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 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
David Brooks in the New York Times has news of a
contrarian finding about the internet:
Gentzkow and Shapiro found that the
Internet is actually more ideologically integrated than
old-fashioned forms of face-to-face association - like meeting
people at work, at church or through community groups. You're more
likely to overlap with political opponents online than in your own
I am no expert on jet engines, but my suspicions from the very
beginning that the European authorities were over-reacting to
Iceland's ash cloud are hardening with every day. Of course flying
into an actual ash plume is dangerous, but that does not make a
well dispersed haze of ash dangerous.
It now turns out Europe's reaction was more extreme than
America's would have been. And airlines are increasingly calling
the bluff of the aviation authorities by doing test flights.
Politicians have been characteristically slow and useless. See here:
The International Air Transport
Association...expressed its "dissatisfaction with how governments
have managed it, with no risk assessment, no consultation, no
coordination, and no leadership"
Bishop Hill is doing a great job of following
the various inquiries into the climate emails.
The unthoroughness, biased membership and gullibility of the
Oxburgh and Russell inquiries has the effect on a lukewarmer like
me of driving me further into the sceptical camp. If the case for
man made global warming needs this much flagrant whitewashing, then
maybe, I begin to think, the exaggerations and mistakes are not
just the result of sloppiness, but are part of a deliberate attempt
to camouflage the truth to keep the gravy train on the track. If
the science was any good then it could stand proper scrutiny.
As Christpher Booker writes:
One of the themes in my forthcoming book is that there are huge
vested interests trying to prevent good news reaching the public.
That is to say, in the ruthless free-market struggle that goes on
between pressure groups for media attention and funds, nobody likes
to have it said that `their' problem is not urgent and getting
The lengths that acid rain alarmists in the EPA went to to
prevent the result of the NAPAP study reaching Congress before
crucial votes in the early 1990s is well documented, and this was when this
phenomenon first dawned on me. But now I see it everywhere.
Journalists rarely challenge pressure groups' claims of urgency
and deterioration, because those are the two things that get
editors' attention, too.
The sky's bright blue right now, which is weird because I am
looking up through a 5,000-metre thick plume of volcanic ash from
Iceland. This has stopped all flights in the UK air space and much
of northern Europe.
(As somebody quipped on the radio, `Dear Iceland, we said send
So there are no vapour condensation trails from jets, which
prompts the thought: did anybody ever figure out what con trails do
to the climate?
A scientist does a study of how Arctic seabirds die. It's not a
bad idea: die they do, but not from the usual diseases and
predators that kill birds in more temperate zones. So what does
He pores over thousands of records from birdwatchers in the
Arctic and concludes that weather-related events kill a lot of
them. Fulmars run into cliffs in fog, Murres get buried in
landslides when cliffs collapse. Birds get swept away in
storms. And so on.
Now the scientist has two options. He can say in a paper that a
lot of Arctic birds die due to `factors related to weather' and
bask in perpetual obscurity. Or he can slip in, just before the
word `weather', the phrase `climate and'.
Please look at these four objects below
I will have a lot to say in The Rational Optimist about
It's an easy trap, to think that the past was better or more
free than the present. It's not hard to show that the past was
poorer for most people, but was it more free?
Conservatives and libertarians often like to imply that life was
better in the old days, because the weight of bureaucratic
government rested lighter on people's shoulders, but
even socialists like Rousseau, Engels or William Morris
used to hark back to noble savagery, egalitarian peasantry or
Merrie medieval England before the Norman yoke for their golden
age. Back in the golden age itself, Hesiod was complaining that
things were worse than they used to be.
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