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 Spiked:
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.
My article for the Telegraph:
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.
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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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.
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.
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”.
My article for the Telegraph:Back in the early 1950s scientists were baffled by one aspect of life itself. Our cells were full of proteins whose properties depended on their precise shapes, and the key feature of life was the ability to copy itself, but how on earth do you copy three-dimensional shapes? The unexpected answer was that you don’t: you copy a one-dimensional, linear sequence in a recipe book called DNA, which automatically determines how each protein folds into its shape.
Surprisingly, until last week, working out how this folding worked was beyond even big computers: tiny shifts in angles could result in wildly different shapes, and forecasting what shape would result from what sequence was as hard as predicting the weather. Now, thanks to the brilliant London AI firm DeepMind (which sold itself to Google a few years back), a learning algorithm has cracked the problem and has predicted hundreds of thousands of shapes from sequences. It did so as an encore after defeating the world champion at the fiendishly complicated game of Go: in neither case was it taught by experts but learned from examples.
Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel prize for figuring out the structure of the ribosome (the machine that translates DNA into proteins), told me last week that he thinks the DeepMind breakthrough is huge: “we probably have not yet grasped its impact and all the ways it will change the way we do biology.”
My interview with Tunku Varadarajan in the Wall Street Journal:
“Science” has become a political catchword. “I believe in science,” Joe Biden tweeted six days before he was elected president. “Donald Trump doesn’t. It’s that simple, folks.”
But what does it mean to believe in science? The British science writer Matt Ridley draws a pointed distinction between “science as a philosophy” and “science as an institution.” The former grows out of the Enlightenment, which Mr. Ridley defines as “the primacy of rational and objective reasoning.” The latter, like all human institutions, is erratic, prone to falling well short of its stated principles. Mr. Ridley says the Covid pandemic has “thrown into sharp relief the disconnect between science as a philosophy and science as an institution.”
From the "Lords Diary" feature at PoliticsHome:I wandered the ghostly corridors of Westminster hoping to spot a few colleagues and got lost in a one-way system. This hybrid Parliament seems to have made the government’s job more time-consuming, as we all drone on from home, but less challenging, as the cut-and-thrust of debate atrophies: the worst of both worlds.On the day I came to London I had finished writing a new book: always a moment of relief mixed with anxiety about whether it could be better. This time it was especially difficult to sign off the last edits because the topic is a moving target – the origin of the virus that caused the pandemic. New information keeps breaking.Also for the first time I am co-authoring, with Alina Chan, a brilliant young scientist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. I was warned that co-authors often fall out, and we have never actually met in person, but we only really disagreed over one word. I refuse ever to use the word “blueprint” as a metaphor for a genome. It’s inaccurate, because it implies that each bit of a genome maps onto each bit of a creature’s body; and it’s unfamiliar. Who even knows what a blueprint is these days? I prefer “recipe”.As I argued in the Lords the next day, whether the virus jumped species in a wildlife market or a laboratory is an urgent question requiring a full and independent investigation – because, if we don’t find the answer, we risk a repeat. Both kinds of jump have happened in the past, and viruses of precisely this kind were being collected, brought uniquely to Wuhan (more than 1,000 miles away) and experimented on by scientists, so it was wrong of some scientists and the World Health Organization to try to dismiss the possibility of a lab leak prematurely.A laboratory accident is by definition not a “conspiracy theory” and science needs to demonstrate it can investigate itself or its enemies will do so instead. Fortunately, the mood has changed in the last two months, partly sparked by an open letter in the journal Science, calling for a full investigation, signed by 18 scientists and initiated by my co-author.Later I supported Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville’s amendment to the environment bill on the topic of fly tipping. About once a week a new load of rubbish appears overnight in one of the gateways on my farm. Cameras in favoured spots would help, but you have to put up signs saying they are there. My other bugbear is birthday balloons. They are the only form of litter on remote moorland in the Pennines. We should insist that each one carries a manufacturer’s address so you can return to sender.Gareth Southgate’s redemption since his penalty miss in 1996 is a wonderful story. A faster reversal of reputation came to my newly and deservedly en-damed friend Kate Bingham. I asked how it felt like to be widely admired now after being denounced and vilified last year with the help of bad mouthing from her enemies. Memories are fading of how much of the media were determined to bring her down.I told her of a call from a journalist who asked me to comment on the fact that a) Bingham had hired as a PR consultant b) a woman who is married to c) a man who has sat on the board of a small charity with d) the father of e) the wife of f) Dominic Cummings. My answer was to laugh, but Kate reminded me the Financial Times actually ran that story as if it implied corruption. The more we find out about the negotiation she did to acquire vaccines, and the contrast with how other countries did it, the more remarkable the story becomes.
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My article for Spectator:
In March last year, it was widely agreed by everybody sensible, me included, that talk of the pandemic originating in a laboratory was pseudoscientific nonsense almost on a par with UFOs and the Loch Ness monster. My own reasoning was that Mother Nature is a better genetic engineer than we will ever be, so something as accomplished at infection and spread could not possibly have been put together in a lab.
Today, the mood has changed. Even Dr Anthony Fauci, the US President’s chief medical advisor, now says he is ‘not convinced’ the virus emerged naturally. This month a letter in Science magazine from 18 senior virologists and other experts — including a close collaborator of the Wuhan lab at the centre of the debate, Ralph Baric — demanded that such a hypothesis be taken seriously. Suddenly, too, journalists have woken up and begun writing articles admitting they might have been hasty in dismissing a lab leak as a Trumpian conspiracy theory last year. CNN reported this week that the Biden administration shut down the State Department’s investigation into this.
My article for The Telegraph:
It is a year ago last week since the World Health Organisation conceded, belatedly, that a pandemic was under way. The organisation’s decisions in early 2020 were undoubtedly influenced by the Chinese government. On 14 January, to widespread surprise, the WHO was still echoing China’s assurance that there was no evidence of person-to-person spread: “it is very clear right now that we have no sustained human-to-human transmission,” said an official that day. Within days even China conceded this was wrong.
Later that month the WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said his admiration for China’s speed in detecting the virus and sharing information was “beyond words”, adding “so is China's commitment to transparency and to supporting other countries”. At the time China’s government was punishing whistleblowers, taking down databases, censoring scientists and ordering samples destroyed.
My review of Unfit for Purpose: When human evolution collides with the modern world by Adam Hart, for The Critic:
Our ancestors have spenta few hundred years in cities at most. Before that, they spent a million years or more on what was essentially a perpetual camping trip, most of it in Africa. Little wonder then that people are more easily scared of snakes than cars, of deep water than speed, of spiders than guns. We are, to a significant extent, adapted to the environment we evolved in, rather than the one most of us now inhabit.
This mismatch explains quite a lot about our modern problems, and Adam Hart, an entomologist and broadcaster, has set out to see just how far, and how convincingly, mismatch can explain things like allergies, obesity, and our addiction to drugs, social media and even fake news. His book is especially valuable because it does not fall for simplistic “just-so” stories without checking the actual evidence first.
My article from The Spectator:
I’m no Nostradamus, but 20 years ago when I was commissioned to write a short book about disease in the new millennium, I predicted that if a new pandemic did happen it would be a virus, not a bacterium or animal parasite, and that we would catch it from a wild animal. ‘My money is on bats,’ I wrote. We now know that the natural host and reservoir of the new coronavirus, Covid-19, is a bat, and that the virus probably got into people via a live-animal market in Wuhan.
This is not the first disease bats have given us. Rabies possibly originated in bats. So did, and does, Ebola, outbreaks of which usually trace back to people coming into contact with bat roosts in caves, trees or buildings. Marburg virus, similar to Ebola, first killed people in Germany in 1967 and is now known to be a bat virus. Since 1994 Hendra virus has occasionally jumped from Australian fruit bats into horses and rarely people, with lethal effect. Since 1998 another fruit-bat virus, Nipah, has also infected and killed people mainly in India and Bangladesh. Sars, which originated in China in 2003, is derived from bats, though possibly via civet cats. So is Mers, a similar bat-borne coronavirus that’s killed hundreds of people and camels in the Middle East since 2012.
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