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 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.
My Times review of Gareth Williams's new book Unravelling The Double Helix.
Who discovered DNA? James Watson and Francis Crick, right? Wrong. Eighty years before they even approached the topic, in 1868, a young Swiss researcher, Friedrich Miescher, working at the University of Tübingen, discovered DNA as a chemical substance, though not its revealing structure.
Blagdon estate has hosted parts of two surface coal mines, at Brenkley and Shotton, for several years. We are proud to have done so mainly because of the jobs provided and the income to the local economy. But environmentally, too, these projects have been very positive. Managed by the Banks Group, the landscapes around these mines are surprisingly rich in wildlife, such as hares, lapwings, skylarks and wild flowers, including bee orchids in 2018. After restoration, the land has become a patchwork of good wildlife habitats thanks to sensitive restoration. They helped us to win the Bledisloe award for estate management from the Royal Agricultural Society of England.
I have always been careful to declare my interest in coal mining whenever relevant. I am keen to persuade fellow Northumbrians that surface coal mining elsewhere in the county, where I do not have an interest, can be good for the economy and the environment, and has a positive impact on emissions, because it substitutes for imported coal. I therefore recently wrote to James Brokenshire, secretary of state for Communities and Local Government, in support of the scheme to open a new surface mine at Highthorn in Northumberland. This is what I said:
“I am writing to you about a decision on a planning matter in Northumberland that I believe is vital for the county and the nation. As you will know, the Banks Group applied for planning permission to mine coal at Highthorn; this was approved by Northumberland county council; the government called it in and appointed an inspector, who ruled in favour of the scheme. You predecessor then rejected the inspector’s recommendation, but the court has now overturned his decision.
My Spectator article on a surge in medical and environmental pseudoscience:
‘The whole aim of practical politics,’ wrote H.L. Mencken, ‘is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.’ Newspapers, politicians and pressure groups have been moving smoothly for decades from one forecast apocalypse to another (nuclear power, acid rain, the ozone layer, mad cow disease, nanotechnology, genetically modified crops, the millennium bug…) without waiting to be proved right or wrong.
An expanded version of the my recent Times article:
Suppose Britain leaves the EU on March 29 with no deal, just a series of last-minute fixes on things such as aviation and data. And suppose it proves to be a fairly damp squib, with a handful of problems, talked up breathlessly by the BBC, but no significant shortages in shops, or disruptions to supply chains.
My article in the Wall Street Journal on the persistent appeal of pessimism:
Has the percentage of the world population that lives in extreme poverty almost doubled, almost halved or stayed the same over the past 20 years? When the Swedish statistician and public health expert Hans Rosling began asking people that question in 2013, he was astounded by their responses. Only 5% of 1,005 Americans got the right answer: Extreme poverty has been cut almost in half. A chimpanzee would do much better, he pointed out mischievously, by picking an answer at random. So people are worse than ignorant: They believe they know many dire things about the world that are, in fact, untrue.
My Review in The Times of Robert Plomin's new book:
For a long time there was an uncomfortable paradox in the world of behaviour genetics. The evidence for genes heavily influencing personality, intelligence and almost everything about human behaviour got stronger and stronger as more and more studies of twins and adoption came through. However, the evidence implicating any particular gene in any of these traits stubbornly refused to emerge, and when it did, it failed to replicate.
Ten years ago I recall talking to Robert Plomin about this crisis in the science of which he was and is the doyen. He was as baffled as anybody. The more genes seemed to matter, the more they refused to be identified. Were we missing something about heredity? He came close to giving up research and retiring to a sailing boat.
My Times column on the European Court of Justice's bizarre decision to treat genome edited crops as if they were transgenic:
The European Court of Justice has just delivered a scientifically absurd ruling, in defiance of advice from its advocate general, but egged on by Jean-Claude Juncker’s allies. It will ensure that more pesticides are used in Britain, our farmers will be less competitive and researchers will leave for North America. Thanks a bunch, your honours.
This is recent Times feature article I wrote on the incredible new discoveries of what seabirds get up to far from land, and on the man who first visited seabird colonies with a scientific eye in the 1660s. It's sometimes still possible to write this kind of discursive essay! This one is about two of my friends from the same research group at Oxford.
My recent Times essay on the history of vaping and why the UK became such a hub of electronic cigarettes:
Britain is the world leader in vaping. More people use ecigarettes in the UK than in any other European country. It’s more officially encouraged than in the United States and more socially acceptable than in Australia, where it’s still banned. There is a thriving sector here of vape manufacturers, retailers, exporters, even researchers; there are 1,700 independent vape shops on Britain’s streets. It’s an entrepreneurial phenomenon and a billion-pound industry.
The British vaping revolution dismays some people, who see it as a return to social acceptability for something that looks like smoking with unknown risks. Yet here, more than anywhere in the world, the government disagrees. Public Health England says that vaping is 95% safer than smoking and the vast majority of people who vape are smokers who are partly or wholly quitting cigarettes. The Royal College of Physicians agrees: “The public can be reassured that ecigarettes are much safer than smoking.”
My Times column on the parliamentary battle over Brexit:
Dominic Grieve, MP, and Viscount Hailsham are clever barristers both, and agreeable company. I was at Oxford with one, sit in the Lords with the other, and count them as friends. But what they are up to infuriates me. Their amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill — for it is a joint effort — is a masterpiece of ingenuity and subterfuge, and it has nearly succeeded in wrecking Brexit altogether, which was undoubtedly its purpose all along. Tonight in the Lords comes the latest and probably not the last battle.
Before the 2017 election Mr Grieve said he did not want to “fetter the government’s hands in negotiations, or indeed the government’s right to walk away from the negotiations”. Like many at that time he wanted to get the best possible deal in the softest possible Brexit. What changed?
My Times column on artificial intelligence:
As a member of the House of Lords select committee on artificial intelligence, whose report is released today, I was struck by two things during the course of our inquiry: how well placed Britain could be to take advantage of the new technologies that go under the name of AI, should we choose to play our cards right; and how pervasive and invisible this technology will prove to be.
The first point was driven home during an evidence session with a more than usually brilliant German professor, Wolfgang Wahlster, chief executive of the German Research Centre for AI. He said: “We have a very special approach that is based on Germany’s industrial strengths . . . This is quite different from the US approach, which is based more on internet services. We are more in the physical domain; you know that Germany is well known for its engineering and manufacturing.” He added: “Historically, the UK was the leading country in Europe in AI. It started in Edinburgh.”
My Times column on the rent-seeking crony-capitalists who stifle innovation:
While the world economy continues to grow at more than 3 per cent a year, mature economies, from Europe to Japan, are coagulating, unable to push economic growth above sluggish. The reason is that we have more and more vested interests against innovation in the private as well as the public sector.
Continuing prosperity depends on enough people putting money and effort into what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction. The normal state of human affairs is what The jurist Sir Henry Maine called a “status” society, in which income is assigned to individuals by authority. The shift to a “contract” society, in which people negotiate their own rewards, was an aberration and it’s fading. I am writing this from Amsterdam and am reminded we caught the idea off the Dutch, whose impudent prosperity so annoyed the ultimate status king, Louis XIV.
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