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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His new book How Innovation Works is now available in the UK as well as in the US and Canada.
My article for The Telegraph:
‘This pestilence was so powerful that it was transmitted to the healthy by contact with the sick” wrote Giovanni Boccaccio of the Black Death, in his preface to The Decameron. The trouble with the coronavirus is almost exactly the opposite – it is transmitted to the sick by contact with the healthy. The people most at risk of dying are those who already suffer from underlying illnesses. And evidence is accumulating that the virus is passed on very early in the progression of the disease, often when you are still without much in the way of symptoms.
I spent an hour talking to philosophy expert, business expert and Ayn Rand Institute Chairman Yaron Brook about my upcoming book, and the painful yet important lessons that the epidemic is teaching us about innovation.
Please check it out, and consider sharing and subscribing:
My article for Spectator:
The generational effect of the corona-virus is cunning and baffling. By often being so mild in the young and healthy it turns people into heedless carriers. By often being so lethal in the old and sick, it makes carriers into potential executioners of friends and neighbours
Because of the global coronavirus crisis, I have agreed with my publisher's request to delay publication of the UK edition of my new book How Innovation Works from 14 May till 25 June.
The US edition will be published on 19 May as planned, because printing has already begun.
The book already includes a chapter on public health and the role of innovation in the battle against epidemics of smallpox, polio, typhoid, whooping cough, malaria and cholera. But I will now add a short section for the end of the book about this year's pandemic and its implications for our attitude towards innovation. (Spoiler: we need more, not less.)
My article for the Telegraph:
In 1934, in their spare time, two American biologists, Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering, developed a vaccine for whooping cough, then the biggest killer of children in the United States. Within four years their vaccine was being used throughout Michigan and within six it was being used nationwide. Whooping cough rapidly retreated.
Since then there have been spectacular advances in biology, including the identification of the genetic material, the ability to read its code, an understanding of the structure of viruses and the proteins from which they are made, plus knowledge of how immunity works. So why are we facing a wait of at least a year, maybe much more, for a vaccine for coronavirus? It has been one of the shocks of recent weeks to realise how little progress vaccine development has made. It’s still a bit of an art.
On Sunday, lonely as a cloud, I wandered across a windswept moor in County Durham and passed a solitary sandstone rock with a small, round hollow in the top, an old penny glued to the base of the hollow. It is called the Butter Stone and it’s where, during the plague in 1665, coins were left in a pool of vinegar by the inhabitants of nearby towns and villages, to be exchanged with farmers for food. The idea was that the farmer or his customer approached the rock only when the other was at a safe distance.
This is a real threat. But we will beat this. And we'll go on to make an even better life for people in the years ahead.
I took a deep dive into the Covid-19 epidemic, how to manage risk, solutions to past health crises, innovation in public health, and much more in a candid one hour interview with my energetic social media consultant:
My article for Reaction:
In Aesop’s fable about the boy who cried “Wolf!”, the point of the tale is that eventually there was a wolf, but the boy was not believed because he had given too many false alarms. In my view, the Covid-19 coronavirus is indeed a wolf, or at least has the potential to be one. Many people, including President Trump, think we are over-reacting, because so many past scares have been exaggerated. I think that’s wrong.
In the 19th century Ignaz Semmelweis was vilified and ostracised when he tried to make doctors wash their hands after doing autopsies on women who had died from childbirth fever before going straight upstairs to deliver more babies. We have come a long way since then in public health, but we can go much further still.
Update: My House of Lords Speech on Genome Editing from 4th March
My article for The Critic:
My next book How Innovation Works will be published on 14th May in the United Kingdom and 19th May in the United States and Canada. It’s available for pre-order now. While it has been searchable on booksellers’ websites for a few months, and teased here and there on social media, I am glad to be introducing it officially and directly to you, my friends and fans, for the first time.
At some point in the year or two after The Evolution of Everything came out – I remember the moment, but not when it was exactly – the idea hit me rather abruptly that innovation is both one of the most significant human habits and one of the least well understood. I had touched on a lot of aspects of innovation in my previous books, but I have never tackled it head on.
My blog post for Free Market Conservatives:
When you think about it, what has happened to human society in the last 300 years is pretty weird. After trundling along with horses and sailboats, slaves and swords, for millennia, we suddenly got steam engines and search engines, and planes and cars and electricity and computers and social media and DNA sequences. We gave ourselves a perpetual motion machine called innovation. The more we innovated, the more innovation became possible.
It’s by far the biggest story of the last three centuries—the main cause of the decline of extreme poverty to unprecedented levels—yet we know curiously little about why it happened, let alone when and where and how it can be made to continue. It certainly did not start as a result of deliberate policy. Even today, beyond throwing money at scientists in the hope they might start businesses, and subsidies at businesses in the hope they might deliver products, we don’t have much of an idea how to encourage innovation at the political level.
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.
I visited reddit's r/IAmA community Wednesday to answer your questions. Here are some highlights.
Can you briefly summarise your position on climate change?
While, as I said, it's not an issue I am focusing on much, I was happy to remind everyone of my position.
From the Kirkus review of How Innovation Works:
Kirkus is an "advance reviewer" that primarily servers publishers and other reviewers, but feel free to reach out if you're in media and would like to request your own review copy, publish an article, do an interview, etc.
How Innovation Works will be released in the UK on May 14th and in the US on May 19th, but is available to pre-order now.
What was Brexit for? After finally taking Britain out of the European Union, the Prime Minister can now start to give us his answer — and the opportunity in front of him is pretty clear. He could speed up, perhaps double, the rate of economic growth by unleashing innovation. After leaving the slow steaming European convoy, Britain must not chug along but go full speed ahead. That means rediscovering trial and error, serendipity and swiftness — the mechanisms by which the market finds out what the consumer wants next.
The stifling of innovation by vested interests in the corridors of Brussels has held Britain back for too long — but it is not the only reason for our sluggish innovation capacity. We can also blame creaky infrastructure, neglect of the north, a glacial-speed planning system, the temptations of a speculative property market, low research and development spending, and a chronic inability to turn good ideas into big businesses.
I believe it is absolutely vital that the UK government signals its encouragement of genome editing in agriculture.
My speech in the House of Lords today:
I appeared on the Institute of Economic Affairs podcast with Darren Grimes to discuss why we've just had the best decade in human history:
You can also listen on Apple Podcasts.
It's worth reflecting on why the British people distrust our motives.
My speech in the House of Lords today, on Brexit (and WD-40):
My article from The Times:
Frans Timmermans, the vice-president of the European Commission, is singing a more friendly tune to Britain than his fellow commissioners: “We’re not going away and you will always be welcome to come back”. In a similar vein, “You’ll be back,” sings King George III’s character in the musical Hamilton, in a love song to his rebellious colonies, but adds: “And when push comes to shove/I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love”. Though they have stopped short of sending battalions, too often the rulers of the European empire have seemed to be adopting a counterproductive hostility to their departing British colony.
When William Petty, Earl of Shelburne, became prime minister in July 1782 he faced roughly the same problem as the EU faces today: how generous an empire should be to a departing nation, in that case the 13 American colonies. As sore losers of the recent war, British ministers’ initial stance towards the Americans at the Paris treaty negotiations that began that year was condescending and tough: call them “colonials”, threaten to deny them access to British and Caribbean ports and refuse their demands for land beyond the Appalachians.
My article from Reaction:
I was asked to appear on the Today programme on Saturday 28 December by the guest editor, Charles Moore, and made the case that the BBC’s coverage of climate change is unbalanced. Despite a lot of interruption by Nick Robinson I just about got across the point that the BBC uncritically relays any old rubbish about the environment so long as it is alarmist, even if it comes from an uninformed source like the leader of Extinction Rebellion or falls well outside the range of the scientific consensus that we are on course for a warming of 1-4 degrees this century. But the Corporation has strict rules about letting guests on who might say that the climate change threat is being exaggerated, even if their view and their facts fall within that consensus range.
The BBC now has a rule that if by some oversight a lukewarmer or sceptic does get on the air, he or she must be followed by a corrective interview from a scientist, setting the record straight. Sure enough I was followed by Sir David King, former government chief science advisor. (He’s a qualified chemist, while I am a qualified biologist.)
Let nobody tell you that the second decade of the 21st century has been a bad time. We are living through the greatest improvement in human living standards in history. Extreme poverty has fallen below 10 per cent of the world’s population for the first time. It was 60 per cent when I was born. Global inequality has been plunging as Africa and Asia experience faster economic growth than Europe and North America; child mortality has fallen to record low levels; famine virtually went extinct; malaria, polio and heart disease are all in decline.
Little of this made the news, because good news is no news. But I’ve been watching it all closely. Ever since I wrote The Rational Optimist in 2010, I’ve been faced with ‘what about…’ questions: what about the great recession, the euro crisis, Syria, Ukraine, Donald Trump? How can I possibly say that things are getting better, given all that? The answer is: because bad things happen while the world still gets better. Yet get better it does, and it has done so over the course of this decade at a rate that has astonished even starry-eyed me.
With tariffs announced against Brazil and Argentina, and a threat against France, Donald Trump is dragging the world deeper into a damaging trade war. Largely unnoticed, the European Union is also in trouble at the World Trade Organisation for its continuing and worsening record as a protectionist bloc.
Last month, at the WTO meeting in Geneva, India joined a list of countries including Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil and Malaysia that have lodged formal complaints against the EU over barriers to agricultural imports. Not only does the EU raise hefty tariffs against crops such as rice and oranges to protect subsidised European farmers; it also uses health and safety rules to block imports. The irony is that these are often dressed up as precautionary measures against health and environmental threats, when in fact they are sometimes preventing Europeans from gaining health and environmental benefits.
My recent article in Quillette:
Any day now, the government of Bangladesh may become the first country to approve the growing of a variety of yellow rice by farmers known as Golden Rice. If so, this would be a momentous victory in a long and exhausting battle fought by scientists and humanitarians to tackle a huge human health problem—a group that’s faced a great deal of opposition by misguided critics of genetically modified foods.
My article from The Critic:
The first coffee house in Marseilles opened in 1671, prompting the city’s vintners to recruit a couple of professors at the University of Aix to blacken their new competitor’s reputation. They duly got one of their students to write a pamphlet claiming coffee was a vile foreign novelty made from a tree favoured by goats and camels. It burned the blood, dried the kidneys and attracted the lymph, inducing palsies and impotence. “From all of which we must necessarily conclude that coffee is hurtful to the greater part of the inhabitants of Marseilles.”
My recent article in the Wall Street Journal about the very different experiences of two countries with respect to electronic cigarettes.
My essay for Freer:
Suppose that millions of Britons were driving a dangerous type of car that was killing 80,000 people a year. Suppose somebody invented a new car that was much, much safer, significantly cheaper, and emitted far fewer fumes, while performing just as well. Would you a) ban the new car, or b) encourage people to buy it? Not that difficult a question, surely. Yet the reaction of many public health professionals and politicians has been to choose a) in an exactly analogous situation relating to nicotine. Why? Because they would rather you did not drive at all.
Take, for example, this recent pronouncement by the mayor of San Francisco: “Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States. Tobacco kills more than 480,000 people a year in this country. That’s more than AIDS, alcohol, car accidents, illegal drugs, murders, and suicides combined.” Therefore, he goes on — in one of the great non-sequiturs of history — he is going to ban ecigarettes, which have caused none of those deaths and could prevent them, but not ban real cigarettes, which caused nearly all of those deaths.
My article for Reaction on biodiversity:
Driven perhaps by envy at the attention that climate change is getting, and ambition to set up a great new intergovernmental body that can fly scientists to mega-conferences, biologists have gone into overdrive on the subject of biodiversity this week.
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