attributing to Lomborg ridiculous statements that he never even
remotely made in the book or anywhere else. And Pimm and Harvey
along with other members of the environmental goon squad lodged a
complaint with the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty - a
legal body of the state - alleging that Lomborg had committed
"scientific misconduct" for having reached conclusions that Pimm
and Harvey did not like.
Walter Russell Mead has a powerful essay in the American Interest online
about how the environmental movement suddenly turned into the
establishment. Have you noticed the irony of being told to shut up
and trust the experts by the likes of Greenpeace? Nothing is quite
so amusing about the modern environmental movement as its sudden
volte-face on the argument from authority: from `don't believe the
experts' to `do as you are told'.
I suppose one should not be surprised. Every movement, from
Christianity to Bolshevism, had the same transformation. How the
church went from being a radical insurgent organization that gave a
voice to the poor to one that insisted on papal infallibility
without a backward glance always struck me as entertaining.
Mead argues that the entire environmental movement was founded
on not trusting experts:
Update: Links added to sources
From today's Times, my op-ed piece.
This month, after a three-year investigation, Harvard University
suspended a prominent professor of psychology for scandalously
overinterpreting videos of monkey behaviour. The incident has sent
shock waves through science because it suggests that a body of data
is unreliable. The professor, Marc Hauser, is now a pariah in his
own field and his papers have been withdrawn. But the implications
for society are not great - no policy had been based on his
Excellent essay in City Journal by Fred Siegel on how
liberal progressives became nostalgic reactionaries when they
discovered environmental pessimism in the 1970s:
Why, then, did American
liberalism, starting in the early 1970s, undergo a historic
metanoia, dismissing the idea of progress just as progress was
being won? Multiple political and economic forces paved
liberalism's path away from its mid-century optimism and toward an
aristocratic outlook reminiscent of the Tory Radicalism of
nineteenth-century Britain; but one of the most powerful was the
rise of the modern environmental movement and its recurrent
I especially enjoyed his quotation from my late colleague Norman
My son, aged 16, is cleverer than me and knows more about
economic theory, which interests him. He has his own views on the
world. So I invited him to write a blog post on a topic of his
choosing. Here it is:
by Matthew Ridley
Janice Turner provided an amusing dose of irrational pessimism
in TheTimes on 21 August
(behind a paywall) with an argument for population control. Talking
of China's efforts to control population, she says that:
I have sent the following letter to the New Statesman
John Gray, in his review of my book The
Rational Optimist accuses me of being an apologist for social
Darwinism. This vile accusation could not be farther from the
truth. I have resolutely criticised both eugenics and social
Darwinism in several of my books. I have consistently argued that
both policies are morally wrong, politically authoritarian and
practically foolish. In my new book I make a wholly different and
more interesting argument, namely that if evolution occurs among
ideas, then it is ideas, not people, that struggle, compete and
die. That is to say, culture changes by the mutation and selective
survival of tools and rules without people suffering, indeed while
people themselves prosper. This is precisely the opposite of social
Darwinism in the sense that it is an evolutionary process that
enables the least fit people to thrive as much as the fittest.
Let nobody accuse professional healthcare officials of being
unproductive. They diligently produce what they are good at
producing -- dire warnings of disaster.
There have been Ebola virus, Lassa fever, swine flu, bird flu,
swine flu again, SARS, the human form of mad cow disease, and many
more such scares. Every single one proved exaggerated -- greatly,
To add insult to injury, when each scare fails to materialise,
officials close ranks and congratulate themselves on averting it.
The latest example is Britain's insulting official review of the
swine flu fiasco, as described by Michael Fitzpatrick in
I am on holiday in the Idaho Rockies, in a house on the edge of
what is in winter a fancy ski resort, the streets of which are
clogged with sports cars, massive SUVs and even the odd Hummer. The
shops offer all the extravagances a pampered plutocrat needs: from
pet grooming to art galleries. Sent to buy bagels, I was faced with
a bewildering ten different kinds.
Sounds like I am complaining? Read on.
From the patio of our house can be seen a constant procession of
wonderful (and remarkably tame) birds, attracted by the effect of
the the suburb's sprinklers in the usually dry landscape. Squirrels
come to the trees; garter snakes to the wall; butterflies to the
flowers. In the crystal stream at the bottom of the hill, wild
rainbow trout rise to caddis flies and dippers, martins and
sandpipers snack on huge stoneflies. In the woods along the valley
are moose droppings and signs of the occasional black bear.
In The Rational Optimist, I argue that the human technological
and economic take-off derives from the invention of exchange and
specialisation some time before 100,000 years ago. When people
began to trade things, ideas could meet and mate, with the result
that a sort of collective brain could form, far more powerful than
individual brains. Cumulative technology could begin to embody this
Of course, I did not invent this idea. In keeping with the
theory, I merely put together the ideas of others, notably those of
Joe Henrich (collective intelligence), Rob Boyd (cumulative
culture), Paul Romer (combinatorial ideas), Haim Ofek (the
invention of exchange) and many others.
There was also the important thought that came from Adam Powell, Stephen Shennan and Mark Thomas,
namely that temporary `outbreaks' of new technology in Paleolithic
Africa probably have a demographic explanation. That is, when
population density rose, it resulted in a spurt of innovation; when
population density fell, it resulted in technological regress (as
happened in Tasmania when it was isolated). Technology was
sophisticated, in other words, in proportion to the number of
people networked by exchange to sustain and develop it.
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