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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Matt Ridley's latest book Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, co-authored with scientist Alina Chan from Harvard and MIT's Broad Institute, is now available in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
My article for The Daily Mail:
Take a wild guess at how much of the UK’s total primary demand for energy was supplied by wind power in 2020.
Half? 30 per cent? No, in fact, it was less than 4 per cent.
My article for Spectator:
The coronavirus is spreading through Hong Kong, Shenzhen and other cities in China like a bush fire; tens of millions of Chinese have been ordered to stay at home yet again. Shanghai, a city of 26 million souls, has been split in two. Those on the eastern side of the Huangpu River will be locked down until Friday, their west bank neighbours from the start of April.
It won’t work. Like a new Mercedes, the BA.2 model of the omicron variant of the Sars-CoV-2 virus is faster, quieter and 30 per cent more prolific. There is no chance of stopping it with lockdowns, mass testing or social distancing – even in Xi Jinping’s China.
My article for The Sun:
When Lorraine Allanson spoke up in favour of drilling for shale gas in her part of North Yorkshire, activists cut off her internet, called her a “whore” and linked her to a fake crime number. “Shouting, abuse, public defecation, intimidation, hijacking lorries to stop deliveries, blocking the village street, this was the locals’ daily experience,” she wrote in her book My Story.
The wave of noisy protests against shale gas in Lancashire and Yorkshire in recent years looked like a grassroots movement. It was anything but.
My article for The Critic:
When I was ten years old, in 1968, my parents took me and two of my sisters on a safari through Kenya and Tanzania. Having lived there when they first married in the 1950s, they wanted us to see the wildlife before it was all gone. Newly independent Kenya, its population booming, would soon have few lions or elephants left. This was not intended as a political criticism, it was just that there was unlikely to be room for such luxuries in a poor nation striving to feed its expanding population.
The first of the game reserves we visited, the Masai Mara, with its abundant big game and beautiful birds, left an indelible impression on my young mind. It helped turn me into a bird watcher and then a biologist. This winter, 53 years later, I returned to the Mara for the first time. To say that my parents’ pessimism was unjustified is to understate the matter — vastly. The grassy plains either side of the Mara river are as rich as ever in zebra, topi, eland, wildebeest, waterbuck, gazelles, impala, giraffe and buffalo.
The price of gas is through the roof thanks to Vladimir Putin, who has Europe’s energy market by the throat. Britain is on track to spend a staggering £2BILLION on imported liquefied natural gas from Russia this year as war rages in Ukraine.
Household bills will skyrocket even more than they already were — and could hit £3,000 a year. This is what happens when you rely on imported foreign energy. And what makes it more maddening is that we don’t need to do this. We have supplies here.
The Queen has suffered ‘mild, cold-like symptoms’ from her Covid-19 infection, according to Buckingham Palace. The wording reminds us that, except in the very vulnerable, the common cold is always and everywhere a mild disease. There are 200 kinds of virus that cause colds and they hardly ever debilitate healthy people, let alone kill them. Yet we were recently told by the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) that ‘it is a common misconception that “viruses mutate to cause less severe disease”’. If that is the case, how did all common colds become mild — and why would Covid not do the same?
As somebody with a background in evolutionary biology, I knew that Nervtag’s claim (which bizarrely cited myxomatosis, a flea-borne disease of rabbits, to support its argument) was misleading. Surely they were aware that, mostly due to the work of Professor Paul Ewald, the dominant belief in evolutionary theory about disease virulence is that it depends on the mode of transmission? Though sometimes lethal at first, respiratory diseases do evolve to become milder, while sexually transmitted, waterborne or insect-borne diseases (such as myxomatosis) don’t.
My article for Spiked:
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My article for The Telegraph:
Fusion energy is coming. Last week’s announcement of a significant energy yield from the Joint European Torus in Oxfordshire is just a milestone on the path but all the signs are that there’s probably going to be reliable fusion power on tap some time in the next decade thanks to breakthroughs in superconductivity.Also, private money is pouring into fusion, which has forced the public projects to speed up, as it did with genomics. It would be a foolish person who repeated Ernest Rutherford’s clanger of 1933 about nuclear fission: “Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of the atom is talking moonshine.”True, there is every chance we will make a mess of the opportunity by adopting an extreme precautionary approach to regulation. In the case of nuclear (fission) power, we bound it into such a straitjacket of cumbersome rules that we ended up making it a lot more expensive, slightly less safe and incapable of even trying new designs that might bring down the price and drive the safety even higher. Innovation should have rendered both Chernobyl and Fukushima redundant long before they blew up, and Hinkley is going to be grotesquely, needlessly costly. If we make a similar unforced error with fusion, forget it.
But fusion is very different from fission, producing vastly less radioactive material and almost no long-term waste. It cannot melt down or blow up. So regulating it is simpler: treat it like any other industrial facility and set up the regulation to give quick decisions, be flexible and focus on the safe outcome not the process of getting there. If we do that, we might have a great opportunity, because Britain is already a leader in fusion.So it’s worth casting our minds forward to how the world might look if small power stations start making huge quantities of energy from tiny quantities of water (the source of deuterium) and lithium (the source of tritium). We could heat our homes and power our cars with cheap electricity. We could synthesise fuel for planes and rockets. We could speed up productivity through automation. We could desalinate seawater. We could suck carbon dioxide out of the air, achieving net zero painlessly. We could rewild all wind and solar farms. Above all, we could tell the eco-killjoys who preach that our use of energy is not just a problem but a sin to get lost.And therein lies the problem, because they will fight us every step of the way, inventing ludicrous objections to fusion. Remember, for the eco-elite, hair-shirt asceticism is a feature not a bug. Giving ordinary people unlimited energy would horrify these high priests. What they love about climate change is the excuse it gives them to disapprove of people having fun. Imagine the scowl on Greta’s face when we tell her electricity is going to be abundant, cheap, reliable and low-carbon. It’s shooting their fox.Notice too how it would make a mockery of the urgent rush to net zero today. The BBC’s Jon Amos delivered a predictable sermon on this theme this week following the fusion announcement: “Fusion is not a solution to get us to 2050 net zero. This is a solution to power society in the second half of this century.”He’s got it backwards: if fusion does come after 2050, why spend trillions and force people into austerity in the rush to net zero by 2050 instead of say 2070? We are hurrying to shut down coal, gas and nuclear prematurely with no reliable replacement. Looking back that might prove to have been very foolish.
My article for the Telegraph:
The news that Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organisation, is to attend the Winter Olympics in Beijing is baffling on a number of levels. Has he not got a day job to do? There is a pandemic on.
“Sources close to” him say it would be a “political statement to turn down the invitation”, which indicates ludicrous delusions of grandeur: he is a bureaucrat, not a head of state, let alone a “dignitary”.
In August 2007 there was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth virus on a farm in Surrey. It was a few miles from the world’s leading reference laboratory for identifying outbreaks of foot and mouth. Nobody thought this was a coincidence and sure enough a leaking pipe at the laboratory was soon found to be the source: a drainage contractor had worked at the lab and then at the farm.
Inch by painful inch, the truth is being dragged out about how this pandemic started. It is just about understandable, if not forgivable, that Chinese scientists have obfuscated vital information about early cases and their work with similar viruses in Wuhan’s laboratories: they were subject to fierce edicts from a ruthless, totalitarian regime.
It is more shocking to discover in emails released this week that some western scientists were also saying different things in public from what they thought in private. The emails were exchanged over the first weekend of February 2020 between senior virologists on both sides of the Atlantic following a meeting arranged by Sir Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, with America’s two top biologists, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
My wife and I were lucky to escape for a long-delayed birdwatching holiday in Kenya over Christmas. To have been warm, sunlit and free while so many in Britain were not won’t endear me to most readers, I realise. Nairobi was rife with Covid and Christmas cancellations devastated the tourism industry. So we had the extraordinary Elephant Watch Camp run by Saba Douglas-Hamilton in the Samburu National Reserve almost to ourselves. Baboons and vervet monkeys wandered freely through the camp, and in the night the river flash-flooded after a storm in the hills to the west, but the tents were safe. Elephants were everywhere, feasting on fresh vegetation after a long drought. My old friend Chris Thouless, director of research for Save the Elephants, explained that throughout Kenya elephant numbers are up, poaching is down and the biggest problem is increasing conflict with farmers and herders. Ingeniously, they have found you can deter elephants from raiding a maize farm by hanging beehives from wires around the fields. Elephants are scared of the aggressive African honey bee.Francis Lenyakopiro, a Samburu warrior who acted as our guide, proved as knowledgeable about ecology as anybody I have met, but also very talented at singing traditional songs (wearing traditional Samburu dress with a touch of Douglas tartan) round a fire as the sun sank behind the hills. I will not forget his quiet voice, almost a whisper, at a picnic: ‘I don’t want to interrupt your lunch, but we are being watched by a lioness.’At Borana Lodge in the Laikipia highlands, where we watched elephants, rhinos, waterbuck and kudu, as well as a bounty of birds, from the veranda of our bedroom, our guide Lawrence Ngugi shared insights into the lives of animals from the cooperative breeding of wattled starlings to the tendency of black rhinos to get aggressive after eating the steroid-rich bark of the candelabra tree. In a relationship that may be millions of years old, the honeyguide bird leads people — and honey badgers — to wild bees’ nests with a special call. It expects to be rewarded with wax when the nest is smoked out. If you fail to reward the bird, it will lead you to a buffalo next time, which Lawrence thinks is a myth, but is not sure it is worth the risk of finding out.The names of African birds may soon be decolonised. Verreaux’s eagle, a huge black predator that swept past as we picnicked one day in a gorge, was named by and for an enthusiastic 19th-century French taxidermist who, together with his brother, attended the funeral of a tribal warrior in what is now Botswana in 1831, then secretly disinterred the body and stuffed him as a museum exhibit in Paris. The poor bloke’s body was repatriated from Barcelona in 2000 and cremated in Gaborone.Borana Conservancy is a private venture, started by the Dyer family and backed by philanthropists, that turned a huge cattle ranch into a wildlife reserve, teeming with elephant, rhino and antelopes galore, and supporting local communities. On Christmas morning, about 60 of us gathered on Pride Rock, the gravity-defying ledge copied by Disney for The Lion King, to sing Christmas carols, watched by a giraffe and three bemused buffalo. A white-backed vulture showed up during ‘Silent Night’, presumably hoping the rock would topple under our combined weight.
People recreate the African savanna at every opportunity. In Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a character points out that there’s nothing natural about English parkland: it’s ‘Capability Brown doing Claude who was doing Virgil’. But as the ecologist Gordon Orians argues they were all doing the Africa savanna, a preference for which lies deep inside our psyches. Looking out over Borana’s gentle, grassy hills with spreading trees, distant water and herds of impala, I might be in a London park. Except for the lion roars at night on Christmas Eve.What is natural? When white people first came here in the late 19th century they found a land almost empty of people but full of game (except elephants, which had been wiped out by Arab ivory traders). We now know this was because smallpox had devastated the people, and rinderpest the cattle.Chris Thouless told me that it was nearby that the talented artist-scientist Jonathan Kingdon discovered a bizarre fact. A stripy animal called the crested rat was known to be poisonous to dogs if caught. Kingdon worked out that the rat chewed on the bark of the same tree the Waliangulu used to make poison arrows, then spat into a fold in its fur.One of Kenya’s biggest exports is cut flowers, its biggest market is Russia and the busiest week is leading up to Valentine’s Day. The pandemic needs to end by then.
This morning, Viral co-author Alina Chan and I testified before Parliament—specifically, the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons—on the search for the origin of COVID-19.
It's available to watch (and share) on YouTube, and we have shared clips on Facebook and Twitter.
According to Taiwan News, and since picked up by Western media, a (recent) SARS-Cov-2 lab leak has been confirmed in (the Republic of) China.
SARS-Cov-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19.
Alina shared the story with us before English-speaking media appeared to have picked up on it.
Thanks to your help, my new book Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, co-authored with MIT scientist Alina Chan, is picking up a lot of steam in America.
As I have mentioned before, I co-authored Viral—which tells the fascinating and heroic story of those searching for the origin of the pandemic, despite the challenges brought by those who don't want us to know—simply because I think finding that origin is the most important issue facing the world right now. And for that reason, Alina and I have been asking for your help making the book a success.
So far, your help has been wonderfully effective.
The one thing that cheered us Northumbrians up as we waited for power to come back on after Storm Arwen (some wit points out that naming these daughters of Boreas only seems to encourage them) was to grumble: “if this was in the Home Counties we would never hear the end of it”. But it is not funny that thousands of homes are still waiting for reconnection, some with elderly occupants.
I can vouch that five days of living in the cold and dark when the nights are more than twice as long as the days does not half remind you of the value of reliable electricity, diesel cars (how else do you charge a phone?) and gas stoves to cook on – all three of which are about to be banned by the eco-commissars.
Here we go again, fighting the last war. Because governments are perceived to have moved too slowly to ban flights when the delta variant arose in India, we jumped into action this time, punishing the poor South Africans for their molecular vigilance. But nothing was going to stop the delta going global, and the latest set of government measures to stop the spread of the new omicron variant are about as likely to succeed as the Maginot line was to stop General Guderian’s tanks. The cat is already out of the bag. Just because we can take action does not make it the right thing to do.
This pandemic has mocked public-health experts. They told us to wash our hands and then realised it was spreading through the air. They told us masks were useless and then made them mandatory. They sent Covid cases to ordinary hospitals where they infected patients.
If you don't subscribe to the new newsletter or follow me on Facebook and Twitter, you may not have heard: My new book Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, co-authored with the young and brilliant scientist Alina Chan, published this day last week and is now available to purchase.
Less than a week before that, Alina and I met in person for the first time, which you can watch on my YouTube channel.
We explore both natural spillover and lab leak possibilities in depth—and share which we determined, over the course of writing it, to be more likely.It was a challenging, frustrating, intriguing journey.
It is almost exactly two years since the pandemic began. According to an official document seen by the South China Morning Post, the first retrospectively diagnosed case of Covid in Wuhan was on November 17 2019, while genetic analysis points to a similar date, November 18. (The so-called “patient zero” discussed in the media this week has been known about for months and is very unlikely to be the first case even according to the World Health Organisation.)
In the case of Sars, 19 years ago, and Mers, nine years ago, the first known cases were followed within a couple of months by unambiguous clues as to how the virus jumped from an animal source into people. Both viruses live naturally in bats, which had somehow infected intermediate animal hosts such as palm civets and camels before transmitting into people.
My article for Spectator:Two years in, there is no doubt the Covid pandemic began in the Chinese city of Wuhan. But there is also little doubt that the bat carrying the progenitor of the virus lived somewhere else.
Central to the mystery of Covid’s origin is how a virus normally found in horseshoe bats in caves in the far south of China or south-east Asia turned up in a city a thousand miles north. New evidence suggests that part of the answer might lie in Laos.
My blog for the Radix think tank:
I was pleased to speak at the recent Radix Big Tent Meet the Leaders session about innovation, a topic that is close to my heart and one of great importance.
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China’s President Xi Jinping has apparently not yet decided whether to travel to Glasgow next month for the big climate conference known as COP26. That is no doubt partly because he’s heard about the weather in Glasgow in November, and partly because he knows the whole thing will be a waste of his time. After all, the fact that it is the 26th such meeting and none of the previous 25 solved the problem they set out to solve suggests the odds are that the event will be the flop on the Clyde.
But another reason he is hesitating was stated pretty explicitly by his Foreign Minister, Wang Yi: ‘Climate cooperation cannot be separated from the general environment of China-US relations.’ Roughly translated, this reads: we will go along with your climate posturing if you stop talking about the possibility that Covid-19 started in a Wuhan laboratory, about our lack of cooperation investigating that origin, or about what we are doing to Hong Kong or the Uighur people.
My article, for The Telegraph:
The Government wants to unleash innovation. If it were to be presented with a magic wand that could by 2040 feed millions more people, avoid tens of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and improve biodiversity on hundreds of thousands of hectares, while benefiting the economy and reducing the footprint of farming, it would surely grab it.
Had it not been so exceptionally calm in the run up to this autumn equinox, one could call the energy crisis a perfect storm. Wind farms stand idle for days on end, a fire interrupts a vital cable from France, a combination of post-Covid economic recovery and Russia tightening supply means the gas price has shot through the roof – and so the market price of both home heating and electricity is rocketing.
But the root of the crisis lies in the monomaniacal way in which this government and its recent predecessors have pursued decarbonisation at the expense of other priorities including reliability and affordability of energy.
With a laboratory leak in Wuhan looking more and more likely as the source of the pandemic, the Chinese authorities are not the only ones dismayed. Western environmentalists had been hoping to turn the pandemic into a fable about humankind’s brutal rape of Gaia. Even if ‘wet’ wildlife markets and smuggled pangolins were exonerated in this case, they argued, and the outbreak came from some direct contact with bats, the moral lesson was ecological. Deforestation and climate change had left infected bats stressed and with nowhere to go but towns. Or it had driven desperate people into bat-infested caves in search of food or profit.
Green grandees were in no doubt of this moral lesson. ‘Nature is sending us a message. We have pushed nature into a corner, encroached on ecosystems,’ said Inger Andersen, head of the United Nations Environment Programme. The pandemic was ‘a reminder of the intimate and delicate relationship between people and planet,’ said the director-general of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. ‘God always forgives, we forgive sometimes, but nature never forgives,’ added Pope Francis, enigmatically. ‘Climate change is a threat multiplier for pandemic diseases, and zoonotic diseases,’ said John Kerry. Covid-19 was ‘the product of an imbalance in man’s relationship with the natural world,’ said Boris Johnson. ‘Mother Nature… gave us fire and floods, she tried to warn us but in the end she took back control,’ tweeted Sarah, Duchess of York.
My article for Telegraph:
In a key milestone on the road to harnessing fusion power, Lawrence Livermore laboratory announced this week that it had extracted energy from an object the size of a lemon pip at the rate of 10 quadrillion watts (joules per second), albeit for only 100 trillionths of a second. That’s roughly 500 times faster than the entire human population consumes energy.
The experiment is a reminder that the energy density achieved when atoms merge is vastly greater than anything in a lump of coal, let alone a puff of wind. It is also far bigger than can be achieved by nuclear fission and much safer too: no risk of meltdown and with much less high-level radioactive waste.
My article for The Critic:Near Fukushima, ten years after the nuclear accident that followed the tsunami, wild boar have colonised the suburbs. Near Chernobyl, bison and wolves wander abandoned streets. There is no doubt that if humans vanished, indigenous wildlife would return in abundance, minus the mammoths and sabre-tooths that our ancestors extinguished.
Rewilding is all the rage, and it is coming soon to a hillside near you. But what form should it take and how should it be done? In practice, rewilding began quite a long time ago. A recent study found that, contrary to what most people believe, the world now has more trees than 35 years ago and much of the regrowth is natural regeneration: Europe alone has gained an area of tree cover greater than France.
New England was once wall-to-wall fields; now it is a deer-filled forest pockmarked with cities and freeways. Wolves and beavers are spreading in Europe; cougars and bears in North America. There are 80,000 humpback whales today: there were 5,000 in the 1960s. Where I used to fish in the river Tyne as a boy, otters, buzzards and salmon were vanishingly rare; now they are common.
My article for the Times:
Like a lobster in boiling water, a parliamentary bill on animal sentience is being tortured in the House of Lords. The problem is political rather than ethical. Nobody objects to some animals being declared sentient, but the government seems to be saying to one audience that the bill is a dramatic change that will do more to prevent suffering, while to another audience it insists that the bill is an empty gesture that will change nothing.
The real reason for the bill goes back to 2017. Some alert activist who did not like Brexit spotted that in leaving the European Union we would lose the passing reference in Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty that animals are sentient. This was quickly weaponised in a letter-writing campaign to MPs. But there were two problems with the argument.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, the head of the Wellcome Trust, writes that ‘the last year has been an eye-opener for me. I thought, probably like most people, that the world works through official or formal channels, but much of it operates through private phone calls or messaging apps’. Hence his book, written with the journalist Anjana Ahuja, is a gossipy, sometimes angry, fast-paced tale, which quotes frequently from his own messages sent to other important people. No holds are barred or formal channels kept to.It is therefore a fascinating and valuable account from somebody who was close to the action, as a member of the famous Sage, and one who played a key role in several important initiatives, including, for example, kicking off the successful Recovery trial of anti-Covid treatments after a chance meeting on a bus. Many of his observations are acute, and some of his suggestions are well made, not least his passionate call for Britain to set an example by sending vaccines to the rest of the world rather than vaccinating the relatively invulnerable young.Farrar is full of praise for some people, such as fellow Sage members and Dominic Cummings, and full of contempt for others, including Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and any lockdown sceptic. He may or may not be right, but after a while the reader begins to feel a little uneasy at a certain double standard. ‘Intermittent lockdowns’ are the answer in chapter 5, but reopening after the first lockdown is a disastrous mistake in chapter 6. Johnson is criticised for not paying attention to the crisis in February 2020 a few pages after Farrar describes his own skiing holiday in... February.
My article for the Telegraph:On Twitter this week an unfortunate hiker showed a short video of the midges swarming in their tens of thousands over his backpack and his arms in the Scottish Highlands. It was itchy just to watch. It would be silly to argue that his video is evidence that insects are increasing in number. Yet the evidence for a dramatic decline in insect numbers, an “insect apocalypse”, which activists and journalists have been proclaiming recently, is about as weak as such a claim would be.
A film called Insect O Cide is coming out soon. Its ludicrous central theme is that “human beings are on the verge of extinction due to the rapid decline in the insect populations”. “The Insect Apocalypse is here”, said the New York Times in 2018. “Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature’” said the Guardian in 2019. The source for this claim was a paper published in the journal Biological Conservation by two Australian scientists that claimed to reveal “dramatic rates of decline that may lead to the extinction of 40 per cent of the world’s insect species over the next few decades”.
This was junk science of the worst kind. As three other scientists then pointed out, “there is so much wrong with the paper, it really shouldn’t have been published in its current form: the biased search method, the cherry-picked studies, the absence of any real quantitative data to back up the bizarre 40 per cent extinction rate that appears in the abstract … and the errors in the reference list.” Of the studies cited by the apocalypse paper, the three said, “we were really surprised to discover how many of them we had to discard, because they contained no data”.
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