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.
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My Times column on the EU's idiotic attack on vaping:
When regulation goes wrong, people call for more regulation. Sometimes, though, regulation is the cause of the original problem. It is steadily becoming clear that the way the European Union does regulation is especially pernicious. It stifles innovation, often favours danger over safety, plays into the hands of vested interests and is inflexible and unaccountable. Volkswagen’s case is the tip of the iceberg.
In a shocking new case about dangerous emissions coming to court this week, the European Commission has passed regulations that are certain — not likely, certain — to hit the cleanest and lowest-emitting products much harder than their dirty competitors. I am not talking about diesel versus (cleaner) petrol engines, though I could be. Nor am I talking about pesticides versus (cleaner) genetically modified crops. Nor wood-burning versus (cleaner) fracking. I am talking about smoking versus (cleaner) vaping.
My Times column on the possibility that old age might itself be cured now we understand telomeres:
Squeezed between falling birth rates and better healthcare, the world population is getting rapidly older. Learning how to deal with that is one of the great challenges of this century. The World Health Organisation has just produced a report on the implications of an ageing population, which — inadvertently — reveals a dismal fatalism we share about the illnesses of old age: that they will always be inevitable.
My Times column on Britain's renegotiation with the European Union:
So the battle lines are drawn. “Vote Leave, Take Control” (of which I am a vice-president) is the campaign to leave the European Union if the renegotiation is inadequate. It launched last week and “Britain in a Stronger Europe”, the campaign to remain, launches today. Yet one argument increasingly unites both sides: the futility of the renegotiation. At both ends of the spectrum many people are now convinced that little will be asked for, or offered, or won.
My Times column on farm yields and the prospects for feeding the world in future:
This week’s autumn equinox is traditionally the time for the harvest festival. I have just taken a ride on the combine harvester cutting wheat on my farm. It is such a sophisticated threshing machine that long gone are the days when I could be trusted to take the controls during the lunch break. A screen showed how the GPS was steering it, inch-perfect and hands-free, along the edge of the unharvested crop; another screen gave an instant readout of the yield. It was averaging over five tonnes per acre (or 12 tonnes per hectare) — a record.
My Times column on Nicole Kidman's performance as Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51:
It’s not been a good fortnight for actresses and scientific accuracy. Last week Emma Thompson told the BBC that the world will warm by 4C by 2030 — about 3.5C too high, according to the experts. This week Nicole Kidman, whose performance as the DNA scientist Rosalind Franklin in Anna Ziegler’s play Photograph 51 begins its run on Monday, said she hopes to “put the spotlight” on the “inequality” of Franklin not getting the Nobel prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA. “She was not nominated. That’s not right.”
This is a pernicious myth, no less wrong for being well meant. Franklin was not nominated for the Nobel prize in 1962 because she was dead. The rules of the prizes are clear: they are only granted to the living. Had she lived it is highly likely she would have been nominated. Given that the discovery of the double helix in February 1953 was one of the greatest moments in science — up there with gravity, relativity and natural selection — it is crucial we do not let actresses rewrite the history.
My Times column is on the risks of genetic research and therapy:
Fifteen years after the first sequencing of the human genome, the genetic engineering of human beings is getting closer. Will that mean designer babies and the rich winning life’s lotteries from the start? And will we ever stop this slither down the slippery slope to playing God? My answers are: no, and I hope not. Despite dire predictions, almost nothing but good has come from genetic technology so far, and we’ve proved that we don’t slip down such slopes: we tread carefully.
The current excitement is over gene editing. A precise way of doing this, called CRISPR-cas9, is all the rage among the white-coated pipette-users. Last week, Britain’s five leading medical research bodies (one of which, I should declare, counts me as a fellow, the Academy of Medical Sciences) issued a joint statement supporting the careful use of the new technique on human cells for research and possibly therapy. They even recognised that there might one day be a justifiable demand to use the new technique on embryos in such a way that the changes would be inherited.
My Times column on African demography and the migration crisis:
Even the most compassionate of European liberals must wonder at times whether this year’s migration crisis is just the beginning of a 21st- century surge of poor people that will overwhelm the rich countries of our continent. With African populations growing fastest, are we glimpsing a future in which the scenes we saw on the Macedonian border, or on Kos or in the seas around Sicily last week will seem tame?
I don’t think so. The current migration crisis is being driven by war and oppression, not demography. Almost two thirds of the migrants reaching Europe by boat this year are from three small countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. These are not even densely populated countries: their combined populations come to less than England’s, let alone Britain’s, and none of them is in the top 20 for population growth rates.
My Times column on charities:
David Cameron, luxuriating in the prospect of weak opposition, has a chance to think about radical reform of both the private and public sectors. But there is a third sector that requires his attention even more urgently. He is well known to want to harness the generosity of Britain. To do that effectively the charity sector needs some big thinking — because after decades of regulatory neglect it is starting to unravel and is in crisis.
The collapse of Kids Company and the British Association for Adoption and Fostering should ring alarm bells throughout the sector: fear of failure or takeover is one of the things that keep private companies effective and, for too long, charities have not felt that breath on their neck. They have been given the benefit of the doubt because of their noble intent.
My Times Thunderer article on vaping:
The government now says vaping with e-cigarettes is such a good thing that we should be prescribing it and smokers should be rushing to take it up. It’s 95 per cent less harmful than smoking, it’s helping people to quit tobacco and there’s no evidence it’s a gateway into smoking: rather the reverse.
My Wall Street Journal column on how green scares have led to counterproductive actions:
‘We’ve heard these same stale arguments before,” said President Obama in his speech on climate change last week, referring to those who worry that the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon-reduction plan may do more harm than good. The trouble is, we’ve heard his stale argument before, too: that we’re doomed if we don’t do what the environmental pressure groups tell us, and saved if we do. And it has frequently turned out to be really bad advice.
Making dire predictions is what environmental groups do for a living, and it’s a competitive market, so they exaggerate. Virtually every environmental threat of the past few decades has been greatly exaggerated at some point. Pesticides were not causing a cancer epidemic, as Rachel Carson claimed in her 1962 book “Silent Spring”; acid rain was not devastating German forests, as the Green Party in that country said in the 1980s; the ozone hole was not making rabbits and salmon blind, as Al Gore warned in the 1990s. Yet taking precautionary action against pesticides, acid rain and ozone thinning proved manageable, so maybe not much harm was done.
My Times column on the paradox that planets seem to be abundant, but signs of life are rare:
The search for another world that can sustain life is getting warmer. We now know of 1,879 planets outside the solar system. A few weeks ago, we (the planetary we, that is: no thanks to me) found Earth’s twin, a planet of similar size and a habitable distance from its sun, but 1,400 light years from here. Last week we found a rocky planet close to a star just 21 light years away, which means if anybody lives there and tunes in to us, they could be watching the first episode of Friends.
Also last week the Philae lander’s results showed that the comet it is riding on has organic (carbon-based) molecules in its dust, the ingredients of life. Even in our own solar system we know of a moon, Titan, where it rains methane, and another, Europa, with an ice-covered ocean. In short, it is getting ever more likely that there are lots of bodies like Earth in our own galaxy alone: with liquid water and the right sort of temperatures for the carbon chemistry of the kind that life runs on here.
My Times column on the coming summit on climate policy in Paris:
The first council of Nicea, held 1,690 years ago this summer, decided upon a consensus about the nature of God, namely that the son had been “begotten not made, being of one substance with the father”, as Athanasius argued, and not created out of nothing, as Arius argued. Phew. Glad they settled that.
My Times column on the economy of Iceland:
I spent part of last week in Iceland, the antithesis of Greece. It’s been a hard winter and a cold spring up there, but despite the stiff northerly breeze off the Arctic ocean, economically speaking Iceland is basking in real warmth, while Greece shivers in financial winter. Iceland teaches a very acute lesson for Greece, Britain, Europe and the world: independence works.
My recent Times column on tax simplification:
Can we try tax simplification, please?
In June I published a lengthy essay in Quadrant magazine on the effect that the global warming debate is having on science itself:
For much of my life I have been a science writer. That means I eavesdrop on what’s going on in laboratories so I can tell interesting stories. It’s analogous to the way art critics write about art, but with a difference: we “science critics” rarely criticise. If we think a scientific paper is dumb, we just ignore it. There’s too much good stuff coming out of science to waste time knocking the bad stuff.
My Times column on Britain's opportunity to be the world's doctor:
If the 19th century saw extraordinary changes in transport, and the 20th saw amazing changes in communication, my money is on health as the transformative industry of the current century. It is already arguably the biggest industry in the world and it is growing at a phenomenal rate, especially in Asia, where India and China are expanding their health sectors at 15 per cent and 12 per cent a year respectively. And health is ripe for a series of revolutionary advances in biotechnology, digital technology, robotics and materials.
My Times Thunderer article on the pope's encyclical:
Why are people so down on technological progress? Pope Francis complains in his new encyclical about “a blind confidence in technical solutions”, of “irrational confidence in progress” and the drawbacks of the “technocratic paradigm”. He is reflecting a popular view, held across the political spectrum, from the Unabomber to Russell Brand, that technology, consumerism and progress have been bad for people, by making them more selfish and unhappy.
But however thoroughly you search the papal encyclical (a document that does at least pay heed to science, and to evolutionary biology in particular), you will find no data to support the claim that as people have got richer they have got nastier and more miserable. That is because the data points the other way. The past five decades have seen people becoming on average wealthier, healthier, happier, better fed, cleverer, kinder, more peaceful and more equal.
My Times column on the causes of extinction:
Human beings have been causing other species to go extinct at an unnatural rate over the past five centuries, a new study has confirmed. Whether this constitutes a “sixth mass extinction” comparable to that of the dinosaurs is more debatable, but bringing the surge in extinctions to an end is indeed an urgent priority in conservation.
So it is vital to understand how we cause extinctions. And here the study is dangerously wrong. It says that “habitat loss, overexploitation for economic gain, and climate change” are the main factors and that “all of these are related to human population size and growth, which increases consumption (especially among the rich)”.
My Spectator article on meeting the man who invented vaping, Hon Lik.
Few people have heard of Hon Lik, which is a pity because he’s probably saved more lives already than anybody else I have met. Twelve years ago, he invented vaping — the idea of getting nicotine vapour from an electronic device rather than a miniature bonfire between your lips. Vaping is driving smoking out at an extraordinary rate, promising to achieve what decades of public health measures have largely failed to do. And it is doing so without official encouragement, indeed with some official resistance.
My Times column on the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo:
In Waterloo week, I confess I am a sucker for tales of military glory. I cannot get enough of the closing of the doors of Hougoumont, the charge of the Scots Greys, Wellington’s use of the reverse slope, the moment when Ney’s Old Guard broke, or the disappearance of Lord Uxbridge’s leg. Not just Waterloo, but derring-do in general is often by my bedside: I’ve just finished reading books on climbing K2 and the Battle of the Bulge; I am up to speed on seracs and panzers.
My Times column on eco-modernism:
In the unlikely event that the G7 heads of state are reading The Times at breakfast in Schloss Elmau in Bavaria, may I make a humble suggestion? On their agenda, alongside Ukraine, Greece, ebola and Fifa, is Angela Merkel’s insistence that they discuss “sustainability”. The word is usually shorthand for subsidising things that are not commercially sustainable, but if they want to make it meaningful, they have a ready-made communiqué to hand. It comes in the form of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, a short but brilliant essay published online recently by 18 prominent greens. It gets sustainability right at last.
My recent Spectator diary:
Martin Williams, former head of the government’s air quality science unit, has declared that the reason we have a problem with air pollution now is that ‘policy has been focused on climate change, and reducing CO2 emissions, to the exclusion of much else, for most of the past two decades. Diesel was seen as a good thing because it produces less CO2, so we gave people incentives to buy diesel cars.’ Yet another example of how the global warming obsession has been bad for the environment — like subsidising biofuels, which encourage cutting down rainforests; or windfarms, which kill eagles and spoil landscapes; or denying coal-fired electricity to Africa, where millions die each year from the effects of cooking over smoky wood fires.
Greens are too hard on coal. If much of the world had not switched from wood to coal in the 1800s, we would have deforested the planet almost entirely. By 1860, Britain was getting as much energy from coal as a forest the size of Scotland could yield; today, we’d need a forest the size of South Africa. And coal produces less carbon dioxide than wood per unit of energy. I would say this, wouldn’t I? My ancestors were in coal from about 1700 and I still am, hosting a temporary surface mine on my land. It provides good jobs, lots of tax, a community benefits fund and an income windfall for local residents as well as me. Plus opportunities for spectacular restoration schemes, like Northumberlandia (look it up). It also helps keep electricity affordable.
My Times column on unaccountable chairmen of international agencies:
The Fifa fiasco is not just about football. It is also emblematic of a chronic problem with international bureaucracies of all kinds. The tendency of supranational quangos to become the personal fiefdoms of their presidents or directors-general, and to sink into lethargy or corruption, followed by brazen defiance when challenged, is not unique to Fifa or sport. It is an all too common pattern.
My Times column on the U-turn over cholesterol and saturated fat:
If you are reading this before breakfast, please consider having an egg. Any day now, the US government will officially accept the advice to drop cholesterol from its list of “nutrients of concern” altogether. It wants also to “de-emphasise” saturated fat, given “the lack of evidence connecting it with cardiovascular disease”.
My Times column on the flawed fossil-fuel divestment campaign:
Institutions and pension funds are under pressure to dump their investments in fossil-fuel companies. The divestment movement began in America, jumped the Atlantic and has become the cause célèbre of the retiring editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger. The idea is that if we do not “leave it in the ground”, the burning of all that carbon will fry the climate.
Some are resisting: the Wellcome Trust has politely declined to divest, saying it thinks it is better to keep the shares so it can lean on company executives to decarbonise; the University of Edinburgh unexpectedly voted last week not to divest, using a similar argument; and Boris Johnson has just rejected a motion by the London Assembly to divest its pension funds of fossil-fuel shares. The Church of England has cunningly confined its divestment to “thermal coal” and Canadian oil sands companies, getting good publicity but not having to sell many shares.
My review in The Times of Dieter Helm's book Natural Capital:
The easiest way to get a round of applause at a conference of ecologists is to make a rude joke about economists. Nature-studiers think money-studiers are heartless vandals who demand the rape of Mother Nature in the quest to build up piles of financial assets at the expense of natural ones. Dieter Helm, an Oxford professor, is a professional economist but he is bravely crossing the floor into ecology and wants to show how to build up “natural capital”.
Extreme greens — those who advocate giving up civilisation and handing the planet back to nature — will not like it. Not a man to pull his punches, Helm thinks economic growth is a good thing for poor people, that the followers of Malthus have “never appreciated the full impact of technology on resource scarcity” and that “a sort of totalitarianism lurks uncomfortably and implicitly in some of the manifestos of more extreme green groups”.
My Times column on bee declines and neonicotinoid pesticides:
So those beastly farmers want the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides lifted to help them to poison more bees, eh? Britain’s honeybees are supposedly declining and so are our 25 species of bumblebee and 230 species of solitary bee. “Almost all are in decline,” laments one of the green blob’s tame journalists, echoing thousands of other articles.
But it’s bunk. There is no continuing decline in honeybee or wild bee numbers. There was in the 1980s when the varroa mite hit bee hives. But not today. Honeybee numbers are higher today than they were in the 1990s when neo-nics began to be widely used. This is true in Europe, North America and the world. There are about ten million more beehives in the world today than there were in 2000.
My Times column on reform as a political theme:
If there is political paralysis on Friday, as seems likely, and given how many of their powers national politicians have anyway passed to bodies like the Bank of England and the European Commission, perhaps we can look forward to a spell of legislative calm. That might be no bad thing. But there is one thing even a weak minority government can and should do: reform.
The great political battles that shaped the history of parliament, especially in the 19th century, were all about reform. Prison reform, social reform, moral reform, civil service reform, reform of the corn laws, above all parliamentary reform. The very purpose of the old Liberal party, meeting in the Reform Club, was reform.
My Times column on a perverse outcome of the election:
In one respect last week’s election result has made David Cameron’s life more difficult. While gaining seats in the Commons from the Liberal Democrats, he has effectively lost them in the Lords. That is to say, the 101 Lib Dem peers will presumably all cross the aisle from the government benches to the opposition benches when the Lords next meet.
My Saturday essay in the Wall Street Journal:
Imagine what it must have been like to look through the first telescopes or the first microscopes, or to see the bottom of the sea as clearly as if the water were gin. This is how students of human prehistory are starting to feel, thanks to a new ability to study ancient DNA extracted from bodies and bones in archaeological sites.
Low-cost, high-throughput DNA sequencing—a technique in which millions of DNA base-pairs are automatically read in parallel—appeared on the scene less than a decade ago. It has already transformed our ability to see just how the genes of human beings, their domestic animals and their diseases have changed over thousands or tens of thousands of years.
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