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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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.
The thing about tightly coordinated flocks of birds is that they
can't work by top-down planning and they can't be anarchic
free-for-alls either. Now comes news that they are in between:
there is no single leader but some birds are more influential than
others in which way the flock turns.
Here's what the researchers, led by Dr Dora Biro of
The authors say that a hierarchical
arrangement may foster more flexible and efficient decision-making
compared with that of singly led or egalitarian groups. In future
studies, the scientists plan to investigate whether leaders are
better navigators, and whether hierarchies persist in larger groups
and in other types of social animal. "If it's true that there's an
evolutionary advantage to making decisions in this way, then
there's absolutely a reason to assume that it could have evolved in
other species too," Biro says.
Science is not the cataloguing of facts or the
accumulation of knowledge. It is the production of ignorance.
Scientists are in the business of finding new seams of
As Jennifer Doudna at U C Berkeley puts it in Erika Check
Hayden's Nature article about the tenth anniversary of the
first draft of the human genome sequence:
"The more we know, the more we realize
there is to know."
Unintentionally hilarious juxtaposition of remarks in an article
by the climate scientist James Hansen:
This is not the 17th century, when
"beliefs" trumped science, forcing Galileo to recant his
understanding of the solar system
David Brooks on why America's future is
In sum, the U.S. is on the verge of a
demographic, economic and social revival, built on its historic
strengths. The U.S. has always been good at disruptive change. It's
always excelled at decentralized community-building. It's always
had that moral materialism that creates meaning-rich products.
Surely a country with this much going for it is not going to wait
around passively and let a rotten political culture drag it
The Telegraph: Missing link between man and apes found.
The Sunday Times: Fossil from cave is a 'missing link'
From Maggie Koerth Baker at boingboing.net, a fascinating
how fresh and wondrous electricity seemed to Americans in 1916.
Pity she spoils it by an attempt at finding the cloud in the silver
lining at the end.
Centralized electricity changed energy
production from a difficult, in-home process that kept the messy
by-products of progress literally in your face, into something
magical that happened when you threw a switch. The choking smoke
was still there, but not at your house. There was still heavy labor
involved, but it wasn't done by you or your children. For the first
time, people were able to pretend that their standard of living was
provided, free of downsides, by little elves that lived in the
wall. All benefit, no detriment. Action without consequences. In
other words, this is the point where everybody went a little bit
The beauty is that this is still happening in parts of Africa
and Asia. A report on the Philippines estimated that
each family derives $108 a month in benefits from
connecting to the electricity grid - cheaper lighting ($37),
cheaper radio and television ($19), more years in education ($20),
time saving ($24) and business productivity ($8). As the
miracle of electricity reaches a village, people inhale less smoke,
read more school books, cut down fewer trees and find time to do
other things that earn them more money.
Breathless reporting last week of a new estimate of Greenland's
It's higher than it was before:
"The changes on the Greenland ice sheet are happening fast, and
we are definitely losing more ice mass than we had anticipated,"
says study co-author Isabella Velicogna of the University of
A fine analysis by Ted Nordhaus and Michael
Shellenberger of the way that climate science has been
distorted by environmentalism. They write:
"The result has been an ever-escalating
set of demands on climate science, with greens and their allies
often attempting to represent climate science as apocalyptic,
imminent, and certain, in no small part so that they could
characterize all resistance as corrupt, anti-scientific,
short-sighted, or ignorant. Greens pushed climate scientists to
become outspoken advocates of action to address global
warming. Captivated by the notion that their voices and expertise
were singularly necessary to save the world, some climate
scientists attempted to oblige. The result is that the use, and
misuse, of climate science by advocates began to wash back into the
Those of us who love science - the habit of licensed curiosity,
not the bureaucratic machine - have been increasingly dismayed by
the way that its high priests have been behaving over the climate
issue: trying to politicize, propagandise and polarize where
they should be questioning, debating and being awkward. The most
shocking thing to me about 'Climategate' was not the emails, but
the any-excuse-will-do reaction to them from the scientific
Chiffchaffs are the first summer visitors to arrive, around here
at least, and their distinctive song is hard to miss, and one day
near the vernal equinox suddenly there they are. I have
written down the date in my diary most years since 1990. Last night
I went back through the diaries and collated the data. It's hardly
scientific, but notice there is absolutely no sign of a drift
towards earlier arrival: if anything the reverse.
Yet here is whatThe Telegraph says:
Woke to find the newspapers all claiming a new "species" of
human being discovered in central Asia. Here's the Guardian:
"The finding suggests an undocumented human species lived
alongside Neanderthals and early modern humans in parts
of Asia as recently as 30,000 years ago."
Leave aside the fact that it's just a bone from a little finger,
leave aside the fact that they have only sequenced
some mitochondrial DNA, not nuclear DNA. Assume, for the
sake of argument, that they have ruled out contamination. Applaud -
as we should - the achievement of recovering DNA from the fossil
and sequencing it.
So Man flu is not a myth, because testosterone
inhibits the immune response.
This has been known to biologists for ages. In The Red Queen, I challenged readers to explain
why bodies should be designed that way: why set up an immune system
in such a way that it gets hindered by normal hormonal action? I
still find it baffling. Over the years readers took up my challenge
and wrote to me. They still do. Their answers nearly always boil
down to a version of this: to weed out weedy males. That is to say,
if males cannot both keep their testosterone levels up
and resist disease they don't deserve to contribute to posterity's
Trouble is, like all group selectionist arguments, it's
vulnerable to the evolutionary free rider. Along comes a mutant
animal that breaks the link between testosterone and illness and
hey presto it can breed away to its gonads' content, propagating
its subprime genes as if they were triple A.
Very nice piece ofrational optimism
My Times column on skilled versus unskilled migration and Brexit:
Michael Kosterlitz, one of the four British-born but American-resident winners of Nobel prizes in science this year, is so incensed by Brexit that he is considering renouncing his British citizenship: “The idea of not being able to travel and work freely in Europe is unthinkable to me.” He has been misled — not by Leavers but by Remainers.
It’s not just that the overseas press have consistently portrayed Brexit as a nativist retreat, despite Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Daniel Hannan consistently saying the very opposite. Throughout the referendum campaign — and, shamefully, since — academics have been told by their lobby groups (such as Universities UK) that Brexit probably means losing access to European research funds, European scientific collaborations and European talent.
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