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 review in The Times of Bill Bryson's fine book, "One
The summer of 1927 in the United States seems at first glance an
odd subject for a book. We all know what happened in 1914, or 1929,
but what’s so special about the 86th anniversary of one summer in
one country? You can see the London publishers scratching their
heads when Bill Bryson’s pitch arrived. Who was Jack Dempsey
anyway? Is Babe Ruth a woman or a child? Isn’t Calvin Coolidge a
cartoon character? Did Herbert Hoover invent the vacuum cleaner? Is
Sacco and Vanzetti a department store? Charles Lindbergh: ah, we
know who he is.
Actually, it’s a brilliant idea for a book, because Bryson now
had the excuse to do what he does best: tell little biographies of
historical figures, recount stories, paint word pictures and make
witty asides. The result is a gripping slice of history with all
sorts of reverberant echoes of today.
My Times column on how the world's oldest people
are getting younger:
The two oldest men in the world died recently.
Jiroemon Kimura, a 116-year-old, died in June in Japan after
becoming the oldest man yet recorded. His successor Salustiano
Sanchez, aged 112 and born in Spain, died last week in New York
State. That leaves just two men in the world known to
be over 110, compared with 58 women (19 of whom are Japanese, 20
American). By contrast there are now half a million people over
100, and the number is growing at 7 per cent a year.
For all the continuing improvements in average life expectancy,
the maximum age of human beings seems to be stuck. It’s still very
difficult even for women to get to 110 and the number of people who
reach 115 seems if anything to be falling. According to Professor
Stephen Coles, of the Gerontology Research Group at University of
California, Los Angeles, your probability of dying each year shoots
up to 50 per cent once you reach 110 and 70 per cent at 115.
My article in the Review section of the Wall
Later this month, a long-awaited event that last happened in
2007 will recur. Like a returning comet, it will be taken to
portend ominous happenings. I refer to the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change's (IPCC) "fifth assessment report," part of which
will be published on Sept. 27.
There have already been leaks from this 31-page document, which
summarizes 1,914 pages of scientific discussion, but thanks to a
senior climate scientist, I have had a glimpse of the key
prediction at the heart of the document. The big news is that, for
the first time since these reports started coming out in 1990, the
new one dials back the alarm. It states that the temperature rise
we can expect as a result of man-made emissions of carbon dioxide
is lower than the IPPC thought in 2007.
My tribute to Ronald Coase, who has died aged 102,
in The Times:
It’s not often that the ideas of a 102-year-old
have as much relevance to the future as the past. But the death
this week of Ronald Coase, one of the world’s most cited
economists, comes at a time when there is lively debate about the
very issue he raised: why neither markets nor government are
Belatedly, here is my Times column from last week
on the case of David Miranda's detention at Heathrow airport:
I am not usually an indecisive person who sees
both sides of a question. But the case of Edward Snowden, Glenn
Greenwald and David Miranda versus the British and US governments
has me swinging like a weathervane in a squall between liberty and
security. I can persuade myself one minute that a despicable
tyranny is being gradually visited upon us by a self-serving
nomenclatura and the next that proportionate measures were taken by
the authorities to protect British citizens from irresponsible
crimes perpetrated by self-appointed publicity seekers.
Such indecisiveness does not seem to afflict most of my fellow
columnists elsewhere in the media. Sometimes, however, it is
necessary to stick up for indecision. On behalf of those of us
struggling to decide where justice lies, let me follow Boswell and
“throw our conversation into [this] journal in the form of a
My Times column on the environmental effects of
fracking and wind power:
It was the American senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who once
said: “You are entitled to your opinions, but not to your own
facts.” In the debate over shale gas – I refuse to call it the
fracking debate since fracking has been happening in this country
for decades – the opponents do seem to be astonishingly cavalier
with the facts.
Here are five things that they keep saying which are just not
true. First, that shale gas production has polluted aquifers in the
United States. Second, that it releases more methane than other
forms of gas production. Third, that it uses a worryingly large
amount of water. Fourth, that it uses hundreds of toxic chemicals.
Fifth, that it causes damaging earthquakes.
Belated posting of my recent Times column on golden rice with links:
It was over harlequin ducks that we bonded. Ten
years ago, at a meeting in Monterey, California, to celebrate the
50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA, I bumped
into the German biologist Ingo Potrykus watching harlequin ducks in
the harbour before breakfast. Shared enthusiasm for bird watching
broke the ice.
I knew of him, of course. He had been on the cover of Time magazine
for potentially solving one of the world’s great humanitarian
challenges. Four years before, with his colleague Peter Beyer, he
had added three genes to the 30,000 in rice to help to prevent
vitamin A deficiency, one of the most preventable causes of
morbidity and mortality in poor countries with rice-dominated
diets. They had done it for nothing, persuading companies to waive
their patents, so that they could give the rice seeds away free. It
was a purely humanitarian impulse.
My latest column in The Times:
This is an article about a railway, but it begins
with a wall; bear with me. I live not far from the line of
Hadrian’s Wall and I often take visitors to marvel at its almost
1,900-year-old stones. That the Romans could build 80 miles of
dressed stone fortification, 15ft high and 9ft wide, over crags and
bogs with a small fort every mile, is indeed a marvel. It was one
of Rome’s most expensive projects.
Yet I often ask visitors as they marvel: did it work? The answer
is no. The Roman garrison was too strung out to defend the whole
thing at once. Within 30 years it had been successfully attacked by
the barbarians; within 40 it had been abandoned for a new wall in
Scotland; when that did not work and Hadrian’s Wall became the
boundary again, it was overrun by barbarians several times. Did it
exclude or pacify the tribes of northern Britain? I doubt it.
My Times column:
Tomorrow the House of Lords gives a second reading
to Lord Sharkey’s Bill to pardon Alan Turing, the mathematician,
computer pioneer and code-cracking hero of the Second World
In 1952 Turing was prosecuted for being gay (he had reported a
burglary to the police and made it no secret that the burglar was a
friend of his consensual lover). Convicted of “gross indecency” he
was offered prison or oestrogen injections to reduce his libido; he
chose the latter but then committed suicide at the age of 41.
My column in The Times on healthcare costs:
Babies got cheaper this week. Twice. First, Belgian scientists announced that their
new method has the potential to cut the costs of some in-vitro
fertilisation treatments from £5,000 to below £200. Their cut-price
recipe requires little more than baking soda and lemon juice in
place of purified carbon dioxide gas to maintain acidity when
growing an embryo in a lab before implanting it.
Second, a baby called Connor was born after 13
of his parents’ embryos had their genomes analysed using
next-generation DNA-sequencing techniques in an Oxford laboratory.
Only three of the embryos were found to have the right chromosome
number, and one of these “normal” embryos was then implanted in his
mother. This new approach, made possible by the rapidly falling
cost of DNA sequencing, promises to cut the number of failures
during IVF, reducing both cost and heartache.
Part of the problem was that some time towards the end of the
first decade of the 21st century it became clear that the Earth's
average temperature just was not consistently rising any more,
however many "adjustments" were made to the thermometer records,
let alone rising anything like as rapidly as all the models
So those who made their living from alarm, and by then there
were lots, switched tactics and began to jump on any unusual
weather event, whether it was a storm, a drought, a blizzard or a
flood, and blame it on man-made carbon dioxide emissions. This
proved a rewarding tactic, because people - egged on by journalists
- have an inexhaustible appetite for believing in the
vindictiveness of the weather gods. The fossil fuel industry was
inserted in the place of Zeus as the scapegoat of choice.
(Scientists are the priests.)
The fact that people have short memories about weather events is
what enables this game to be played. The long Australian drought of
2001-7, the Brisbane floods of 2009-10 and the angry summer of
2012-13 stand out in people's minds. People are reluctant to put
them down to chance. Even here in mild England, people are always
saying "I have never known it so
cold/hot/mild/windy/wet/dry/changeable as it is this year". One
Christmas I noticed the seasons had been pretty average all year,
neither too dry nor too wet nor too cold nor too warm. "I have
never known it so average," I said to somebody. I got a baffled
look. Nobody ever calls the weather normal.
My latest (and last) Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:
Last week a friend chided me for not agreeing with the
scientific consensus that climate change is likely to be dangerous.
I responded that, according to polls, the "consensus" about climate
change only extends to the propositions that it has been happening
and is partly man-made, both of which I readily agree with.
Forecasts show huge uncertainty.
Besides, science does not respect consensus. There was once
widespread agreement about phlogiston (a nonexistent element said
to be a crucial part of combustion), eugenics, the impossibility of
continental drift, the idea that genes were made of protein (not
DNA) and stomach ulcers were caused by stress, and so forth—all of
which proved false. Science, Richard Feyman once said, is "the
belief in the ignorance of experts.
Exciting as Britain’s latest shale gas estimate is
— 47 years’ supply or more — it pales beside what is happening in
the United States. There shale gas is old hat; the shale oil
revolution is proving a world changer, promising not just lower oil
prices worldwide, but geopolitical ripples as America weans itself
off oil imports and perhaps loses interest in the Middle East.
One of the pioneers of the shale gas revolution, Chris Wright,
of Liberty Resources, was in Britain last month. It was he and his
colleagues at Pinnacle Technologies who reinvented hydraulic
fracturing in the late 1990s in a way that unlocked the vast
petroleum resources in shale. Within seven years the Barnett shale,
in and around Forth Worth, Texas, was producing half as much gas as
the whole of Britain consumes. And the Barnett proved to be a baby
compared with other shales.
I have an article in Spiked! on the the tyranny of
This summer at TED Global in Edinburgh, a lively networking
conference, there was a talk on one of the true and terrible
scourges of the modern world. This is a bit of a theme for TED. The
same scourge was bravely but mercilessly exposed at TED Global
three years ago in Oxford and nine years ago at the ur-TED itself
in California. All three talks went down well with the hip folk who
attend TED meetings. They nodded in agreement that this scourge
must end, and soon.
The scourge in question? The thing that deserved as prominent a
castigation as disease and poverty and tyranny? Too much choice.
Yes, the pressing and urgent issue we face is that when we enter a
supermarket, we find tens of brands of cereal and it is making us –
wait for it – anxious. Oh woe.
My column in The Times:
Preventing cancer is proving a lot easier than
curing it. The announcement that the NHS will fund five-year
courses of the drugs tamoxifen or raloxifene for healthy women who
are genetically predisposed to get breast and ovarian cancer is
overdue. The US has been doing “chemo-prevention” for some time and
clinical trials have confirmed that the benefits comfortably
outweigh the side-effects. Tens of thousands of deaths a year could
This is another incremental advance in the prevention of cancer
that began with the gradual recognition (resisted, ironically, by
some of those fighting pesticides in the late 1950s) that tobacco
smoke was a chief cause of lung cancer. Mainly thanks to such
prevention, along with early diagnosis, surgery and some
treatments, deaths from cancer, adjusted for age, are falling.
The economist Arthur Laffer is reputed to have drawn his famous
curve—showing that beyond a certain point higher taxes generate
lower revenue—on a paper napkin at a dinner with Dick Cheney
and Donald Rumsfeld in the Washington Hotel in
Another economist, Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University,
last year drew a similar curve on a virtual napkin to
argue that, beyond a certain point, greater protection for
intellectual property causes less innovation. He thinks that U.S.
patent law is well beyond that optimal point.
Last week the Supreme Court came out against the patenting of
genes, on the grounds that they are discoveries, not inventions,
though it did allow that edited copies of the DNA of a breast
cancer gene should be seen as invented diagnostic tools. Dr.
Tabarrok thinks that decision and other recent rulings are nudging
patent law back in the right direction after a protectionist drift
in the 1980s and '90s.
My column in the Times on 20 June 2013:
In the Energy Bill going through Parliament there
is allowance for generous subsidy for a huge push towards burning
wood to produce electricity. It’s already happening. Drax power
station in Yorkshire has converted one of its boilers to burn wood
pellets instead of coal; soon three of its six boilers will be
doing this and the power station will then be receiving north of
half a billion pounds a year in subsidy. By 2020, the Government
estimates, up to 11 per cent of our generating capacity will be
from burning wood.
My article in the Times on 13 June 2013
‘We are as gods and have to get good at it,” the
Californian ecologist and writer Stewart Brand said recently.
Worldwide there has been a sea change in the ecological profession.
These days most ecologists recognise that there is no such thing as
a pristine wilderness and that the best biodiversity is produced by
active management to control some species and encourage others.
My Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
Journal is on abiogenic methane
Coal, oil and gas are "fossil" fuels, right? They are derived
from ancient life-forms and are nonrenewable, stored energy,
extracted from prehistoric sunlight. In the case of coal and most
oil, this is obviously true: You can find fossil tree trunks and
leaves in coal seams and chemicals in oil that come from
But there's increasing doubt about whether all
natural gas (which is 90% methane) comes from fermented fossil
microbes. Some of it may be made by chemical processes deep within
the earth. If so, the implications could be profound for the
climate and energy debates.
My Times column here.
I have a confession to make. Last week I held a
meeting with representatives of three organisations and offered to
raise an issue for them in the House of Lords. They claimed they
were charities seeking a smidgin of funding to push forward
promising research on a squirrel-pox vaccine, which might help to
save the red squirrel from extinction in this country.
Now I begin to wonder if these three charming people were
actually disguised investigative reporters who were trying to add
my name to that of my three fellow peers who were splashed over the
front page of The Sunday Times. Or perhaps they were
from a front for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. (Tony Blair
apparently spoke at an event hosted by a front for the latter.) I
never checked their credentials or frisked them for hidden
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is on a surprising discovery about antibodies and
the immune system:
It isn't often that an entire field of medical science gets
turned on its head. But it is becoming clear that immunology is
undergoing a big rethink thanks to the discovery that antibodies,
which combat viruses, work not just outside cells but inside them
as well. The star of this new view is a protein molecule called
Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that the body fights
off infection in two separate ways. First is the adaptive immune
system, which works outside the cell. It generates antibodies to
intercept specific invaders, locking onto them like a tracking
missile and preventing them from entering the cell. A second line
of defense, the innate immune system, operates within the cell; it
is like an expansive air-defense network, blasting away at all
Update: I have added a reply to a critic of the article
I have an article in the Times on the implications of a new
estimate of climate sensitivity:
There is little doubt that the damage being done by
climate-change policies currently exceeds the damage being done by
climate change, and will for several decades yet. Hunger,
rainforest destruction, excess cold-weather deaths and reduced
economic growth are all exacerbated by the rush to biomass and
wind. These dwarf any possible effects of worse weather, for which
there is still no actual evidence anyway: recent droughts, floods
and storms are within historic variability.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is on infleunza:
Here we go again. A new bird-flu virus in China, the H7N9
strain, is spreading alarm. It has infected about 130 people and
killed more than 30. Every time this happens, some journalists
compete to foment fear, ably assisted by cautious but worried
scientists, and then tell the world to keep calm. We need a new way
to talk about the risk of a flu pandemic, because the overwhelming
probability is that this virus will kill people, yes, but not in
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is on life in space:
A provocative calculation by two biologists suggests that life
might have arrived on Earth fully formed—at least in microbe
Alexei Sharov of the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore
and Richard Gordon of the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in
Panacea, Fla., plotted the genome size of different kinds of
organisms against their presumed date of origin. Armed with just
five data points they concluded that genome complexity doubles
every 376 million years in a sort of geological version of Moore's
Law of progress in computers.
I have a column in the Times on bitcoins and their
implications for private money
Bitcoins — a form of digital private money — shot
up in value from $90 to $260 each after Cypriot bank accounts were
raided by the State, then plunged last week before recovering some
of their value. These gyrations are symptoms of a bubble. Just as
with tulip bulbs or dotcom shares, there will probably be a
bursting. All markets in assets that can be hoarded and resold — as
opposed to those in goods for consumption — suffer from bubbles.
Money is no different; and a new currency is rather like a new
Yet it would be a mistake to write off Bitcoins as just another
bubble. People are clearly keen on new forms of money safe from the
confiscation and inflation that looks increasingly inevitable as
governments try to escape their debts. Bitcoins pose a fundamental
question: will some form of private money replace the kind minted
and printed by governments?
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is on junk DNA and on the messed up genome of the
The usually placid world of molecular biology has been riven
with two fierce disputes recently. Although apparently separate,
the two conflagrations are converging.
The first row concerns the phrase "junk DNA." Coined in
1972 by the geneticist Susumu Ohno, it is an attempt to explain
why vast stretches of animal genomes, far more in some species than
in others, seem to serve no purpose. Genes of all kinds and their
control sequences make up maybe 9% of the human genome at the very
most. The rest may be nonfunctional "junk," mainly there because it
is good at getting itself duplicated. Yet the phrase has always
caused a surprising amount of offense. Reports of the discrediting
of junk-DNA theory have been frequent.
I wrote The Spectator diary column this week:
We’ve discovered that we own an island. But dreams of
independence and tax-havenry evaporate when we try to picnic there
on Easter Sunday: we watch it submerge slowly beneath the incoming
tide. It’s a barnacle-encrusted rock, about the size of a tennis
court, just off the beach at Cambois, north of Blyth, which for
some reason ended up belonging to my ancestor rather than the
Crown. Now there’s a plan for a subsidy-fired biomass power station
nearby that will burn wood (and money) while pretending to save the
planet. The outlet pipes will go under our rock and we are due
modest compensation. As usual, it’s us landowners who benefit from
renewable energy while working people bear the cost: up the coast
are the chimneys of the country’s largest aluminium smelter —
killed, along with hundreds of jobs, by the government’s unilateral
carbon-floor price in force from this week.
There were dead puffins on the beach, as there have been all
along the east coast. This cold spring has hit them hard. Some
puffin colonies have been doing badly in recent years, after
booming in the 1990s, but contrary to the predictions of global
warming, it’s not the more southerly colonies that have suffered
most. The same is true of guillemots, kittiwakes and sandwich
terns: northern colonies are declining.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
A new study by Dirk Helbing at ETH Zurich in
Switzerland and colleagues has modeled the emergence of “nice”
behavior in idealized human beings. It’s done by computer, using
the famous “prisoner’s dilemma” game, in which a prisoner has to
decide between cooperating with a comrade to get a mutual reward or
avoiding a punishment by being the first of the two to defect to
the other side. The Zurich team found that so long as players in
the game stay near their (modeled) parents, the birth of a nice guy
predisposed to cooperate can trigger “a cascade” of generous
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