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

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