Four things wrong with the recent claims of David Attenborough

David Attenborough, who has narrated many of the better moments in documentary film, has warned us that Things Will Only Get Worse. Something about such claims always demands attention: the pessimist sounds prescient and wise. Here are four things wrong with his claims.

1. This Malthusian idea that we can’t feed ourselves is as ridiculous now as it has always been, and even more so since we learnt how to fix nitrogen.

I’d love to write about how supply responses to scarcity almost always overshoot, it’s a little close to what I do for a day job* so I’ll restrict myself to these telling facts:

a) there is a global food surplus;

b) when the world population doubled from 3 billion to six billion (~1960-2000) global food production per person actually increased 20%, and food prices dropped;

c) if agricultural yields in the developing world improved to Western levels that itself would feed billions more (and is slowly occurring);

2. Many of the finer things depend on the achievements of the top tier of a large number of participants. This effect is seen in sport, where a handful of a nation’s best invariably perform better than an equivalent number of a smaller country; in the arts, where only a small number of people create really historically significant artwork; and literature, where there are only so many authors that really have an impact, and again larger countries reap the lion’s share. To some extend this happens in science as well, where having hundreds of scientists chasing a solution to an unsolved question of supreme significance will invariably be more effective than tens, even if success and glory only goes to one.

3. Thirdly his claim that we have stopped evolving is remarkably primitive.

Firstly we are changing genetically – and quite fast. As a simple example, the ability to digest milk came about less then ten thousand years ago.

But more importantly evolution is not some abstract 19th century theory, but grounded in molecular science. If he means our DNA has stopped changing for the better, nothing could be further from the truth, and we are increasingly driving that change rather than leaving it to random mutation.

Genetic engineering might be controversial when it comes to (say) height, intelligence and eye colour in newborns, but gene therapy, and the delivery of changes to your DNA through viruses is finally close to realising its promise.

As a recent example, leukaemia has been sent into remission in a handful of nearly hopeless (but lucky) patients by giving them HIV.

Well not quite – what actually happened was the disease segments were knocked out and helpful sequences added. Since HIV works by reprogramming its sufferers’ genetic code, this is a change that we should be grateful we don’t have to wait to evolve naturally.

The entire field of synthetic biology is at the cusp of revolution. It appears that the field is about to transition from cutting edge science to technology accessible by hobbyists, perhaps like computing in the 60s.**

If this sounds unlikely – it has already begun, as even undergraduates and enthusiasts have created novel organisms with useful properties. The annual iGem competition fields teams of undergraduates who develop novel organisms which can, to take recent examples, detect poisonous metals, convert waste to green fuels and a host of other applications from the realm of science fiction.

4. One final mistake is his support of China’s one child policy.

With appropriate analogies to Japan in the 90s, it is more likely we are at the peak, rather than the crescent, of Chinese power. That one child policy will inexorably lead to a harsher version of the demographic decline that made Japan so economically toothless (though still extraordinarily successful by measures of total wealth, medical criteria, technology penetration etc).

Mr Attenborough seems pleased about the ‘millions of mouths unfed’ – for which there certainly would have been food – when he should be lamenting the artists, scientists, writers and the richness of life in all its messiness that is now lost.

It is a pity David Attenborough is not using his voice to argue the other side. He should stick to the silky-accented oratory that has made him so enduringly popular.

*I could give dramatic examples of how that affects investment opportunities in shipping, resources and undersea cables

**for once this analogy seems appropriate


Three Strikes

The past week brought with it a disturbing realisation – the POTUS is much dumber than we thought.  


Putting aside domestic timidities and dismally failing resets, this latest episode has been filled with errors. 


It goes without saying if he was ever going to intervene it should have been done earlier. One year ago he was warned by his advisors that waiting was not an option: it would lead to increased radicalisation of the opposition, as Sunni ‘allies’ fought their proxy civil religious war. Furthermore at the time there was clear momentum in favour of the rebellion. 


Obama chose not to act, and events have played out largely as expected. Strike one. 


At the time I assumed that settled the question and Syria was on her own. But he then went on about a ‘red line’. 


Ambiguity can actually be useful in these situations. It’s generally best not to let your enemies know exactly where your limits are, or they’ll push right up against them, and then probe their boundaries – something paranoid dictators seem to have a sixth sense for. Strike two.


Now worst of all, it turns out Obama didn’t have the courage to back his words with his presidential authority, and has cast the outcome to the clowns and wolves of the Congress, leaving France in a somewhat awkward position. In an attempt to avoid full responsibility he has gambled the remainder of his presidency, and perhaps his legacy. If the Republicans do support him, there will certainly be a price, and it will be paid out of his domestic agenda. Strike Three. 


Obama is right to name Assad responsible for the gruesome attacks. Assad is an authoritarian dictator, and has an iron grip on (the important parts) of his armed forces. He is accountable for what they do. The punditry is wrong to demand proof of a direct order, particularly since this smoking gun is highly unlikely to exist. Using your subordinates to do your dirty work is the oldest trick in the thug play-book, of which Mr Assad is well-versed. 


Ironically this stuffing around has not just thrown the President of France, but the newly elected moderate Prime Minister of Iran, who was perhaps the best chance of peace with that country. If there are attacks, Rouhani will be pressured to respond violently, and if there are none, his country’s extremists will be emboldened by the weakness of the Great Satan. 


There are good reasons why Western democracies leave  swathes of foreign policy to elected leaders, rather than parliaments. There is nothing dignified about watching two parties squabble while minor members demand time in the spotlight, horses are traded and political points scored. 


Putin and Assad have run intellectual rings around their American counterpart. Obama has many talents. Among them, speaking and community organising. But it appears current events are beyond his understanding, and certainly beyond his ability to manipulate for the greater good.