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 recent essay in the Wall Street Journal on South Georgia:
When you tell people that you’re going to South Georgia, some will ask if you’re changing planes in Atlanta. In fact, the name belongs to an island near Antarctica. It’s about the size of Rhode Island but with mountains rising to over 9,000 feet. It is a wilderness, uninhabited except for two small scientific stations and teeming with spectacular wildlife.
But don’t be fooled: The apparently pristine natural beauty of South Georgia is new. Like an old master painting that was badly damaged but has since been painstakingly restored, South Georgia was once utterly desecrated and is now gloriously refurbished.
My Retrospective article on Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, published in Nature magazine:
Books about science tend to fall into two categories: those that explain it to lay people in the hope of cultivating a wide readership, and those that try to persuade fellow scientists to support a new theory, usually with equations. Books that achieve both — changing science and reaching the public — are rare. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) was one. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is another. From the moment of its publication 40 years ago, it has been a sparkling best-seller and a scientific game-changer.
My column in The Times on Britain's EU membership referendum:
Public opinion about the European Union is divided, like Gaul, into three parts: one third are already firmly in the “leave” camp, one third would remain in whatever happens, and the tussle is over who gets the middle, undecided third. It’s like pulling a Christmas cracker — part of it will go one way, part of it the other; it’s what happens to the middle bit that matters.
The infighting that has broken out among those campaigning to leave is partly about personalities, of course, but it is also about how to appeal to those swing voters in the middle. Specifically, do you win these people over by talking about immigration, the issue that dominates the news, shows the EU at its most incompetent and reverberates strongly outside the metropolis, where people worry about the effect it has on houses, hospitals, schools and local services? That seems to be the view of the Leave.EU campaign, led by Arron Banks and with Nigel Farage as its best-known spokesman. They make the case that the metropolitan elite is out of touch with the bulk of public opinion.
My column in The Times on how South Georgia's environment has been repaired:
In claiming the Falklands, the Argentinian government also claims South Georgia, even though it is 700 miles further away from its coast, was unambiguously claimed by Captain Cook when uninhabited, and is run as a separate territory by the British government. Indeed, as I found out last week when I was lucky to visit courtesy of the island’s government, it is a place where something truly astonishing has been achieved in the world of conservation.
In summer South Georgia teems with wildlife: four million fur seals crowd its shores, elephant seals are piled in somnolent heaps on beaches, penguin colonies boggle the mind in their scale, the cliffs and slopes are alive with more than 50 million albatrosses, prions and petrels, while whales once again blow in the surrounding ocean. This wealth of wildlife is the result of changing economic incentives plus regulation— to stop sealing, whaling and penguinning and to control fishing.
My Times column on the winter floods in Britain:
My invitation to serve on the government’s flood defence review seems to have got stuck in the Christmas post. So here’s a memo, based on Northumberland gossip as well as published papers, for how it should go about its job.
My Times column on the Capability Brown tercentenary:
Next year marks the 300th birthday of Lancelot Brown at Kirkharle, in Northumberland, the man who saw “capability” in every landscape and indefatigably transformed England. In his 280 commissions, Capability Brown stamped his mark on some 120,000 acres, tearing out walls, canals, avenues, topiary and terraces to bring open parkland, with grassy tree-topped hills and glimpses of sinuous, serpentine lakes, right up to the ha-has of country houses.
Brown was not the first to design informal and semi-naturalistic landscapes: he followed Charles Bridgeman and William Kent. But he was by far the most prolific and influential. His is a type of landscape that is now imitated in parks all round the world, from Dubai to Sydney to Europe: it’s known as “jardin anglais” and was admired by Catherine the Great and Thomas Jefferson.
My Times column on the hedgehog decline, and the effect of badgers:
Hedgehogs, subjects of the Times Christmas Appeal, are to get their own summit, the Environment Secretary Liz Truss said last week. Hedgehogs really are in trouble. Their numbers have plunged, their range has shrunk and they have disappeared from large parts of the countryside altogether. The population has probably at least halved during this century and may now be 3% of what it was in the 1950s.
Yet when asked why this has happened conservation organisations nearly always talk of habitat loss and urban development. This makes no sense because hedgehogs now survive mostly in suburbs, not rural areas. The one thing the pressure groups hate mentioning is badgers. Yet the scientific evidence that an increase in Mr Brock may well be the chief cause of Mrs Tiggywinkle’s demise is – as I have been discovering by reading the scientific literature – overwhelming.
My article on the misuse of Malthus appeared in Standpoint magazine. It is an edited extract from my book, The Evolution of Everything. It is worth asking how John Gray could have reviewed that book and accused me of social Darwinism after reading this!
For more than 200 years, a disturbingly vicious thread has run through Western history, based on biology and justifying cruelty on an almost unimaginable scale. It centres on the question of how to control human population growth and it answers that question by saying we must be cruel to be kind, that ends justify means. It is still around today; and it could not be more wrong. It is the continuing misuse of Malthus.
My Times column on the underwhelming results of the climate conference and Britain's renegotiation with the European Union:
There’s an uncanny similarity between the climate negotiations that climaxed in Paris at the weekend and David Cameron’s European Union reform negotiations, which continue in Brussels this week. The original aims of both plans were far bolder than the outcome. Multilateral negotiation, however well intended, really is one of the great flops of the modern world.
My Times column on the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative:
Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan marked the birth of their daughter Max by promising to donate 99 per cent of their Facebook shares during their lifetimes to support good causes. For this they were pilloried by some. The economist Thomas Piketty called it a “big joke”. For author Linsey McGoey it was “business as usual, rebranding as philanthropy, and announced with a deceptive air of selflessness”.
We have reached new depths of cynicism when a couple say in a letter to their newborn child that “our hopes for your generation focus on two ideas: advancing human potential and promoting equality” and some people can only sneer. Much of the carping is deeply confused. The Zuckerbergs have been criticised for not handing their shares to a tax-deductible charitable foundation now, which would net them a big tax break up front, and in the very same breath for not handing over their fortune in tax.
I have written five articles on climate change science and policy in the past week, for Scientific American, The Times (twice), the Wall Street Journal and the Spectator. They follow here in the form of a lengthy essay. Sentences in square brackets have been added back in after being edited out when the pieces were shortened for publication.
First, on the science - from Scientific American:
My Times column on the rise of non-belief:
Fifty years ago, after the cracking of the genetic code, Francis Crick was so confident religion would fade that he offered a prize for the best future use for Cambridge’s college chapels. Swimming pools, said the winning entry. Today, when terrorists cry “God is great” in both Paris and Bamako as they murder, the joke seems sour. But here’s a thought: that jihadism may be a last spasm — albeit a painful one — of a snake that is being scotched. The humanists are winning, even against Islam.
My Times article on wind power is below. An astonishingly poor attack on the article was made in The Guardian by Mark Lynas. He failed to address all the main points I made: he failed to challenge the argument that wind power has not cut emissions, failed to challenge the argument that wind power has raised the cost of electricity, he failed to challenge my argument that wind speeds are correlated across Europe. And he made a hash of attempting to criticise my argument that wind has made the system less reliable. The gist of his case was that the recent short-term emergency that gave rise to price spikes was caused by coal-fired power station outages. But the point was that these coincided with a windless day. In a system of coal and gas, the weather would not matter, but in a system dependent on wind, then coal outages on a windless day cause problems. Surely this was not too difficult to understand, Mark? Note that Germany had a windless day too.
Mark Lynas then took to twitter boasting in troll-fashion that he had debunked my article where he was joined by the usual green cheerleaders. They have shot themselves in the foot, I am afraid. I remain astonished at the fervour with which greens like Mark defend wind power at all costs, despite growing evidence that it does real environmental harm, rewards the rich at the expense of the poor and does not cut carbon dioxide emissions significantly if at all. It might even make them worse, as I argue here. If they really are worried about emissions, why do greens love wind? It isn't helping.
I took part in a Munk debate on 6 November, in which Steven Pinker and I argued that "humanity's best days lie ahead" while Malcolm Gladwell and Alain de Botton argued against us. It was entertaining and we shifted the audience our way a little, although three-quarters were on our side at the start (which is probably not representative of the population as a whole).
Here's a video of the debate: http://www.munkdebates.com/debates/progress
My Times column on the western origin of the one-child policy:
The abolition of China’s one-child policy brings to an end one of the most futile and inhumane experiments in top-down social engineering the world has seen. I say futile because it did not work. China’s birth rate roughly halved in the decade before the policy was introduced, then fell not at all in the next decade. A less coercive policy would probably have slowed China’s population growth just as much, if not more — as it did that of other countries in Asia.
The Wall Street Journal carried an extract from my new book The Evolution of Everything.
The article caused a lot of interest, and was criticised by some as being anti-science. Nothing could be further from the truth and most of those making this case are not quoting the article accurately. The article is about technology and how it changes. It argues that technology is more often the mother than the daughter of science, but that's not a criticism of science. I am a passionate supporter of science, but I think it deserves to be liberated from the straitjacket of being seen as necessarily there mainly to give birth to technology. In addition I argue that science would attract funding from sources other than governments, but again that's not to say I think governments should suddenly cut off funding from science, given how many other things they fund. Anyway, here's what I actually wrote:
My Times column on the constitutional confrontation between the Lords and the Commons:
‘How can you have a constitutional crisis without a constitution?” asked a Dutch friend coming to a meeting in the House of Lords last week. Of course, it is because there is no written constitution that today’s attempts by Labour and the Liberal Democrats to defeat the will of the elected Commons in the unelected Lords on tax credits, or tomorrow’s on the electoral register, are a constitutional outrage, even if not strictly illegal.
My Times Column on the surprisingly large benefits of carbon dioxide emissions:
France’s leading television weather forecaster, Philippe Verdier, was taken off air last week for writing that there are “positive consequences” of climate change. Freeman Dyson, professor emeritus of mathematical physics and astrophysics at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, declared last week that the non-climatic effects of carbon dioxide are “enormously beneficial”. Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace, said in a lecture last week that we should “celebrate carbon dioxide”.
This is a longer version of an article I published in the Mail on Sunday:
The Volkswagen testing scandal exposes rotten corruption at the core of regulation. Far from ushering in a brave new world of cleaner air, the technologies adopted by European car makers, driven by policy makers in Brussels, have been killing thousands of people a year through an obsession with lowering emissions of harmless carbon dioxide, at the expense of creating higher emissions of harmful nitrogen oxides.
My Times column on the EU's idiotic attack on vaping:
When regulation goes wrong, people call for more regulation. Sometimes, though, regulation is the cause of the original problem. It is steadily becoming clear that the way the European Union does regulation is especially pernicious. It stifles innovation, often favours danger over safety, plays into the hands of vested interests and is inflexible and unaccountable. Volkswagen’s case is the tip of the iceberg.
In a shocking new case about dangerous emissions coming to court this week, the European Commission has passed regulations that are certain — not likely, certain — to hit the cleanest and lowest-emitting products much harder than their dirty competitors. I am not talking about diesel versus (cleaner) petrol engines, though I could be. Nor am I talking about pesticides versus (cleaner) genetically modified crops. Nor wood-burning versus (cleaner) fracking. I am talking about smoking versus (cleaner) vaping.
My Times column on the possibility that old age might itself be cured now we understand telomeres:
Squeezed between falling birth rates and better healthcare, the world population is getting rapidly older. Learning how to deal with that is one of the great challenges of this century. The World Health Organisation has just produced a report on the implications of an ageing population, which — inadvertently — reveals a dismal fatalism we share about the illnesses of old age: that they will always be inevitable.
My Times column on Britain's renegotiation with the European Union:
So the battle lines are drawn. “Vote Leave, Take Control” (of which I am a vice-president) is the campaign to leave the European Union if the renegotiation is inadequate. It launched last week and “Britain in a Stronger Europe”, the campaign to remain, launches today. Yet one argument increasingly unites both sides: the futility of the renegotiation. At both ends of the spectrum many people are now convinced that little will be asked for, or offered, or won.
My Times column on farm yields and the prospects for feeding the world in future:
This week’s autumn equinox is traditionally the time for the harvest festival. I have just taken a ride on the combine harvester cutting wheat on my farm. It is such a sophisticated threshing machine that long gone are the days when I could be trusted to take the controls during the lunch break. A screen showed how the GPS was steering it, inch-perfect and hands-free, along the edge of the unharvested crop; another screen gave an instant readout of the yield. It was averaging over five tonnes per acre (or 12 tonnes per hectare) — a record.
My Times column on Nicole Kidman's performance as Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51:
It’s not been a good fortnight for actresses and scientific accuracy. Last week Emma Thompson told the BBC that the world will warm by 4C by 2030 — about 3.5C too high, according to the experts. This week Nicole Kidman, whose performance as the DNA scientist Rosalind Franklin in Anna Ziegler’s play Photograph 51 begins its run on Monday, said she hopes to “put the spotlight” on the “inequality” of Franklin not getting the Nobel prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA. “She was not nominated. That’s not right.”
This is a pernicious myth, no less wrong for being well meant. Franklin was not nominated for the Nobel prize in 1962 because she was dead. The rules of the prizes are clear: they are only granted to the living. Had she lived it is highly likely she would have been nominated. Given that the discovery of the double helix in February 1953 was one of the greatest moments in science — up there with gravity, relativity and natural selection — it is crucial we do not let actresses rewrite the history.
My Times column is on the risks of genetic research and therapy:
Fifteen years after the first sequencing of the human genome, the genetic engineering of human beings is getting closer. Will that mean designer babies and the rich winning life’s lotteries from the start? And will we ever stop this slither down the slippery slope to playing God? My answers are: no, and I hope not. Despite dire predictions, almost nothing but good has come from genetic technology so far, and we’ve proved that we don’t slip down such slopes: we tread carefully.
The current excitement is over gene editing. A precise way of doing this, called CRISPR-cas9, is all the rage among the white-coated pipette-users. Last week, Britain’s five leading medical research bodies (one of which, I should declare, counts me as a fellow, the Academy of Medical Sciences) issued a joint statement supporting the careful use of the new technique on human cells for research and possibly therapy. They even recognised that there might one day be a justifiable demand to use the new technique on embryos in such a way that the changes would be inherited.
My Times column on African demography and the migration crisis:
Even the most compassionate of European liberals must wonder at times whether this year’s migration crisis is just the beginning of a 21st- century surge of poor people that will overwhelm the rich countries of our continent. With African populations growing fastest, are we glimpsing a future in which the scenes we saw on the Macedonian border, or on Kos or in the seas around Sicily last week will seem tame?
I don’t think so. The current migration crisis is being driven by war and oppression, not demography. Almost two thirds of the migrants reaching Europe by boat this year are from three small countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. These are not even densely populated countries: their combined populations come to less than England’s, let alone Britain’s, and none of them is in the top 20 for population growth rates.
My Times column on charities:
David Cameron, luxuriating in the prospect of weak opposition, has a chance to think about radical reform of both the private and public sectors. But there is a third sector that requires his attention even more urgently. He is well known to want to harness the generosity of Britain. To do that effectively the charity sector needs some big thinking — because after decades of regulatory neglect it is starting to unravel and is in crisis.
The collapse of Kids Company and the British Association for Adoption and Fostering should ring alarm bells throughout the sector: fear of failure or takeover is one of the things that keep private companies effective and, for too long, charities have not felt that breath on their neck. They have been given the benefit of the doubt because of their noble intent.
My Times Thunderer article on vaping:
The government now says vaping with e-cigarettes is such a good thing that we should be prescribing it and smokers should be rushing to take it up. It’s 95 per cent less harmful than smoking, it’s helping people to quit tobacco and there’s no evidence it’s a gateway into smoking: rather the reverse.
My Wall Street Journal column on how green scares have led to counterproductive actions:
‘We’ve heard these same stale arguments before,” said President Obama in his speech on climate change last week, referring to those who worry that the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon-reduction plan may do more harm than good. The trouble is, we’ve heard his stale argument before, too: that we’re doomed if we don’t do what the environmental pressure groups tell us, and saved if we do. And it has frequently turned out to be really bad advice.
Making dire predictions is what environmental groups do for a living, and it’s a competitive market, so they exaggerate. Virtually every environmental threat of the past few decades has been greatly exaggerated at some point. Pesticides were not causing a cancer epidemic, as Rachel Carson claimed in her 1962 book “Silent Spring”; acid rain was not devastating German forests, as the Green Party in that country said in the 1980s; the ozone hole was not making rabbits and salmon blind, as Al Gore warned in the 1990s. Yet taking precautionary action against pesticides, acid rain and ozone thinning proved manageable, so maybe not much harm was done.
My Times column on the paradox that planets seem to be abundant, but signs of life are rare:
The search for another world that can sustain life is getting warmer. We now know of 1,879 planets outside the solar system. A few weeks ago, we (the planetary we, that is: no thanks to me) found Earth’s twin, a planet of similar size and a habitable distance from its sun, but 1,400 light years from here. Last week we found a rocky planet close to a star just 21 light years away, which means if anybody lives there and tunes in to us, they could be watching the first episode of Friends.
Also last week the Philae lander’s results showed that the comet it is riding on has organic (carbon-based) molecules in its dust, the ingredients of life. Even in our own solar system we know of a moon, Titan, where it rains methane, and another, Europa, with an ice-covered ocean. In short, it is getting ever more likely that there are lots of bodies like Earth in our own galaxy alone: with liquid water and the right sort of temperatures for the carbon chemistry of the kind that life runs on here.
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