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.
Please note that this blog does not accept comments. If you're reading this blog and want to respond then please use the contact form on the site.
You can also follow me on twitter.
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.
I have written a longish piece about the human footprint on the
earth, avaliable as a `ChangeThis' manifesto here
Here are a few extracts:
George Monbiot's recent attack on me in the Guardian is
misleading. I do not hate the state. In fact, my views are much
more balanced than Monbiot's selective quotations imply. I argue
that the state's role in sometimes impeding or destroying the
process that generates prosperity needs to be recognised, as people
from enslaved ancient Egyptians to modern North Koreans could
testify. But as I mention in my book, I don't think that free
markets, especially those in assets, should be completely
unregulated. I do argue that free and fair commerce has the
power to raise living standards.
Unlike Monbiot's article, my book isn't about me. It's about the
billions of other people in the world who, through ingenuity,
exchange and specialisation, have generated remarkable
Monbiot, remember is the man who once wrote: ``every time someone dies as a
result of floods in Bangladesh, an airline executive should be
dragged out of his office and drowned.'' (see, George, two can play
at selective quotation).
In my book I quote the English environmentalist Jonathon Porritt
as follows: 'It's blindingly obvious [that] completely
unsustainable population growth in most of Africa will keep it
permanently, hopelessly, stuck in deepest, darkest poverty.'
At first I had assumed that the quote, which I had found in
another book, must be out of context. Surely nobody would say
anything so foolish or so heartless. Surely he was caricaturing
some blimpish view from a reactionary? So I looked up the original
article, in The Ecologist in 2007, to be sure I was not being
unfair to quote him thus. You can read the whole article here. Here's the longer context of the
Yet the facts speak for themselves: the
fewer there are of us, the greater our personal carbon budgets -
and just remember we're starting from a baseline here in the UK of
around 12½ tonnes of CO2 per person!I can't
tell you how politically incorrect it is to spell things out in
those terms. Even those who are getting more and more
enthusiastic about the idea of personal carbon budgets (including
Environment Secretary David Miliband) wouldn't dream of giving
voice to such a crass calculation. Leaders of our
ever-so-right-on environment movement can barely bring themselves
to utter the dreaded "p" word. The Millennium Development
Goals don't mention population. Tony Blair's Commission for
Africa ignored it entirely, even though it's blindingly obvious
that completely unsustainable population growth in most of Africa
will keep it permanently, hopelessly stuck in deepest, darkest
poverty. Our very own Department for International Development
grits its teeth and reluctantly doles out little bits of money for
family planning projects, but the idea that it should be the
Department's No 1 priority - if it was remotely realistic about its
poverty alleviation aspirations - remains anathema to most
officials and ministers.
In my book I point out that an unemployed British father of
three on welfare today receives more in state support than a man on
the average wage received in income in 1957. It's an eye-catching
reminder of how wrong J K Galbraith was to argue that affluence in
the late 1950s had already gone too far.
Now the Institute of Fiscal Studies has compiled data on average incomes in Britain since 1961,
coming to the remarkable conclusion that
in real terms the bottom 25% are now
considerable richer than were the top 25% in 1961.
Tim Black has an excellent article in Spiked about the
hypercautious European reaction to the Icelandic volcano in
We have sincediscoveredthat the maximum density of ash (100
micrograms of ash per cubic metre) over the UK during the ban was
one fortieth of that nowdeemeda safe threshold (4,000 micrograms of ash per cubic metre). In
other words, the ban was nowhere near justified by what is now the
He goes on to give some remarkable numbers from the similar
over-reaction to avian flu:
The Globe and Mail (Toronto) has made a nice new version of my
"handaxe and mouse" image to illustrate their review of The Rational Optimist
There's a lot of debate about the `Medieval Warm Period'. But
I've always been intrigued by the warm period of 7,000 years ago,
known as the Holocene Optimum, and I have been doing some digging
to find out just how warm it was. I've come away rather amazed.
Have a look at this image, which uses stalagmites in caves to
estimate ancient temperatures (as graphed by Wilis Eschenbach)
Listen to my interview on NPR's Leonard Lopate Show
and an MP3 of my interview on PM with Marc Colvin, in Australia
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
Receive all my latest posts straight to your inbox. simply subscribe below:
[*] denotes a required field