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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The text of a lecture given at the Royal Society on 17 October 2016:
(Note some minor corrections made subsequent to delivery. These are shown in italics.)
I gave a lecture recently at Haileybury College (the successor to the East India College where the economist Robert Malthus taught), on the topic of "The Misapplication of Malthus". It was based on a chapter of my book The Evolution of Everything:
Parson Malthus casts a long shadow over the past 200 years. He was a good man without a cruel bone in his body. But great cruelty has been done in his name and is still being done in his name. That’s the paradox I wish to explore this evening.
Malthus’s finest legacy is to have sparked Charles Darwin into action. In September 1838, shortly after returning from the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin read, or re-read, Malthus’s essay on population and was struck by the notion of a struggle for existence in which some thrived and others did not, an idea which helped trigger the insight of natural selection.
My Times column on free trade after Brexit:
The prime minister wants Britain to be “the most passionate, most consistent, most convincing advocate for free trade”. Under either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, and with world trade stagnating, it looks as if the job is increasingly likely to be vacant in March 2019, so Britain has both a vital duty and a golden opportunity. It worked for us before.
Next year sees the 200th anniversary of David Ricardo’s insight of “comparative advantage” — the counterintuitive idea that trade benefits “uncompetitive” countries as much as efficient ones. If one country is better at making both cloth and wine than another, it can still pay it to get its wine, for example, by making extra cloth to swap for the other’s wine. Or, as somebody once put it, even if Winston Churchill is a very good bricklayer (he was) it still makes sense for him to write books or run governments, and pay somebody else to build his walls.
My Times column on the Chan-Zuckerberg initiative in basic medical science:
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, and his wife Priscilla Chan, a paediatrician, have announced their intention to spend $3 billion over ten years on medical research. Having met them last year, I thought I would take the liberty of making a suggestion as to how they spend their money.
My Times column on statins, snus and vaping:
One of the most salutary examples of people in authority getting risks wrong is a paper written in 1955 by the first head of the environmental cancer section of the US National Cancer Institute, Wilhelm Hueper. The title was “lung cancers and their causes” and he was absolutely convinced that “cigarette smoking is not a major factor in the causation of lung cancer”, because he thought this was a cheap shot by the chemical industry to divert attention away from pesticides.
We now know that smoking is a major cause of lung cancer, whereas pesticides are not. History is littered with example of experts being too reassuring about some risks, too alarmed about others. Washing hands between dissecting women who died in child birth and delivering babies? No risk, said the nineteenth century medical establishment, ostracizing Ignaz Semelweiss who had had the temerity to suggest otherwise. Dietary fats cause heart attacks, insisted the medical establishment for the best part of five decades till very recently. It was once the consensus that tonsils should be removed; no longer.
My essay on invasive species in the Wall Street Journal:
In July, the New Zealand government announced its intention to eradicate all rats, stoats and possums from the entire country by 2050 to save native birds such as the kiwi. It’s an ambitious plan, perhaps impossible to pull off with the methods available today, but it’s a stark reminder that invasive alien species today constitute perhaps the greatest extinction threat to animal populations world-wide.
Birdlife International, a charity that works to save endangered birds, reckons that of the 140 bird species confirmed to have gone extinct since 1500, invasive alien species were a factor in the demise of at least 71—an impact greater than hunting, logging, agriculture, fire or climate change.
My Times column on how the Arctic sea ice has melted in late summer before, between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago:
The sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is approaching its annual nadir. By early September each year about two thirds of the ice cap has melted, then the sea begins to freeze again. This year looks unlikely to set a record for melting, with more than four million square kilometres of ice remaining, less than the average in the 1980s and 1990s, but more than in the record low years of 2007 and 2012. (The amount of sea ice around Antarctica has been increasing in recent years, contrary to predictions.)
My Times column on economic libertarianism:
Last week both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump set out their economic policies in set-piece speeches. Mr Trump’s, delivered in Detroit, so far as one could tell from the fractured syntax and the digressions into invective, involves a trade policy designed to punish consumers and protect producers, a recipe for recession. But Mrs Clinton’s, also delivered in Michigan, was even worse. She too wants to pursue the old mercantilist fallacy of restricting imports and helping exports, but while spending more money, unleashing a blizzard of new regulations and doubling the minimum wage.
Never have the American people been faced with such paternalist, protectionist and authoritarian pair of options. The United States, long a beacon of economic libertarianism, is now being offered a choice between two forms of growth-killing, deficit-boosting, zero-sum, big-government economic nationalism. Long gone are the days when both Republicans and Democrats subscribed to some form of free-market economic philosophy while differing mainly over how to fight the cold war and the culture wars.
My Spectator article on the similarity between trophy hunting in Africa and grouse shooting in Durham. Both have huge benefits for non-target species of wildlife.
The vast Bubye Valley Conservancy in southern Zimbabwe is slightly larger than County Durham, as well as much hotter and drier. Yet both contain abundant wildlife thanks almost entirely to the hunting of game. In Bubye Valley, it’s lions and buffalo that are the targets; in the Durham dales, it’s grouse. But the effect is the same — a spectacular boost to other wildlife, privately funded.
My Times column on the history of opposition to innovation:
The prime minister is to announce today that she would like to redirect some of the future profits of shale gas production to households, rather than councils. This is eminently sensible. It gives local people a stake in the new technology; it recognises that innovation will only be accepted in society when its social effects are beneficial; and it reflects Theresa May’s philosophy that all of society should share in growth.
This is my Times column on why we are paying too much to decarbonise via both nuclear and renewables, but I have expanded various points to give detailed quotes from sources to verify my arguments. [The expansions are in square brackets and italics.]
If Hinkley Point C goes ahead, the cost for consumers of subsidizing it will be £30 billion, according to the National Audit Office, or five times what was originally estimated. The increase comes largely from the fact that fossil fuels are cheaper than even the lowest possibility envisaged by the late and unlamented Department of Energy and Climate Change.
[In 2012 DECC forecast three scenarios for fossil fuel prices. In the “high” scenario, the oil price, per barrel, in 2016 was expected to be $137.2; in the medium scenario, $119.2 and in the “low” scenario, $98.8. The price today is $43, that is less than half the lowest scenario envisaged by DECC just four years ago.]
My Times column on why experts get the future as wrong, or more so, than non-experts:
Michael Gove was mocked during the referendum campaign for saying that “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.” Critics asked pointedly if he dismissed the expertise of doctors when ill. But subsequent weeks have left economic experts, at least, looking a bit less than the full Nostradamus.
The expert pollsters told the hedge funds Remain would win right up till when it lost, so the pound and the FTSE 100 rose, then crashed. The expert financial forecasters then told investors the FTSE 100 would fall further, but it quickly recovered all its lost ground and more. The expert analysts told us we should watch the FTSE 250 plunge instead, but that has now returned to the level it was at a week before the referendum.
My Times column on industrial strategy:
In her first speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street Theresa May said that she intends to listen to those who “just about manage”, not to the wealthy and mighty. “When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few.” Dead right: but how?
In pursuit of that objective she has signalled that she may favour an industrial strategy intended to help those areas that have it toughest. Some have interpreted this as a sign that markets are out of fashion and that government intervention is back. That certainly seems to be part of the thinking of her aide Nick Timothy and think-tank influences such as David Skelton. Mr Timothy says it is time that politicians “questioned the unthinking liberalism of the policies they support”. Greg Clark, the business secretary, says he is thrilled to take charge of a “new department charged with delivering a comprehensive industrial strategy”.
Damian Carrington in the Guardian has attempted to imply criticism of me for writing an email to the energy minister in the House of Lords to draw his attention to a new technology for emissions reduction as a byproduct of an innovative manufacturing process. I explicitly was not lobbying. I have absolutely no interest in the technology or the company, but I happened to meet them through a friend and thought their technology sounded interesting and the British government might be interested, since it might be a way for the UK to generate jobs and revenue while cutting emissions; the company was not asking for a subsidy. I met them over a drink – and I paid. I have acted entirely appropriately, and the Guardian article is trying to make a scandal where there is none.
The source of the Guardian article is a Freedom of Information Request from Friends of the Earth. The FoE individual quoted in the article is Guy Shrubsole, who has a criminal conviction for aggravated trespass as he prevented people getting to work at a surface coal mine in Northumberland on the Blagdon Estate. Mr Shrubsole was given a conditional discharge after pleading guilty to chaining himself to mining machinery to cause disruption at the site. He was also given a three year restraining order preventing him from coming within 50 metres of the mining company’s sites or offices. Mr Shrubsole appears to be under the mistaken impression that I was telling the energy minister about a carbon capture and storage technology. Even if I had been, there would be no scandal.
The real scandal is that the Guardian relies on a criminal as a source.
My Times column on the way social media polarises discourse and raises the political temperature:
Schisms of hatred seem to be fracturing the political landscape wherever you look right now: the police versus the black community in America, Sunni v Shia, Wahhabism v the West, Trump v Hillary, Labour v itself, Brexiteers v Bremainers, climate “alarmists” v “deniers”. All are glaring at each other across cyber-chasms of flaming verbal magma.
My recent Times column on the herbicide glyphosate:
I once tried the organic alternative to the herbicide roundup for clearing weeds from garden paths: a flame-thrower. It was brutal for the environment, incinerating innocent insects and filling the air with emissions. Next week I might have to go back to that. Roundup, the world’s safest, cheapest and most effective weedkiller, may be illegal within days in Europe.
I published this column in the Times recently. Since then it has become clear that Britain will probably have a female prime minister soon (Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom are the bookies' favourites), and a female leader of the opposition (Angela Eagle ditto), as well as a female monarch. In Scotland all three main party leaders are women. America may have a female president next year. It seems timely to discuss whether women bring different skills to the top jobs in politics. I think they do, and for the better:
After an American political party at last picked a woman candidate for president, and after watching a television debate on Europe last week in which one male was surrounded by six females, including the presenter, the idea of women in power has just about ceased to be unusual. The number of women elected as president or prime minister in the world was three in the 1960s, then 5, 8, 24 and 25 in each succeeding decade – and it has already reached 30 in this half-finished decade. Slow, but steady progress.
So, a question: are women sufficiently different from men for this to make a difference? Yet another brain-imaging study, at Stanford University, has found neural differences between men and women. When two men co-operate on a task, one particular part of the brain lights up in each; when two women co-operate, a different part of the brain lights up in each. When a man and a woman co-operate, both brains light up less – but they still co-operate fine. Different, but not unequal, in other words.
Here are three articles on the Brexit referendum of June 2016.
My Times column on the European Union's failure to grow digital giants:
Last week I visited an island and stood among a crowd of puffins. If I turned my head I could see the lighthouse. If I looked up, the arctic terns were above my head. Yet I never left a gallery in Gateshead. How come? I was wearing a virtual-reality mask.
I have tried this “Oculus” technology once before, when visiting Facebook in California (which owns Oculus) and it is truly extraordinary to have an all-round, up-and-down view of the world depending on how you turn your head. All it involves is a special (Samsung) smartphone jammed into a pair of goggles.
My Times column on the threat from zika virus:
Cancelling the Rio Olympics would do little to slow the spread of the zika virus. That horse has already bolted: more than 60 countries and territories already have zika. It will soon be almost anywhere that its mosquito host lives. Now that the link with microcephaly is well established, becoming pregnant in any country with zika carries a small but real risk of birth defects for the baby.
In the 1970s, troubled by the risks of using pesticides, we took our eye off the fight against mosquitoes and the diseases they carry. Zika is just the latest evidence that we are paying a heavy price for that. Between 1947 and 1958 Brazil managed to eradicate the Aedes aegypti mosquito from the entire country, as part of a continent-wide campaign against yellow fever. Yet the effort was not maintained, so the mosquito returned and now flourishes in the favelas of urban Brazil as well as most of the warm parts of the world.
My Times comment on a new report on genetically modified crops:
The exhaustive and cautious new report from the American National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine leaves no room for doubt that genetically engineered crops are as safe or safer, and are certainly better for the environment, than conventionally bred crops.
My Times column on why gene editing is not the slippery slope to eugenics:
This summer brings the 50th anniversary of the full deciphering of the genetic code — the four-billion-year-old cipher by which DNA’s information is translated and expressed — and the centenary of the birth of Francis Crick, who both co-discovered the existence of that code and dominated the subsequent 13-year quest to understand it. Europe’s largest biomedical laboratory, named after him, opens this summer opposite St Pancras station.
My Times column on rural broadband:
Compared with most countries, Britain has a fairly healthy rural economy. Barns have been converted into homes or offices rather than left to tumble down, as in parts of France. Remote areas have job vacancies in picturesque villages, rather than drug problems amid piles of dead cars, as in parts of America. The demand for second homes in St Ives and the lack of affordable housing in villages (both in the news these past few weeks) are the result of too much demand for rural assets, not too little.
Yet there is now a golden opportunity to make the rural economy work even better, to make the countryside an engine of growth rather than a theme park and retirement community — and without spoiling it. That opportunity’s name is broadband. The government’s sudden decision to stop rolling fast broadband out for the last 5 per cent of people is madness.
My Times column on Britain's history with Europe:
[The prime minister argues that "when we turn out back on Europe, sooner or later we come to regret it" and cited 1704, 1805, 1914 and 1940 as examples. This is historical nonsense: in each case it was our separation from Europe that enabled Britain to liberate the continent from a monopolistic tyranny. Had we been integrated, the outcomes would have been different. I argued in my Times column that the existence of the Channel, and its narrowness, have made us inevitably involved in European affairs, but also inevitably resistant to absorption into European hegemonies.]
Whatever your views on Brexit, there is no doubting the peculiar agony of Britain’s relationship with its neighbouring continent. Ever since the day at the end of the last ice age that the sea broke through the chalky gorge between Dover and Calais, it has been our dilemma: are we separate from, or close to, the continent?
My Times column on free speech and climate change:
The editor of this newspaper received a private letter last week from Lord Krebs and 12 other members of the House of Lords expressing unhappiness with two articles by its environment correspondent. Conceding that The Times’s reporting of the Paris climate conference had been balanced and comprehensive, it denounced the two articles about studies by mainstream academics in the scientific literature, which provided less than alarming assessments of climate change.
My review in the Times of Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Equality:
It took me two months to read this 650-page, small-type book, the third volume in a trilogy. In that time I read several other books, absorbing Bourgeois Equality in small doses on trains, ships, Tubes, sofas and beds. If that sounds like faint praise, it’s not. I wanted to savour every sentence of this remarkable feast of prose.
My column in the Times on British science and the European Union:
The House of Lords science and technology committee, on which I sit, has produced a report on British science and the European Union. Most scientists are enthusiastic to remain in the EU but many seem to be under the same misapprehension I was until recently: that European scientific collaboration and funding is dependent on being a member of the EU. It’s not.
The main science funding programmes, such as Horizon 2020, are open to European countries, not just to EU members — and indeed to some non-European countries such as Turkey, Tunisia and Israel. The same is true of the main scientific collaborations. The European Molecular Biology Organisation, the European Space Agency: these are pan-European, not EU projects. The particle accelerator at CERN actually crosses (beneath) the border between an EU and a non-EU country. CERN gets less than 2 per cent of its budget from the EU.
Here is my reply to an article on "Open democracy" criticising me.
I am surprised to read this lengthy attack on me and to find that no attempt was made to check the facts.
I am genuinely surprised that you should have written this blog post without any attempt to check the facts.
My Times column on pseudoscience:
Science, humanity’s greatest intellectual achievement, has always been vulnerable to infection by pseudoscience, which pretends to use the methods of science, but actually subverts them in pursuit of an obsession. Instead of evidence-based policymaking, pseudoscience specialises in policy-based evidence making. Today, this infection is spreading.
My review of Stephen Moss's book Wild Kingdom from the Times:
The wildlife of the River Tyne, near where I live, has been transformed in my lifetime. When I went pike fishing on the Tyne as a bird-watching-obsessed boy, it was empty of salmon, sea trout and otters. It had no ospreys, peregrine falcons or kites overhead. Buzzards, goosanders and herons were scarce. All are now regular or common residents.
The Tyne is one of the examples used by Stephen Moss in his book Wild Kingdom of the progress we have made bringing back much of Britain’s wildlife. He watches an otter right in the middle of Newcastle, while listening to the kittiwakes that nest on the Tyne bridge. Elsewhere in the country he documents the extraordinary revival, arrival or return of many species: bitterns, little egrets, great white egrets, avocets, cranes, beavers, marsh harriers, cetti’s warblers, ring-necked parakeets.
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