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 column in the Times on recent sensational discoveries relating to human evolution in Africa:
News is dominated by sudden things — bombs, fires, election results — and so gradual news sometimes get left out. The past month has seen three discoveries in Africa that radically change our understanding of a crucial phase in human evolution. For those interested in the common history of all humanity, this should really be among the biggest news of the year.
The first of these discoveries is genetic. Swedish and South African scientists have made the origin of us — modern human beings — an even more mind-bogglingly gradual phenomenon than we used to think. Here is what they found. A skeleton of a boy who died 2,000 years ago at a place called Ballito Bay has yielded a good sample of preserved DNA. He was a Khoe-San, that is to say an indigenous native of southern Africa of the kind once called “bushmen”, who still live in the Kalahari desert.
My review of Chris Thomas's fine book, Inheritors of the Earth:
If human beings were to vanish from the Earth, what would their effect on wildlife have been? A rash of extinctions, a lot of mixing up so that wallabies and parakeets live in England and rabbits and sparrows in Australia, but also — according to Chris Thomas — an eventual doubling in the number of species on the planet: a “sixth genesis”, as he calls it in reference to the five previous times that biodiversity has expanded rapidly after a mass extinction. We are causing a mass speciation.
My Times column on conservation and the British countryside:
Even Michael Gove’s enemies concede he is good at tackling vested interests. Even his friends concede he has a knack for making enemies in the process. In his new job as secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, if he is to achieve anything, he may have to do a lot of both. So here’s a field guide to the vested interests he will encounter in the countryside.
Belated posting of my post-election Times column:
For those of us who want a clean Brexit and who champion freedom and innovation rather than socialism, the election result was a shattering disappointment. It reduced the party that most embraces free enterprise to a minority in the House of Commons and leaves us with a diminished and humiliated government less likely to win crucial concessions from a European Union emboldened to be more punitive — all against a background of teenager-murdering theocracy.
But, as the first shock fades, I am finding a few crumbs of comfort. Not optimism exactly, but glimmers of light amid the gloom. Here is my top ten.
My Times column on Britain's general election and the missing optimism about innovation:
Against the background of a terrorist campaign, a Tory government under a determined woman was cruising towards an easy victory against a socialist Labour party in a June election, but stumbling badly in the campaign. It was a dangerous world, with an impulsive American president and an undemocratic Russia and China. There was a funding crisis in the NHS and dire warnings of global environmental disaster: yes, this was 1987, the year of Margaret Thatcher’s third election victory — and of the Enniskillen bombing, shortly after, which killed 12 and injured 63.
Neil Kinnock’s Labour manifesto of 1987 reads very like Jeremy Corbyn’s: in favour of nationalised utilities and more money for the NHS, against nuclear missiles. The two manifestos said “this general election on June 11 faces the British people with choices more sharp than at any time in the past 50 years” (1987), and “what makes this election different is that the choice is starker than ever before” (2017).
My Times column on the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein and the 600th of De Rerum Natura's rediscovery:
It was in May 1817, two centuries ago this month, that Mary Shelley completed the writing of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, which was published anonymously the next year. That first science-fiction novel has come to represent all that is dangerous about science. As well as being enacted almost 80 times in films, the book lends its plot to almost every film in which a scientist goes too far, as they usually do in films, from Metropolis to Jurassic Park. It inspires every campaign against biotechnology: the green movement fatally christened genetically modified crops “Frankenfoods”.
Gothic fantasy has infected reality. Those of us who argue that biological innovation — tinkering with the stuff of life — has proved a great force for good, and that the risk of hubristic disaster from research is largely a myth, could wish that Mary Shelley had not written the darned book, in which a brilliant scientist brings to life with an electric spark
My Times column on an academic hoax:
The latest university prank is embarrassing to academia and hilarious for the rest of us. Philosophy professor Peter Boghossian and mathematician Dr James Lindsay made up a learned paper on the “conceptual penis” as a “gender-performative, highly fluid social construct” that is “the conceptual driver behind much of climate change”, stuffed it full of random jargon and fake references and then got it through peer review into an academic journal.
True, it was a low-grade, pay-to-publish journal of the kind that has proliferated recently as a money-making venture, but the authors were recommended to try that journal by a serious journal, and the peer review was genuine. As the authors have written of their own work: “We don’t understand it either. Nobody does. This problem should have rendered it unpublishable in all peer-reviewed, academic journals.”
My Times column on obesity:
Even optimists admit that some things are undoubtedly getting worse: things like traffic jams, apostrophe use — and obesity. The fattening of the human race, even in middle-income countries, is undeniable. “Despite sustained efforts to tackle childhood obesity, one in three adolescents is still estimated to be overweight or obese in Europe,” said a report last week to the World Health Organisation. That means more diabetes and possibly a reversal of the recent slow fall in age-adjusted cancer and heart disease death rates.
My Times column on malware, ransomware and the battle against viruses:
The WannaCry ransomware cyberattack of last week, which briefly crippled much of the National Health Service, may be the biggest, but it will not be the last outbreak of cybercrime. Remember your Through the Looking-Glass. The Red Queen lives in a world where, she says: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.” We, the good guys, are locked in a Red Queen race with hackers, just as we, the human race, are locked in a race with real viruses, and with antibiotic resistance.
It is a race in which permanent victory is impossible, but so is permanent defeat. Perpetual struggle is inevitable. I say this with confidence because for once the biological analogies are apt. The right way to think about cybersecurity is epidemiological. Indeed, the similarity between a computer virus and a real virus is more than a metaphor: both are pieces of linear digital information (one made of binary electronic digits, the other of quaternary DNA bases) capable of getting themselves replicated and spread. One leading theory is that sexual intercourse evolved, a billion years ago, as a security patch against parasites.
My Spectator article on the futile numbers behind wind power:
The Global Wind Energy Council recently released its latest report, excitedly boasting that ‘the proliferation of wind energy into the global power market continues at a furious pace, after it was revealed that more than 54 gigawatts of clean renewable wind power was installed across the global market last year’.
My Times article on badger culling:
If Theresa May is happy to see a return of foxhunting, she must be consistent and face down the misguided animal welfare lobby with a pledge to cull more badgers. There are three reasons that a continuing, wider and bigger badger cull is the right thing to do for humane, as well as financial and environmental, reasons.
My Times column on the Paris climate deal:
President Trump will decide shortly whether to pull the US out of the Paris agreement on climate change. By all accounts, his instincts and his campaign promises encourage him to do so while his daughter Ivanka and his secretary of state Rex Tillerson want him not to. He has already started rolling back the “clean power plan”, which was Barack Obama’s way of meeting America’s commitment under the Paris agreement.
If he does pull out, or send the agreement to the Senate for ratification on the grounds that it is a “treaty” — something Obama took great pains to try to deny so that he would not have to send it to the Senate — there will be a fresh paroxysm of rage among his critics. Climate scepticism is high among reasons that the left hates Trump. By contrast, it is one of the few things on which I half agree with him.
Here's my recent Times column:
An open letter to George Freeman MP, chairman of the government’s policy board.
Dear George, as a former biotech venture capitalist, you are a passionate champion of innovation. It has pulled an average of 137,000 people out of extreme poverty each and every day of the past 25 years. It’s the only thing that can pay off our £1.9 trillion national debt while keeping our grandchildren prosperous. You are on record as saying: “We have a once-in-a-generation chance to seize the opportunities to make the UK the innovation capital of the world, defying the doubters and being clear that we will go on leading the world in science and technology.”
My Times column on meat eating:
A few years ago I had a conversation at Harvard with Steven Pinker, the bestselling evolutionary psychologist. We were both writing optimistic books at the time, his being The Better Angels of Our Nature, about the decline in violence over recent centuries. I asked him: if all sorts of violence and cruelty were considered acceptable a century or two ago and are now beyond the pale — slavery, child labour, bear-baiting, wife-beating and so forth — then what routine habits do we practise today that we will look back on with horror in two or three generations’ time?
That’s easy, he replied: meat-eating. Don’t get me wrong, he added, I like meat, but the trend of history is clear, that one day in the future people may well look back on the rearing of animals for slaughter as barbaric. The number of animals killed for food each year — about 60 billion chickens, 1.5 billion pigs, a billion sheep and goats and 300 million cows — continues to rise.
My Times column on a shocking case of European policy cover-up over bees and insecticides:
Is the European Commission determined to dim the Enlightenment? I ask this because its behaviour in one specific instance goes so utterly with dogma and against evidence as to suggest that there is no longer even a pretence of respect for reason left in Brussels. It concerns bees.
My Times column on dietary intolerance:
I suggest you finish your breakfast before reading this column.
My Times column on Douglas Carswell's book Rebel:
I am writing this from the Netherlands, where one of the most gruesome paintings in the Rijksmuseum, by Jan de Baen, depicts the eviscerated bodies of the de Witt brothers, hanging upside down after the mob had killed them and then roasted and eaten their livers in 1672. It is an episode mentioned in a new book published this week by Douglas Carswell, MP, called Rebel, in which he wrestles with an eternal dilemma: why populist revolutions sometimes bring tyranny.
"It is wrong to describe this as Islamic terrorism. It is Islamist terrorism. It is a perversion of a great faith.” This is what the prime minister said in parliament after the attack on Westminster Bridge that killed three tourists and a policeman. While I completely accept that the sins of extremists should never be visited on the vast majority of moderate believers, I am increasingly uneasy about how we handle the connection between religion and extremism. The ideology to which Khalid Masood was converted in prison may indeed be a perversion of Islam, but it is a version of it. We should not shy away from saying so.
After Nice, Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation wrote that saying such terrorism has nothing to do with Islam (as some do) is as dangerous as stating that it has everything to do with Islam. The terrorists in London, Paris, Brussels, Nice, Munich, Berlin, Würzburg, Ansbach, Orlando, San Bernardino, Sydney, Bali, New York, Bombay and many other places have been white, black and brown, rich, poor and middle class, male and female, gay and straight, immigrant and native, young and (now) older. The one thing they have in common is that they had been radicalised by religious preachers claiming to interpret the Koran.
Moreover, while a few sick individuals find within Islam justification for murder and terror, a far larger number find justification for misogyny and intolerance. We must be allowed to say this without being thought to criticise Muslims as people.
My Times column on Britain and India:
By 2022, India will have overtaken China to become the most populous country in the world and, growing fast, will be rapidly returning towards the dominant position it held in the world economy for centuries. It was the world’s economic superpower when imperial Rome and Han China were its junior trading partners. It still represented one quarter of the world economy when Britain began to conquer it in 1757.
An expanded and updated version of my Times column on free trade agreements and Brexit:
The prime minister will soon press the button and launch Article 50 on its inexorable, ballistic trajectory towards impact in March 2019. From the political class here, let alone in Brussels, comes incessant pessimism about those two years: it will be fractious, we are not ready to negotiate, a trade agreement is all but impossible, the timetable is too tight, we’re going over a cliff.
My Times column on the frequent statistical reasoning mistakes that lead to bad policies:
Budget week might be a good time to remind ourselves of the fallacies on which bad policies feed. Last year the University of Michigan’s Professor Richard Nisbett wrote a short book called Mindware, about the ways in which people deceive themselves and others about statistical reasoning. Since reading it, I have been noticing examples of the art everywhere.
Think of Nisbett’s book as a field guide to a nature reserve. Keep an eye out for the Sunk Cost fallacy, wherein you argue that a nuclear power station or a supersonic airliner must be built because you have spent a fortune on it already. It should never matter how much cost has already been sunk into a project: it is only worth spending more if it is cost-effective.
My recent Times column on gene editing's possibilities:
Scientists at the Roslin Institute, near Edinburgh, said last week that they had edited the genomes of pigs, rendering them immune to a dangerous virus. The announcement is extraordinary precisely because it sounds almost routine these days. Gene editing is already starting to save the lives of human cancer patients and generate healthier crops. Yet the battle to ensure it gains favour with public opinion must be urgently addressed. The usual suspects are already trying to blacken its name.
My Times column on Britain's self-inflicted diesel scandal:
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, is right to try to switch the capital away from diesel engines as fast as possible, even if this is tough on those duped into buying diesel cars by years of government incentives and propaganda. Diesel engines do make for worse air quality than petrol engines, and air pollution does almost certainly kill people in significant numbers.
In 2010, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (Comeap) found that in Britain poor air quality “may have made some contribution to the earlier deaths of up to 200,000 people in 2008, with an average loss of life of about two years per death affected”.
A longer version of my Times column on free speech:
"In a free state, tongues too should be free,” wrote Erasmus 501 years ago. In truth, although Britain was often more tolerant than many countries, people have never been entirely free to speak their minds here. Blasphemy and sedition got you into trouble for centuries. There was uproar when Ken Clarke invited Oswald Mosley to address the Cambridge Union in 1961. The law has always rightly forbidden incitement to violence.
An expanded version of my Wall Street Journal article on bees, pesticides and how environmental activists gamed the system:
To those who have engaged with environmental activists in recent years, the concept of fake news is old hat. From Greenpeace’s hundred-fold exaggeration of the oil in the Brent Spar oil platform in 1995 to Friends of the Earth’s slap-down by Britain’s Advertising Standards Agency over fracking untruths in 2017, we have grown used to being told “alternative facts” that later turn out to be wrong by those with green axes to grind. The latest episode of environmental activists playing fast and loose with the facts, however, may be their undoing.
My Times column on the revelations of problems with the global surface temperature record at NOAA:
Back in December, some American scientists began copying government climate data onto independent servers in what press reports described as an attempt to safeguard it from political interference by the Trump administration. There is to be a March for Science in April whose organisers say: “It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.”
Well, today they have a chance to do just that, but against their own colleagues who stand accused of doing what they claim the Trump team has done. Devastating new testimony from John Bates, a whistleblowing senior scientist at America’s main climate agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, alleges that scientists themselves have been indulging in alternative facts, fake news and policy-based evidence.
My Times column on British environmental policy:
Andrea Leadsom, the agriculture and environment secretary, is to set out her plans for the British countryside in two green papers: one on the environment this week and one on farming later. She should be ambitious and positive: the future, post-Brexit, could be bright and green.
My Times column on the Industrial Strategy:
Theresa May’s “modern industrial strategy”, launched today, must avoid the ignominious fate of its predecessors. One by one they failed. Diagnosis of Britain’s problems is not difficult; treatment is harder. How can a government close the productivity gap, improve our low investment levels, heal the north-south divide, overcome our habitual pattern of inventing but not exploiting new ideas, and create an economy that “works for everyone”?
I do not presume to know all the answers, but I trust that the prime minister and Greg Clark, her business secretary, have begun by learning a lesson from the history of industrial strategies, Labour and Conservative: top-down solutions will not work; bottom-up ones might.
My Times column on Brexit, Trump and free trade:
In the week that Theresa May reveals the trajectory of Brexit and Donald Trump enters the White House, these two “revolutions” are once again linked by coincidence of timing. For much of the rest of the world, and even in the minds of many people in Britain, the result of last June’s referendum and the outcome of last November’s presidential election are part of the same phenomenon: a revolt against globalisation by a forgotten, provincial, working class.
My Times column on UK university policy:
The government’s higher education bill will run a gauntlet of opposition starting today in the House of Lords, where many members are chancellors, fellows or other panjandrums of the grander universities. Some criticisms will be self-serving and wrong: the bill has good features. But in one central respect, critics are right. This is nationalisation. The bureaucrats of the Department for Education have long wanted to get more control of universities and this bill finally grants their wish.
Britain has some of the world’s best universities, second only to America. The chief reason is that they have been almost as autonomous as the great private universities of the Ivy League. This is for three historical reasons. First, thanks to the Bill of Rights of 1689, they escaped the centralised control that continental universities experienced from first the church and then the Napoleonic or Bismarckian state.
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