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 Spectator:
A striking feature of Covid-19 is how medieval our response has had to be. Quarantine was the way people fought plagues in the distant past. We know by now that it will take many months to get a vaccine, whose job is to prevent you getting the disease. But what about a cure once you have caught it: why is there no pill to take? The truth is that, advanced as medical science is, we are mostly defenceless against viruses. There is no antiviral therapy to compare with antibiotics for treating bacteria.
Arguably, virology in 2020 is where bacteriology was in the 1920s. At the time, most of the experts in that field — including Alexander Fleming and his mentor, the formidable Sir Almroth Wright (nicknamed Sir Always Wrong by his foes) — thought a chemical therapy that killed bacteria without harming the patient was a wild goose chase. Instead, they argued, theway to fight bacteria was to encourage the body’s immune system. ‘Stimulate the phagocytes!’ was the cry of Wright’s semi-fictional avatar Sir Colenso Ridgeon in George Bernard Shaw’s play The Doctor’s Dilemma (referring to white blood cells). Vaccines should be used to treat as well as prevent infections, thought Wright and Fleming. Fleming then turned this theory upside down with his discovery of penicillin in 1928.
I went on The Remnant with Jonah Goldberg podcast to discuss innovation, the lockdowns, and more.
A month or two ago, I went on a podcast called The Political Orphanage with Andrew Heaton to have what Andrew called a "literary tailgating party", and discuss both The Rational Optimist and my upcoming book How Innovation Works.
Listen on Apple Podcasts I thought it was a really good interview, and enjoyed it so much we went on for more than an hour. It also provides a break from the heavily Coronavirus focused content of the last month.
I went on The Glenn Beck Program on BlazeTV for 15 minutes to discuss the pandemic, lockdowns, the NHS, the economy, and more:
Full Episode on BlazeTVFull Episode on iTunes (Interview begins at 45:30)
My article for The Wall Street Journal:
RaTG13 is the name, rank and serial number of an individual horseshoe bat of the species Rhinolophus affinis, or rather of a sample of its feces collected in 2013 in a cave in Yunnan, China. The sample was collected by hazmat-clad scientists from the Institute of Virology in Wuhan that year. Stored away and forgotten until January this year, the sample from the horseshoe bat contains the virus that causes Covid-19.
The scientists were mostly sampling a very similar species with slightly shorter wings, called Rhinolophus sinicus, in a successful search for the origin of the virus responsible for the SARS epidemic of 2002-03. That search had alarming implications, which were largely ignored.
My article for The Telegraph:
When the pandemic passes, which it will, there will be a reckoning to determine who could have stopped it early and did not. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has suggested that it would have to be carried out by the World Health Organisation: "Obviously, after the crisis has abated I think the time will be right to conduct a kind of 'lessons learned' [inquiry] and I'm sure the World Health Organisation will be at the forefront of that.”
This is a terrible idea. WHO is full of good people with good intentions, but as a body it has very serious questions to answer about its own conduct before we trust it with looking at that of others.
Despite what Corbynites like to claim, Britain’s National Health Service has always relied heavily on the private sector for lots of things. The food it serves to patients is not grown on state-owned farms, nor are the pills it prescribes manufactured in state-owned factories. Yet when it comes to diagnostic tests there seems to be a reluctance to buy them in, even from other public bodies let alone from private firms. This ideological prejudice is proving costly.A new report by Matthew Lesh for the Adam Smith Institute, published today may explain the British failure compared with other countries when it comes to tackling the current pandemic by testing. On 14 March, Britain was the fifth best country for quantity of Covid-19 viral tests performed per capita. By 30 March it had fallen to 26th in the league.
‘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.
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