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 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.
My column in The Times is on the undeniable truth that western countries are preventing Africans getting access to the cheapest power, which is fossil-fuelled.
In what is probably the silliest comment on climate since a Ukip councillor blamed floods on gay marriage, a green journalist opined of the refugees dying in the Mediterranean: “This is what climate crisis looks like . . . We know there is evidence that the violence triggered by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 were in part fuelled by protests over soaring food prices.”
The soaring prices were actually exacerbated (as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN confirmed) by the diversion of much of the world’s farmland into making motor fuel, in the form of ethanol and biodiesel, for the rich to salve their green consciences. Climate policies were probably a greater contributor to the Arab Spring than climate change itself.
My Times column argues that only high-tech innovation will give us the cash to fund our future, so why won’t Cameron or Miliband talk about it?
Fifty years ago yesterday, a young computer expert called Gordon Moore pointed out that the number of transistors on a silicon chip seemed to be doubling every year or two and that if this went on it would “lead to such wonders as home computers . . . and personal portable communications equipment”.
My review of Nick Lane's book The Vital Question in The Times:
Nick Lane is not just a writer of words about science, he is also a doer of experiments and a thinker of thoughts. And these days he is hot on the trail of one of the biggest ideas in the universe: the meaning of the word “life”. In this, his third book about energy and life, he comes triumphantly close to cracking the secret of why life is the way it is, to a depth that would boggle any ancient philosopher’s mind. He can now tell a story of how, when and where life started, and what happened to it in its early days. Most of that story looks as if it is true.
Life uses information (stored in DNA) to capture energy (which it stores in a chemical called ATP) to create order. Humans burn prodigious amounts of energy — we generate about 10,000 times as much energy per gram as the sun. The sun is hotter only because it is much bigger. We use energy to create and maintain intricate cellular and bodily complexity, the opposite of entropy, just as we do in the economy, where the harnessing of power from burning fuel enables us to build skyscrapers and aeroplanes. But we — and here “we” means all living creatures, including bacteria — have an idiosyncratic way of trapping energy to make it useful. We pump protons across lipid membranes.
My Times column on Britain's remarkable and unexpected plunge in unemployment and what lies behind it:
Five years ago, almost nobody expected that inflation would vanish, as tomorrow’s figures are expected to show, or that unemployment would plummet, as Friday’s numbers will confirm. Whatever else you think about this government, there is no doubt it has presided over an astonishing boom in job creation like nowhere else in the developed world.
The milestones are impressive: an average of a thousand new jobs a day over five years; unemployment down by almost half a million in a year; a jobless rate half the eurozone’s; more jobs created than in the rest of Europe put together; more people in work, more women in work, more disabled people in work than ever; the highest percentage of the population in work since records began. All this while the public sector has been shedding 300 jobs a day.
My Times column on what might happen if the British election prouces a messy result:
had a bad dream. It was April 2016. The country was tumbling into a constitutional crisis, dragging the Queen into a gathering storm in the week of her 90th birthday. The financial markets were hammering the pound and threatening a bond strike as the deficit rose and growth faltered. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said he feared that Britain had become ungovernable.
It had begun with the election. The Conservatives had won the most seats, 290 to Labour’s 260. But with only 26 Lib Dems in the Commons, the Tories were unable to form a workable coalition, and with Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander gone there was no appetite for it anyway, not when David Cameron would have to rely also on Ukip or the Ulster Unionists to get bills through parliament. So Mr Cameron had formed a minority government, but could not carry a Queen’s speech and lost a vote of confidence.
My column in The Times on British transport priorities:
By the time HS2 is fully operational in 2033, more than a quarter of all cars on our roads will be fully autonomous, according to a forecast by the consultants KPMG. That may well make fast trains less urgent, and decongested motorways more so. The economic case for HS2 is fragile enough before taking future driverless cars into account.
Last week on the very same day that a House of Lords committee savaged the economic case for the HS2 railway — costing £50 billion with contingency — another report by KPMG, for the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, estimated the potential benefits to Britain of driverless cars at £51 billion. Per year.
My Times column on carbon capture:
Carbon dioxide is not the most urgent problem facing humanity, compared with war, extremism, poverty and disease. But most presidents, popes and film stars think it is, so I must be wrong. For the purposes of this article let’s assume they are right. What’s the best way of solving the problem?
Whichever party wins the election will be legally committed to cutting our carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. About 90 per cent of Britain’s total energy still comes from fossil fuels and bio-energy, both of which produce carbon dioxide. The expansion of nuclear, wind and solar is not going nearly fast enough, because electricity comprises just one third of our energy use. If we are to decarbonise transport and heating too, we will have to switch to electric cars, and electric radiators, which means generating three times as much electricity. Only aeroplanes would be left using fossil fuels.
The environmental movement has advanced three arguments in recent years for giving up fossil fuels: (1) that we will soon run out of them anyway; (2) that alternative sources of energy will price them out of the marketplace; and (3) that we cannot afford the climate consequences of burning them.
These days, not one of the three arguments is looking very healthy. In fact, a more realistic assessment of our energy and environmental situation suggests that, for decades to come, we will continue to rely overwhelmingly on the fossil fuels that have contributed so dramatically to the world’s prosperity and progress.
In 2013, about 87% of the energy that the world consumed came from fossil fuels, a figure that—remarkably—was unchanged from 10 years before. This roughly divides into three categories of fuel and three categories of use: oil used mainly for transport, gas used mainly for heating, and coal used mainly for electricity.
My Times column on farm yields and land sparing:
If something drops out of the news, it usually means it is going well. Mad cow disease killed nobody last year; Mozambique and Angola are growing their economies at a furious lick; the Somerset levels are not flooded this winter. There were only two localised famines last year — in South Sudan and the Central African Republic — both caused by conflict, rather than drought or population pressure. That’s because the feeding of the world is going so well it’s not news.
New figures from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation show that the world’s cereal harvest, which provides more than half of the calories that humans eat, broke a new record last year at 2.54 billion tonnes — an astonishing 20 per cent higher than ten years ago. Thanks to better techniques and seeds, the world’s farmers (of which I declare I am one, in a mostly hands-off way) have provided a growing population with more food per head, year after year, largely without cultivating extra land or using extra water or chemicals.
My latest column in The Times:
The latest report into Jimmy Savile’s astonishing freedom to roam the wards of Stoke Mandeville hospital will not lead to the end of the National Health Service. Nor will the forthcoming report that apparently finds a “systemic cover-up” of the unnecessary deaths of babies and mothers at University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust between 2004 and 2013. The NHS itself will survive these scandals, as it survived the Mid Staffordshire hospitals scandal of 2005-2008. The immortality of large public-sector monopolies is a given.
Likewise, although the Jimmy Savile affair has caused crises and resignations at the BBC, nobody for a moment believed that the BBC itself would close. But why not exactly? Private firms that get into this much trouble generally do vanish, by takeover or bankruptcy. Castlebeck, the company that ran the Winterbourne View care home where scandalous treatment was exposed in 2011, went into administration two years later. Pollypeck, Enron and Barings no longer exist.
My Times column on free trade:
An American friend recently sent me a gift as a thank you for a weekend’s hospitality. It arrived in the form of a card from the Post Office telling me to pay a hefty sum of tax before the item itself (a wooden bowl) could be delivered. Had my friend been Scottish or French or from the next village there would have been no charge. What business has government putting a tariff barrier between two friends?
Last week the Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps delivered a passionate defence of free trade of the kind that used to come from the radicals in the days of the Corn Laws but these days is rarely heard from any part of the political spectrum. Crucially, he took the perspective of the consumer, not the producer.
My Times column on Britain's impending decision to allow mitochondrial donation:
Tomorrow’s vote in the House of Commons on whether to allow mitochondrial donation has at least flushed out the churches. Both the Catholic and Anglican churches have decided that it is not acceptable to let a handful of desperate families apply to the authorities to be allowed to have their own children free of the risk of rare mitochondrial conditions that, in the words of one parent, “strip our children of the skills they have learnt and tire their organs one by one until they fail”.
What conceivable greater moral good overrides the need of such families? I suspect some clerics have gone no further into the science behind this than the headline “Three-parent children”, and said “Yuk!” If so, they have been horribly misled. There has rarely been a more inaccurate phrase.
My review of the book Cryptocurrency appeared in the Times:
When the internet started, few guessed how it would develop. I remember reviewing a string of books in the early 1990s arguing that it would lead to atomised and isolated lives, cut off from social contact. Social media put paid to that.
So it is rash to suggest just what the internet has in store for us next. But it is also rash to think we can expect merely more of what we have now. The internet is young and it is now evolving in a virtually autonomous fashion with startling surprises in store. If forced to make a (rash) guess, I would hazard that the next big thing is going to be spawned by bitcoin, or rather the “blockchain” technology behind bitcoin: cutting out the middleman in all forms of commerce.
My recent column in The Times is on wildlife conservation:
On the day last week that the House of Commons was debating a private member’s bill dealing with bats in churches, conservationists were starting to eliminate rats from the island of South Georgia by dropping poisoned bait from helicopters. Two very different facets of wildlife conservation: the bats stand for preservation of pristine nature from human interference; the rats for active intervention to manage nature in the interests of other wildlife. Which is better value for money?
Bats love roosting in churches, but those who love bats and those who love churches are increasingly at loggerheads. Bat pee has damaged many of the brasses in British churches, and stained or eroded precious medieval monuments and paintings. Expensive restoration work is often undone in a matter of months by micturating bats.
Edge.org has an annual question to which 190 people are invited to respond. This year it is "What do you think of machines that think?" and the answer I gave is below:
What I think about machines that think is that we are all missing the point still. The true transforming genius of human intelligence is not individual thinking at all but collective, collaborative and distributed intelligence—the fact that (as Leonard Reed pointed out) it takes thousands of different people to make a pencil, not one of whom knows how to make a pencil. What transformed the human race into a world-dominating technium was not some change in human heads, but a change between them: the invention of exchange and specialisation. It was a network effect.
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