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 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.
German language interview just published in Das Magazin, based
in Zurich. It calls me `notorisch zuversichtlichen'.
Includes this picture of the author looking pessmistic because
about to be eaten by sabre-toothed cat, and because he has his head
by the rear end of a monkey.
Through the letterbox drops a begging letter from the head of a
university. Fair enough. The needy beg. The first sentence reads as
Today, the defining struggle in
the world is between relentless growth and the potential for
This is very odd in all sorts of ways.
I noticed a curious thing recently. The BBC's coverage of the
Gulf oil spill for the last two nights was missing one thing:
A reporter went down in a minisubmarine and looked at a pristine
coral reef. Newsnight interviewed lawyers, fishermen and
But there was no sign of a slick, a slimed pelican or even a tar
ball in their reports.
Whenever somebody gets nostalgic about the past, I get
suspicious. In the eigth century BC, Hesiod was already moaning
about how things aint like they used to be.
The Wall Street Journal has a great article about how nostalgic people get
for the way air travel used to be in the 1950s -- with more leg
room, less hassle and more romance.
Piffle. Compard with today, it was expensive, dangerous and
I have long known that there is nothing remotely `green' about
putting wind farms all over the countryside, with their
eagle-slicing, bat-popping, subsidy-eating, rare-earth-demanding,
steel-rich, intermittent-output characteristics. But until I read
Robert Bryce's superb and sober new book Power Hungry, I had not realised just how
dreadfully bad for the environment nearly all renewable energy
Bryce calculates that one Texas nuclear plant generates about 56
watts per square metre. This compares with 53 for gas turbines, 1.2
for wind, 6.7 for solar or 0.05 for corn ethanol. Sorry, but what
is so green about using 45 times as much land - and ten times as
much steel - to produce the same amount of power? It does not
surprise me that those with vested interest in renewables close
their minds to this, but it genuinely baffles me that other people
don't get it.
I've dealt with bird killing elsewhere, but Bryce contrasts the
prosecution of Exxon for killing 85 birds in uncovered tanks with
the fact that:
I found this on John Hawks's anthropology blog. He's
writing about the sometimes heated debate over whether Homo
floresiensis is a species or a deformity:
What I notice is that when I
write about this, I have to correct a lot of false claims about
what the anti-floresiensis scientists have said. Why do I so rarely
have to correct false claims about what the pro-floresiensis
scientists say? This is a generalization, but I've written enough
about this to have a good impression. The media reports skeptical
arguments very poorly. I think it's a systematic problem with
With the H. floresiensis issue,
the science writers have been abetted by some careless scholars. A
reporter may quote a pro-floresiensis scientist who says his
critics believe something totally nonsensical, and they report that
uncritically. This is another example of the same. I challenge
anybody to find an anti-floresiensis scholar who has written that
"nature moves inexorably towards bigger brains".
Daniel Ben-Ami's new book `Ferraris For All', published by the Policy
Press, is a great read. Ben-Ami's point is to defend the idea of
economic development against the `growth sceptics' who have emerged
in various blue, green and red guises recently.
What he does especially well is to point out how conservative,
how elitist and anti-aspirational, so many of the critics of
economic growth are. In a fascinating chapter he explores the way
in which the Left has abandoned the idea of progress, and turned
Nowadays it has reached the stage
where what passes for radical thinking is typically imbued with
deep social pessimism and hostility to economic growth.
Paradoxically, to the extent that any current is associated with
advocating prosperity, it is often the free market
I have written an op-ed article in The Times today. It's behind
a paywall, but here's my last draft before editing by the
newspaper, together with links.
So long as the cap holds, and
assuming that is the end of it, the Deepwater Horizon spill (up to
600,000 tonnes in total) will now take its place in the oil spill
hall of shame. BP's cavalier incompetence has made this probably the worst oil-spill year since 1979,
the year that saw not only the previous worst rig spill - the Ixtoc
1 platform off Mexico - but also the worst tanker spill, a
collision of two supertankers off Trinidad.
All this, just when things were
going so well in the oil-spill business. The number and collective
size of oil spills (over 7,000 tonnes) has declined in each of the last four decades,
from 25 large spills and over 250,000 tonnes a year in 1970-1979 to
three spills and about 20,000 tonnes a year in 2000-2009: that is a
drop of more than 90%.
Today at TED Global in Oxford, among other great talks, I was
blown away by this graph, shown by David McCandless.
My TED talk is now live online.
At TEDGlobal 2010, author Matt
Ridley shows how, throughout history, the engine of human progress
has beenthe meeting and mating of ideas to make new
ideas. It's not important how clever
individuals are, he says; what really matters is how smart the
collective brain is.
I have just one comment on the Climategate reports and that is
People who ask the world to spend $45 trillion on a project are surely under an
obligation to show their raw data and their workings. If instead,
publish only `adjusted data' rather than raw
Ten reasons I want the Netherlands to win the World Cup
1. More than almost any nation since the Phoenicians, the Dutch
traded rather than plundered their way to prosperity in their
2. They were cheated out of winning (hosting?) the industrial
revolution by invasions and attacks from jealous neighbours,
especially Louis XIV.
I am in today's Sun newspaper. Fully clothed.
WHEN I was growing up in the
1970s we were warned the ice age was returning, the population
explosion was unstoppable and we'd all be poisoned by chemicals in
None of these things
Tim Worstall has a superb rebuke to the idiotic argument that
greedy speculation, rather than greenie politicking, was the real
cause of the high food prices, hunger and food riots of 2008:
In short, futures allow
speculation upon the future: which is why we have them, for
speculation upon the future allows us to sidestep the very things
which we do not desire to happen in that future.
Now, of course, you could design
an alternative method of doing this. The wise, omniscient
and altruistic politicians and bureaucrats could send a
fax to all farmers telling them to plant more. Signs could appear
in every breadshop telling us all to eat our
Update: apologies for formatting problems in a previous version
of this blog post.
Last week a study claimed that 97-98
percent of the most published climate scientists agree with the
scientific consensus that man-made climate change is happening.
Well, duh. Of course they would: it's their livelihood. Anyway,
so do I. So do most `sceptics': they just argue about how much and
through what means. You can believe in man-made carbon dioxide
causing man-made climate change but not in net positive feedbacks
so you think the change will be mild, slow, hard to discern among
natural changes and far less likely to cause harm than
carbon-rationing policies: that's still within the range of
possibilities of the IPCC consensus.
have written a blog at the Huffington Post called Down with Doom. Here's an extract:
I now see at firsthand how I
avoided hearing any good news when I was young. Where are the
pressure groups that have an interest in telling the good news?
They do not exist. By contrast, the behemoths of bad news, such as
Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF, spend hundreds of
millions of dollars a year and doom is their best fund-raiser.
Where is the news media's interest in checking out how pessimists'
predictions panned out before? There is none. By my count, Lester
Brown has now predicted a turning point in the rise of agricultural
yields six times since 1974, and been wrong each time. Paul Ehrlich
has been predicting mass starvation and mass cancer for 40 years.
He still predicts that `the world is coming to a turning
I was giving a talk in Bozeman, Montana, last night at an event
to celebrate the 30th anniversary ofPERC, a think tank that encourages private
approaches to wildlife conservation and free-market environmental
Just as I uttered the words "of course, things will still go
wrong", there was a huge thunderclap, the lights went out and the
slide projector died.
I spent an afternoon this week getting a personal tour of a cast
of the skeleton of Ardipithecus from Tim White, the leader of the
team that decsribed it. Call me a nerd, but I found it
spine-tingling to hold in my hands the skull of a 4.4.million year
old creature that might be very close to my own ancestor.
But it was the details that stole the show. The lack of
sharpening on the rear of the canines (unlike a chimpanzee), the
flared pelvis of a regular biped, the curved but relative short
metatarsals of the foot, the hints of very little sexual
The ecology, too, is intriguing. The Afar depression was not
such a depression then, and the weather was sufficiently damp for a
fairly rich forest to be growing there, albeit with patches of
grassland. By far the commonest antelopes were woodland-dwelling,
browsing kudu. Ardi herself ate fruits and nuts from trees, not
grasses -- this can be decided by isotopic analysis -- and she was
a good climber as well as a walker. Her molar teeth had not grown
robust like those of Lucy, for grinding grass seeds and roots, but
nor had they shrunk for processing soft fruit as those of modern
Frederic Bastiat's writings are full of brilliant rebukes
against the restriction of trade, and the curtailment of human
happiness such restrictions always bring. But it is in a discussion
around the state funding of the arts that Bastiat most
clearly articulates the pessimism behind the bureaucratic state and
the life-enhancing optimism of those who believe in human
Our adversaries consider that an activity
which is neither aided by supplies, nor regulated by government, is
an activity destroyed. We think just the contrary. Their faith is
in the legislator, not in mankind; ours is in mankind, not in the
The latest evidence for the rationality of such optimism can, of
course, be found in my book.
Nick Wade has a good piece in today's New York Times about
John Mitani's chronicling of warfare between troops of Chimpanzees
Dr. Mitani's team has now put a
full picture together by following chimps on their patrols,
witnessing 18 fatal attacks over 10 years and establishing that the
warfare led to annexation of a neighbor's
The fact that male chimpanzees systematically and stealthily
patrol their boundaries in groups to kill neighbouring males has
been known for a long time in Gombe in Tanzania, but critics have
charged that it was unnaturally caused by human feeding of the
chimps. That now seems unlikely.
Pertinent to my recent response to New Scientist on ocean
acidification, Willis Eschenbach has a fascinating piece at Wattsupwiththat on a study of ocean pH along a transect from Hawaii
to Alaska. Turns out that the further north you go, the less
alkaline the ocean:
As one goes from Hawaii to Alaska
the pH slowly decreases along the transect, dropping from 8.05 all
the way down to 7.65. This is a change in pH of almost half a
The study also measured the change caused by carbon dioxide from
As part of an `interview' with me, New Scientist published
a critique by five scientists of two pages of my
book The Rational Optimist. Despite its tone, this critique only
confirms the accuracy of each of the statements in this section of
the book. After reading their critiques, I stand even more firmly
behind my conclusion that the threats to coral reefs from both
man-made warming and ocean acidification are unlikely to be severe,
rapid or urgent. In the case of acidification, this is underlined
by a recent paper, published since my book was written, summarising
the results of 372 papers and concluding that ocean acidification
`may not be the widespread problem conjured into the 21st century'.
The burden of proof is on those who see an urgent threat to corals
from warming and acidification. Here is what I wrote (in bold),
interspersed with summaries of the scientists' comments and my
Take coral reefs, which are
suffering horribly from pollution, silt, nutrient run-off and
fishing - especially the harvesting of herbivorous fishes that
otherwise keep reefs clean of algae. Yet environmentalists commonly
talk as if climate change is a far greater threat than these, and
they are cranking up the apocalyptic statements just as they did
wrongly about forests and acid rain
Andy Ridgwell says `I agree that at least for some reef systems,
other, and more local human factors such as fishing and pollution
may be the greater danger' and Jelle Bijma says `I do agree that,
for example, pollution and overfishing are also important problems,
some even more important than the current impact of ocean
acidification'. It was not therefore accurate of Liz Else to say
that the critics accuse me of failing `to recognize that there is
more to the health of corals than the amount of bicarbonate in the
sea' They do not - she has misrepresented their views and mine.
When I joined the Economist in 1983, Norman Macrae was the
deputy editor. He died last week at the age of 87. Soon after I
joined the staff, a thing called a computer terminal appeared on my
desk and my electric typewriter disappeared. Around that time,
Norman wrote a long article that became a book about the future. It
was one of the strangest things I had ever read.
It had boundless optimism --
Over the last decade, I have
written many articles in The Economist and delivered lectures in
nearly 30 countries across the world saying the future should be
much more rosy. This book explores the lovely future people could
have if only all democrats made the right
Update: now that I have seen the five
scientists' comments, I find that remarkably they support and
vindicate each one of my factual statements. I have posted a
detailed analysis in
a separate blog post.
Here's a letter I just sent to New Scientist:
In her misleading article about my book,
among other errors Liz Else wrongly states that I `failed to
recognize that there is more to the health of corals than the
amount of bicarbonate in the sea'. Yet I clearly state in my book:
`take coral reefs, which are suffering horribly from pollution,
silt, nutrient runoff and fishing'. After doing the interview, Else
asked me for proof of a statement in my book that `Even with
tripled bicarbonate concentrations, corals show a continuing
increase in both photosynthesis and calcification.' Presumably this
was because her unnamed `experts' had challenged this statement. I
was happy to supply her with the following extract from Craig
Idso's book (`CO2, global warming and coral reefs'), which I cited
in my book, and with the reference it cites (Herfort et al 2008.
Journal of Phycology 44: 91-98): `This work reveals that additions
of HCO3- to synthetic seawater continue to increase the
calcification rate of Porites porites until the bicarbonate
concentration exceeded three times that of seawater…Similar
experiments on Acropora species showed that calcification and
photosynthetic rates in these corals were enhanced to an even
greater extent, with calcification continuing to increase above a
quadrupling of the HCO3- concentration and photosynthesis
saturating at triple the concentration of seawater'. I am sorry
that instead of quoting this exchange between us, Else chose to
fall back on unsubstantiated accusations of `misconceptions,
selective reporting and failure to see the significance of
historical changes in ocean acidity'. I took the trouble to back up
my claims; she should have done so for her accusations.
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.
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