Friday, January 28, 2011

Book Review: The Rational Optimist--How Prosperity Evolves


Photo courtesy of s.red via Flickr

Just how rational are we? Had the optimists not prevailed would the Titanic have sailed? I've read most of Ridley's books and have recently read my favorite, The Red Queen-Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature for the second time.

I was looking forward to this book, which started out good.

I stopped counting after he used the word pessimist for the twelfth time (seriously). He spends an inordinate amount of time complaining about the press's propensity for pessimistic headlines. Call me a pessimist, but had there been more pessimistic headlines warning of the imminent extinction of the Chinese river dolphin or the ivory-billed woodpecker, would they still be with us? How about the California condor or whooping crane? Oh, wait, they are still with us. Here's another one that just arrived in the latest issue of Science:

Last-Ditch Effort to Save Embattled Ape

The Hainan gibbon may be the world's most endangered primate. By the latest tally, there are only 22 Hainan gibbons—one family with 11 members, another with seven members, and four loners—remaining in their last refuge, Bawangling National Nature Reserve on southern China's Hainan Island. Here, rangers and scientists hope to prevent the first primate extinction in recorded history. Government protection and high fecundity have helped the species recapture some lost ground, giving researchers reason for guarded optimism.

I was taken aback when on page two, just after the photo of a stone tool and a plastic computer mouse, I read the following:

The [stone] axe was made by a single individual. The mouse was made by thousands—perhaps millions—of people, each of whom played a small role in realizing the whole. Farmers grew the coffee that shippers transported and was consumed by oil riggers whose petroleum was used by refinery workers to make the plastic that was molded by factory workers for the mouse, which was assembled by other laborers for salespeople to sell to the retailer who sold it to me. Not one of them alone knows how to make a computer peripheral from scratch.

Look at how similar it is to a paragraph in an obscure book called Poison Darts--Protecting the biodiversity of the world written six years prior ...by me:

Look at one of the buttons on your shirt. I challenge any human being on the face of this planet to duplicate from scratch that simple little button without any help from another person. Before rushing to take up that challenge, consider the following. The button is probably made out of plastic; a polymer created from petroleum pumped from the bowels of the Earth. The button was formed in a mold that was, in turn, machined from a metal alloy. The machine tools used to make the mold were made of several different metal alloys. How are you as an individual going to mine, smelt, mix and purify metal alloys and then use them to build drilling jigs with carbide or diamond tipped drills to extract the petroleum? How will you make the machine tools used to fabricate the mold used to make that button? How would you manage to turn the raw petroleum into plastic? Truth be told, duplicating from scratch a simple plastic button is a task that is orders of magnitude beyond anything any human being is even remotely capable of doing alone. It takes the combined knowledge of several generations of humans, and tens of thousands of individuals working in concert to make a plastic shirt button.


Certainly, Ridley managed to make the same point with a lot fewer words and with a lot of the same words might I add: individual, thousands, petroleum, plastic, mold, alone, from scratch. This looks like either a book version of parallel evolution or an example of book-to-book gene sharing. The internet is a wealth of free ideas. How many more books or blogs are out there with a similar paragraph in it?

I agree with many of the concepts presented in this book, a few of which were new to me. On the other hand, I've heard almost all of these ideas and criticisms many times and long ago (myth of the noble savage, and on, and on). But that's me. I read a lot of non-fiction. I've noticed that the public has a propensity to mistakenly attribute the ideas collected by journalists to the journalists themselves. It is a journalist's job to collect ideas for presentation, which Ridley has always been good at, specifically, scientist's ideas, which made him a good science writer. I also detected a number of factual errors which tainted the rest of the book because it left me wondering how many more errors existed that I was unaware of.

This is not his best work although it may end up being his most popular book and if so, it will be due to the relative ignorance of his reading audience who will not be aware that most of it is a rehash of ideas many of which are many decades old--a formula that also served Michael Crichton as well, except he was writing fiction. What excited the readers of Jurassic Park were the novel (at least to them) technological ideas presented. But according to Ridley:

"People don't like change," Michael Crichton once told me, "and the notion that technology is exciting is true for only a handful of people. They are depressed or annoyed by the changes."

Right. I wonder if he tweeted that epiphany to Ridley over the internet using his cellphone, laptop, or iPad? The lesson to be learned here is not to accept the arguments presented in this book just because they are well articulated by a celebrity or authority figure. If it does not make sense, it does not matter who said it.

I recall when the book Jurassic Park first arrived. My wife enjoyed it in large part because of the novel (to her) ideas it contained. I read it and was bored out of my mind. The concept of finding DNA in mosquitoes trapped in amber was an old one to anybody who reads much science. Without these borrowed ideas, the book was essentially another version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World . The movie, like Star Wars, was worth watching only because of the spectacular advance in special effects. The technology used to portray the tyrannosaurus rex in that movie was a quantum leap over the clay models and iguanas with rubber prosthetics used in the dinosaur movies that preceded it.

Ridley takes jabs at a host of highly respected individuals including but not limited to Al Gore, Lester Brown, Rachel Carson, E.O. Wilson, and George Monbiot. He does not hesitate to go back many decades to find a damning quote--a form of cherry picking that is easy to do with any celebrity. Let me put the shoe on the other foot in an example using Ridley's wealthy celebrity acquaintance, the strident anti-environmentalist Michael Crichton, who once said, "We cause our diseases. We are directly responsible for any illness that happens to us." He apparently also once believed "...in auras, spoon bending, and clairvoyance."

The publisher placed a blurb by Ian McEwan (see correction at bottom of this article) at the top of the dust jacket. In the blurb, McEwan praises the book for teeming with original ideas, of which it actually has very few, if any--not that Ridley claims the ideas in this book are original. McEwan thinks they are original (and he is not alone) only because he has not read them before in other books like The Ultimate Resource, Nonzero, The Skeptical Environmentalist, The Company of Strangers, and on, and on. Original ideas are few and far between in this world.

The book, The Ultimate Resource, mentioned above, was written by the late Julian Simon. His obituary in the New York Times described him as an "optimistic economist." Sound familiar? Here's a quote from him:

We do not neglect the die off of the passenger pigeon and other species that may be valuable to us. But we note that extinction of species, billions of them …has been a biological fact of life throughout the ages, just as has been the development of new species, some of which may be more valuable to humans than extinguished species whose niches they fill.


Development of new species? Doesn't that take a lot of time? Simon suffered from severe depression for many years of his adult life. Here are some thoughts on that taken from an admittedly hostile book review of Simon's posthumously published autobiography:

"Tellingly, after The Ultimate Resource appeared and was immediately seized upon by the cornucopian camp, Simon wrote in a note to himself, 'I have hit the jackpot. The world has now made it easy for me to remain undepressed. I no longer must deflect my mind from my professional difficulties in order to stay happy, but instead I can now dwell on my worldly success' and take pleasure in it.'"

"But if your model of reality flows from your agenda, it merely reflects your own state of mind. So by Simon's own logic, his optimistic model of the universe depended on his 'needs and interests' in remaining undepressed. Which means that his optimism does not reflect the reality 'out there.'"


Reagan and the Vatican both used Simon's work to justify their efforts to end abortion, of which an estimated 40 million are performed annually. Had the anti-abortion forces gotten their wish since 1965, this book would never have been written because our population would have long ago passed through 12 billion and even Ridley admits that humanity is "just" going to remain fed by 2050 at 9 billion without plowing up what remains of our biosphere.

For me, there are three overarching, although not novel, lessons in this book.

1) Our capacity to swap, share, or simply walk off with ideas is what distinguishes humans from other social creatures like chimps, mole rats, wasps, and ants. Although that seems like a rather obvious observation, it has had huge ramifications. We are not smarter than our immediate ancestors, we just reached a kind of critical mass of population size and density that allowed the trade and exchange of ideas to take off. Life is easier for much more of humanity as a result and like it or not, the only way out of the mess we have created (as far as biodiversity loss and climate change is concerned) is to keep moving forward hoping that market mechanisms can be found to incentivize the preservation of what remains. We can't go backwards with a population heading for nine billion.

We already had automobiles, airliners, antibiotics, vaccines, nuclear bombs, skyscrapers, television, and toaster ovens in 1945 when our population was about two billion. Technology growth was already fully exponential. What Ridley failed to mention (possibly because it is now water under the bridge) is that our continued rapid population growth has not been a necessary condition for further rapid technological and economic growth. A much lower population would have been sufficient, although now, both rapid technological and economic growth are necessary just to feed humanity and to try to preserve what remains of a rapidly unraveling biosphere. Our huge population is not causing our technology growth. It is the other way around.

2) We are much less likely to make war on trading partners who are providing us with golden eggs; free trade is a very good thing overall. Although this is not a guarantee, as Saddam Hussein recently demonstrated, we may still go to war to steal the goose that is laying them (resources).

3) Government bureaucracies, be they military-industrial supported by conservatives or social services supported by progressives, like weeds in a garden, cannot be allowed to grow ad infinitum. Bloated bureaucracies in the market are eventually weeded out by competitors but government is a monopoly. Government bureaucracies have no natural check on their populations. History is replete with examples of governments becoming so large and ineffective, with massive standing armies of both soldiers and bureaucrats, that they bring about the collapse of their own society.


Let me digress for just a moment to praise one of my favorite movies, Brazil. Why it is called that, I have not a clue. It is a dark comedy set in the future, written by some of the old Monty Python gang. The entire world is one giant city dominated by one giant bureaucracy. Entrepreneurs and unlicensed repairmen are hunted down by heavily-armed government swat teams. Robert De Niro plays the role of an air conditioning repairman who risks his life rappelling down the sides of skyscrapers into apartments ...to fix appliances. My favorite scene is one in which a warehouse full of bureaucrats, creating a deafening sound as they pound away on futuristic looking keyboards, falls silent the second the boss goes back into his office and closes his door.

If Ridley has a nemesis, it would be another British writer (and environmentalist) named George Monbiot. Ridley took a poke at him in the book (along with many other noted and much respected environmentalists). Monbiot retaliated in an article in the Guardian titled: "The Man Who Wants to Northern Rock the Planet."

The two of them have been duking it out in newspapers and in their blogs every since. See "Monbiot's Errors," and "Ridleyed With Errors." Just today I visited Ridley's blog to find an article titled "Monbiotic logic: call for peaceful debate and for people to die." Human nature, she's hard to suppress.

Admittedly, Monbiot can be "pessimistic." Clear back in 2005, before it was fashionable (or even safe) to critique biofuels, he tried to warn the world of their negative ramifications in an article titled "Worse than fossil fuels."

Skim through the following quotes:

This is what makes the ethanol and biofuel boondoggle so enraging. But not even Jonathan Swift would dare to write a satire in which politicians argue that - in a world where species are vanishing and more than a billion people are barely able to afford to eat - it would somehow be good for the planet to clear rainforests to grow palm oil, or give up food - crop land to grow biofuels, solely so that people could burn fuel derived from carbohydrate rather than hydrocarbons in their cars, thus driving up the price of food for the poor. Ludicrous is too weak a word for this heinous crime.

...And every increment in the price of grain that the biofuel industry causes means more pressure on rainforests, the destruction of which is the single most cost-effective way of adding carbon monoxide to the atmosphere.

...If you want to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, replant a forest on former farmland.

...Be in no doubt: the Biofuel industry is not just bad for the economy. It is bad for the planet, too.

...But do not forget the single most important problem with biofuels, the one that makes him so capable of making environmental problems worse - they need land. The sustainable future for nine billion people on one planet is going to come from using as little land as possible for each of people's needs. And if food yields from land continue to increase at the current rate, the current acreage of farmland will - just - feed the world in 2050, so the extra land for growing fuel will have to come from rainforests another wild habitats.

Although I happen to share his "pessimism" in this case, note that these "pessimistic" quotes are not from Monbiot. They are from this book and belong to Ridley. And where does one draw the line between skeptic and pessimist? To see the quotes in context read the section called: "The mad world of biofuels," pages 240 though 243.

After reading the above quotes, and not knowing beforehand who authored them (not to mention they have, for the sake of brevity, been taken out of context), many would assume that the author (Ridley) is an environmentalist--one who is fully capable of expressing his pessimism. Ridley tends to treat the words pessimist and environmentalist as if they are synonyms. By associating them, he is trying to give the word "environmentalist" a negative connotation. The word "atheist" already has a very negative connotation, right up there with "child molester." In an attempt to lose the word that has managed to garner such a bad taste, Dawkins once proposed replacing it with the name "brights." Apparently, Ridley does not see himself as an environmentalist (or pessimist) but he must have a caricature in his head of what an environmentalist/pessimist is because he always finds a way to pin that label on his victims as part of his criticism of them. Some examples:

Another way of putting the same point is to borrow the familiar environmentalist lament that the human race is already, to quote the ecologist E.O.Wilson, 'appropriating between 20 and 40 percent of the solar energy captured in organic material'.

Even if you take E.O. Wilson's wildly pessimistic guess that 27,000 species are dying out every year, that equates to just 2.7 per cent a century (there are thought to be at least ten million species), a long way short of the 50 per cent in sixty years.

Ridley's contradictory self-image reminds me of comedian Dave Chappelle in a skit about the blind black man who is an active and enthusiastic member of a white supremacist organization. Because he can't see, he does not know he is black, and because he always wears the customary head covering at meetings, none of the white members of this organization know he is black. But then one day, the hood gets removed. The skit ends with the black, ah, white supremacist character divorcing his wife ...for having dared to marry a black man. Environmentalism, like skin color (read Outliers) is a matter of degree.

And what exactly is the definition of a pessimist? The opposite of optimist is pessimist but on your way to pessimist you have to pass the realist--ironically, a word that was not used anywhere in this book by my count. After reading this book one might conclude that Ridley's definition of a pessimist is anyone who disagrees with Ridley. Many of the individuals he critiques by name and labels as pessimists have spent much of their adult lives fighting against hunger and/or biodiversity loss. They get a pessimist sticker simply because have a different game plan, and some get the label even if they have a very similar one.

Ridley actually muses at one point about evolution selecting for pessimists (never mind for the moment that human beings cannot be lumped into such a vaguely defined grouping). From page 294:
And it seems that might quite literally be commoner than optimism genes: only about 20 percent of people are homozygous for the long version of the serotonin transporter gene, which possibly endows them with a genetic tendency to look on the bright side.

Picture for a moment two bipedal hominids standing on a savanna. A lion is walking towards them. One is a pessimist. He shrugs his shoulders and awaits the inevitable. The other is an optimist (the one wearing the rose-colored glasses). He's not worried. Things have always worked out before. But, where is the realist? That's him up there, in the top of the nearest tree. Natural selection has, and for good reasons, put the brakes on optimism, or we would all be "optimists" by now (which is a relative term for we are all optimists to varying degrees depending on time and place). In all seriousness, misplaced optimism can and often does prove fatal, figuratively and literally.

From what I see in this book, Ridley also looks an awful lot like a moderate, fiscally conservative, American progressive (a liberal). Maybe that's because he's pulling his punches in this book.

He very much wants to protect what remains of the natural world, and says so several times in the book. This is a major reason he dislikes the organic gardening movement and biofuels (and I could not agree more about his take on biofuels) because they both cause more land to go under the plow.

He acknowledges that some taxes are good (as silly as that sounds), suggesting that one way to limit damage done to nature by the wealthy is a kind of luxury tax incentivizing reinvestment into the market (in theory this might, for example, help to reduce the number of vacation homes on pristine Costa Rican beaches).

He acknowledges that global warming is real (though overblown) and suggests that a tax on carbon that is rebated back to consumers might be a good way to move toward the next generation of power sources.

He acknowledges in several places that overpopulation can be real and damaging to both economies, people, and the environment; does not care for abstinence only programs or top down command and control programs like China's one child policy, and supports women's reproductive rights as the best way to help women pick family size.

He is secular (atheist to be more precise) and bashes the excesses of organized religion repeatedly.

He acknowledges that government plays an essential role in markets; good governance is good, bad governance is bad (as silly as that also sounds).

However, the above (admittedly short and widely dispersed) acknowledgments appear to be lost on many readers. After looking at the reviews on Amazon, I fear this book may be emboldening those who are selectively taking from it ideas that support their own pessimistic "shrink government--except the military arm--until you can drown it in the bathtub" world view.

Let's look at two of the errors I found in the book (out of several).

More than once Ridley optimistically suggests that hydrogen may one day fuel our future. Understand that hydrogen in a pipe or stored in a tank is analogous to electricity in a wire or stored in a battery. Electricity isn't a fuel. It is an energy carrier. An energy source had to be consumed to make it. And that is also true of hydrogen. It does not exist in nature in large enough quantities to be used as a fuel. Like electricity, it has to be produced with an energy source. Like electricity, it is an energy carrier, not an original source of energy. Expect to see him explain this to you in his next book.

On pages 94 through 97 Ridley muses over oxytocin's role in promoting trade between groups of humans.

So oxytocin specifically increases trusting, rather than general risk-taking. As with lovers and mothers, the hormone enables animals to take the risk of approaching other members of the species (page 95).

It is necessary, but not sufficient to explain the human propensity to exchange. On the other hand, it is highly likely that during the past 100,000 years human beings have developed a peculiarly sensitive oxytocin systems, much more ready to fire with sympathy, as a result of natural selection in the trading species. That is to say, just as the genes for digesting milk as an adult have changed in response to an invention of dairying, so the genes for flushing your brain with oxytocin have probably changed in response to population growth, urbanization and trading people have become oxytocin - junkies far more than any other animals (page 97).


From an article in the New York Times dated January 10, 2011:
The love and trust it [oxytocin] promotes are not toward the world in general, just toward a person’s in-group. Oxytocin turns out to be the hormone of the clan, not of universal brotherhood. Psychologists trying to specify its role have now concluded it is the agent of ethnocentrism.

Ridley spends a lot of effort bashing the results of older studies with the results of newer ones (which may eventually be overturned). The shoe is on the other foot this time, or at least until this study's findings get overturned. In today's fast paced world, books tend to be partially obsoleted before they get printed.

Global Warming

Following is Ridley's argument on global warming in a nutshell:

1) The IPCC's predictions for economic growth are, get this, too optimistic. We won't generate nearly as much greenhouse gas as predicted.

2) Because wind and solar use more land than coal, natural gas, and oil, they are not greener than fossil fuels.

3) Because fossil fuels are so bountiful, we can essentially view them as renewable. I might buy this argument if he were talking about the sun, but not fossil fuels.

4) Ignore the potential for tipping points to cause runaway warming because he really does not have a comeback for that.

5) Mix in some references to hydrogen and pebble bed nuclear reactors and there you go.

Next I want to look at his discussion of happiness. See pages 26 through 28 for full context:

Rich people are happier than poor people; rich countries have happier people than poor countries; and people get happier as they get richer.

That is to say, on average, across the board, on the whole, other things being equal, more money does make you happier.

Here he uses a few newer studies to disprove an earlier one that suggested that people don't get much happier after a certain income level. What Ridley seems to be suggesting is that the richer you are, the happier you will be, as ridiculous as that sounds to me. Human beings did not evolve to be in a constant state of happy (whatever exactly that is). The seeking of happiness is what moves genes into the future. Finding the rainbow would end the game. Ridley has missed this point, but it may be in his next book--status and happiness are closely correlated.

Who would guess that some measure of wealth and the freedom to pursue the happiness that it buys might lead to more consistent levels of good hormones and fewer stress hormones? Surely there must be some point of diminishing returns. If happiness does not peak at an income of say, $15,000, then at what income level does it peak? And does it matter how hard or long you have to work to maintain that peak? If you grow rich enough will you eventually transition from a mere being of flesh and blood into one of pure energy, light, and happiness? Is Bill Gates really the second happiest person in the world? I jest.

There are some exceptions. Americans currently show no trend towards increasing happiness. Is this because the rich had got richer but ordinary Americans had not prospered much in recent years? or because America continually draws in poor (unhappy) immigrants, which keep the happiness quotient low? Who knows?

Who knows? Suspiciously missing from this book is any reference to another book called the Status Syndrome by Michael Marmot. If you have a subscription to Netflix I highly recommend the National Geographic documentary called Stress. The film follows a researcher who documents the poor health of low ranking baboons and does a very good job of reflecting what is found in Marmot's book. The author appears in the film. The book itself is very dry reading.

In a nutshell, this study does a statistical analysis of the health of British government bureaucrats, which apparently are housed in a place called White Hall. Each public servant has been given a rigid rank reminiscent of the Indian caste system. A ranking of say, nine, might be equivalent to a rat catcher, or untouchable. What makes this study unique is that it statistically controls for just about everything you can think of, income, exercise, diet, and on and on. The only thing that correlates strongly with poor health is low status. The lower your rank, the worse your health prospects.

This conclusion rankles me as much as it does everyone else who was born low on the totem pole. It doesn't seem fair that we are forced to compete for stature to be happy and healthy, especially against those who were born just inches from the finish line as Ridley was. But life isn't fair. That is something you can hang your hat on.

The hypothesis is that low ranking social primates like baboons (and White Hall bureaucrats) have a hormone balance that is destructive over time to health. They are chronically stressed. My hypothesis, and I am sure I am not the first to hypothesize this, is that hormones are used by evolution to dish out positive and negative incentives to goad us into behavior that moves genes into the future. In our recent hunter-gatherer past, social rank was closely correlated to reproductive success. That isn't true anymore. Rich people have been having fewer babies than poor, but that trend will be hard to hold down. In some circles, rich people are starting to have more babies again, as a status symbol of course, and we all know what trend setters set. Demographers who have predicted a peak world population of 9 billion may once again fail to predict the future.

What to do with these study results? We know from experience in communist countries what happens when a government attempts to suppress social hierarchies. In social animals (wolves, chickens, baboons, people) there is a physical need for a stature hierarchy. We also know that because wealth begets wealth (a person with ten million dollars can wriggle his little finger and make ten thousand dollars) that it tends to start accumulating into fewer and fewer hands. You need a big, healthy middle class to keep a big, healthy economy. Only government can redistribute wealth back into society (as opposed to growing its own bureaucracy) to maintain a, literally, healthier status gradient. Serfdom is not a good thing.

Is happiness just another word for nothing left to lose?

You tell me. The definition of happiness isn't very precise. Essentially, you have to ask people in surveys if they are happy, but because nobody knows exactly what happiness is, well, you can see how survey results may be generating a lot of worthless data. To get more useful results happiness would best be precisely defined and physically measured using a replicable method. This might be done with blood samples (as the primate researcher above did) drawn consistently over long periods of time that correlate with logs, or diaries, or actual video. A plot over time of serotonin, oxytocin, adrenaline and a whole host of other hormone levels would produce a happiness graph. Levels would oscillate up and down over the course of an hour, day, week, month, year. Cigarettes, cocaine, a strong cup of coffee, or a shot of whiskey would cause spikes on the happometer. Your level of happiness could be accurately measured and ranked.

Don't worry. Be happy?

Keep in mind that Ridley's world view, like yours and mine, has been shaped by his environment. From Wikipedia:

He is the son and heir of Viscount Ridley, whose family estate is Blagdon Hall, near Cramlington, Northumberland. Ridley was non-executive chairman of Northern Rock from 2004 to 2007, earning £300,000 ($500,000) a year, having joined the board in 1994. His father had been chairman from 1987 to 1992 and sat on the board for 30 years

In September 2007 Northern Rock became the first British bank since 1878 to suffer a run on its finances at the start of the credit crunch. It was forced to apply to the Bank of England for emergency liquidity funding, following problems caused by the US subprime mortgage crisis. Matt Ridley resigned as chairman in October 2007, having been blamed in parliamentary committee hearings for not recognizing the risks of the bank's financial strategy and thereby "harming the reputation of the British banking industry."


For 99 percent of humanity, getting fired is a disaster. For Ridley it meant he didn't have to stay awake through any more meetings, freeing him to write another book. Ridley wrote this book for many reasons and you can bet that one of them was to enhance his status. Males competing for status is why we have airliners and skyscrapers.

Social status can be a bizarre thing. You can be born into it (Ridley), earn it (Michael Jordan), stumble upon it (lottery winner), or garner it by association (sports fans of a winning team, any degree from a high status school, socializing with someone with higher status). Status seeking does not satiate. After reaching a higher rung you get a new set point and start reaching for the next one. Most economic growth is driven by status seeking, another point Ridley missed but not for long I will wager.

In addition, status is relative. We gravitate subconsciously towards the next level of competition, like basketball and soccer players do. We end up socializing with like-status players.

The polar opposite of happiness is depression, which is what tormented Julian Simon. What evolutionary purpose could depression have? Was the high status he achieved prior to his untimely death from a heart attack the result of his attempts to escape depression? Was his shortened life span the result of decades of depression and feelings of low stature?

Would we have ever heard of Ridley had he been descended from coal miners instead of coal mine owners? With all due respect, not a statistical snowball's chance in hell, ditto for George W. Bush (not to compare the intellectual capacities of the two). Ridley may have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth but Bush was born with a silver bucket over his head. I'm certainly not knocking Darwin but it was his inherited wealth that freed him to contemplate his belly button and earth worms. What finally pushed the theory of evolution to publication was the threat that some nobody named Wallace (who was running around in jungles scratching out a living by sending butterflies and beetles back to collectors in England) would publish the idea first and get all the credit. I suspect that it was only thanks to Darwin's integrity that he got any credit.

Will the internet eventually prove to be the great equalizer? Will it finally give voice to the millions of creative minds out there that we don't hear from because they are too busy earning a living or are drowned out by books chosen for publication based purely on their free market potential for profit? Is there any doubt that a book written by Paris Hilton would be snapped up for publication and have great potential to be a best seller? Ditto for Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and on and on.

Paul Ehrlich

For decades now, bashing Paul and Anne Erhlich has been a favorite pastime of many conservatives, and interestingly enough, many Catholic and Fundamentalist leaders as well because of their "go forth and multiply" mindsets. I was truly disappointed to see Ridley become the ten-thousandth person (admittedly, there is safety in numbers) to join the feeding frenzy after all of these years.

We all know Ehrlich lost a bet to Julian Simon about the price of metals. God knows how many times I have heard this. On the other hand, how many know that he would have won the bet had he simply picked a different date when the price of metals would have won the bet, say in 2008? This is why economics isn't considered a science by many. It has little predictive ability--it can't pick dates either. Ridley denigrates Ehrlich when he says that he "learned his lesson" after that and refused to pick hard and fast dates. Ridley makes no mention of the bet Julian Simon lost to David South when the price of timber continued to rise past Simon's chosen date.

Your financial advisor can tell you the market will crash one day but because he can't tell you when it will crash the usefulness of his advice is greatly diminished.

Below, Ridley--fallen financier and aristocrat celebrity journalist who collects other's thoughts into books--mocks Ehrlich the "butterfly ecologist." He stops well-short of mocking (primarily, I suspect, because he would be alone on the band wagon) an "ant ecologist" by the name of E.O. Wilson, who shares Ehrlich's concerns about population and has written many books on similar topics. You would think that someone like Ridley, who should be eating crow after the failure of his own bank, would know better than to mock a scientist who failed, along with everyone else, to predict an agricultural revolution:

The Population Bomb allowed Paul Ehrlich, and obscure butterfly ecologist, to metamorphose into a guru of the environmental movement complete with MacArthur 'genius' award.


Note the quote marks around the word genius, which are meant to ridicule. Ridley failed to mention that his obscure butterfly ecologist has also won, among many other awards:

1) The Eminent Ecologist Award of the Ecological Society of America , 2001
2) The Distinguished Scientist Award of the American Institute of Biological Sciences , 2001
3) Ramon Margalef Prize in Ecology and Environmental Sciences of the Generalitat of Catalonia, 2009.

In another place in the book, he goes back into the past to find a quote from one of Obama's advisors where he mentions a sterilant. Following is the actual passage that this advisor had partially quoted from the book the Population Bomb (written 43 years ago):

Many of my colleagues think that some form of compulsory birth regulation would be necessary to achieve such control. One plan often mentioned involves the addition of temporary sterilants to water supplies or staple food. Doses of the antidote would be carefully rationed by the government to produce the desired family size. Those of you who are appalled by such a suggestion can rest easy. The option isn't even open to us since no such substance exists.


Ehrlich is not talking about permanent sterilization like vasectomies and tubal ligations. He is talking about a reversible form of contraception, like the birth control pill, which is also a "temporary sterilant." Half of all pregnancies in America are unplanned. Imagine the failure rate in third world countries. Obviously, because one must consistently take a birth control pill to avoid pregnancies, it is not as effective at helping women avoid unplanned pregnancies as it might be. The world could use a better "temporary sterilant" than the pill.

I talk about another form of temporary sterilant in my book. It's called a TIFIC (take it and forget it contraceptive). It would immunize men and women against sperm cells (by deactivating a single enzyme in the tails of sperm) similar to the way immunization shots work against a virus or bacteria. It would be reversible anytime anyone wanted to conceive. The difference would be that you would take a pill to remain fertile instead of the other way around. No government involvement wanted or needed, no accidental pregnancies by anyone using it.

To get a much more accurate picture of what was going on 43 years ago, read this short chapter about overpopulation from Poison Darts.

I'll end here, not because there isn't more to critique but because I have critiqued the book enough. Read it but remain skeptical and never mind Ridley's apparent inability to differentiate between a realist or skeptic and a pessimist.

[Correction 1/30/2011] In my original post I confused Cormac McCarthy, author of The Road with Ian McEwan. This was pointed out to me in a email from a reader. I removed the reference to that book.

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2 comments:

Alain said...

I enjoyed every lines of this long blog. Now get out of your lazy chair, and get it published on Grist.

Jeff Crunk said...

"[.] may end up being his most popular book and if so, it will be due to the relative ignorance of his reading audience. . "

Made me chuckle. Sort of a timeless observation for all sorts of endeavors. To the extent I have success in poker, I credit my opponents abilities, or lack there of, much more than my own.