Q&A

Meet TEDGlobal guest host Matt Ridley: A short Q&A

Posted by: Jenny Zurawell

We’re welcoming two guest hosts to TEDGlobal 2011 — Pat Mitchell, from the Paley Center for Media, who hosts Session 8, and Matt Ridley, whose 2010 TEDTalk was memorably titled “When Ideas Have Sex,” and who’ll be hosting Session 5. We asked both hosts a few questions about their plans for their session of TED.

Here’s what TED’s Jenny Zurawell asked Matt Ridley:

The theme of your session is “Emerging Order.” What kinds of order will we hear about, and what message do you hope your speakers thread together over the course of the session?

We have trouble understanding that there are complex systems that can have nobody in charge of them and no central planner or architect. Yet they are all around us: bodies, cells, genomes, ecosystems, even economies. It was the peculiar genius of the Scottish enlightenment — exemplified by David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and later Charles Darwin (an Edinburgh student) — to recognise the existence of these bottom-up systems of emerging order and try to explain how increasing complexity and apparent design can happen without designers.

Each speaker’s work is largely grounded in biology or applying principles from biology to their respective field. Can you tell us a bit about this?

Svante Pääbo is a geneticist who analyses the evolution of genomes of extinct and extant species. Genes are mere sequences of chemicals, yet they achieve an incredible orchestration of ordered complexity without hierarchy or foresight. Mark Pagel is an evolutionary biologist who studies the emergence of languages, systems of ordered complexity that emerge by natural selection. Elizabeth Murchison studies what happens when a selfish rebellion — cancer — emerges in the teeming city of selfless cells that makes up a body. Cynthia Kenyon studies how the body defies decay of ageing and asks how long human bodies can maintain their emergent order. Joe Castillo is an artist who creates order and beauty out of grains of sand. And Karol Boudreaux is an economist who shows how people can come together to solve conservation problems by trial and error without putting somebody in charge.

How are you preparing the speakers in your session? Are you giving them advice from your experience speaking at TEDGlobal last year?

I am telling the speakers, from my experience last year, that they need to be lively, passionate, brief (!) and visual, but they also need to focus on what it is in their work that most excites them. The key thing, I learned, is to leave out extraneous things and get to the core of their idea. I also told them that TED is a great audience and that speaking at TED can open exciting conversations online.

The central idea of your TEDGlobal 2010 talk is when ideas meet and mate, human progress happens. How do you see your session on emerging order as being related to your TEDTalk, “When ideas have sex”?

The incredible complexity of human society, I argued last year, comes about not through people planning it bit by bit, but through ideas meeting, mating, mutating, recombining, replicating and selectively surviving. In other words, society evolves; its order is emergent, not ordained. This year I am thrilled to get a chance to invite some of the people that most excitingly demonstrate how complex systems emerge and evolve. I want TEDsters to realise that nobody is in charge; intelligence is collective; order is emergent; and the future is fascinating.