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.
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.
My Times column on the coming summit on climate policy in Paris:
The first council of Nicea, held 1,690 years ago this summer, decided upon a consensus about the nature of God, namely that the son had been “begotten not made, being of one substance with the father”, as Athanasius argued, and not created out of nothing, as Arius argued. Phew. Glad they settled that.
My Times column on the economy of Iceland:
I spent part of last week in Iceland, the antithesis of Greece. It’s been a hard winter and a cold spring up there, but despite the stiff northerly breeze off the Arctic ocean, economically speaking Iceland is basking in real warmth, while Greece shivers in financial winter. Iceland teaches a very acute lesson for Greece, Britain, Europe and the world: independence works.
My recent Times column on tax simplification:
Can we try tax simplification, please?
In June I published a lengthy essay in Quadrant magazine on the effect that the global warming debate is having on science itself:
For much of my life I have been a science writer. That means I eavesdrop on what’s going on in laboratories so I can tell interesting stories. It’s analogous to the way art critics write about art, but with a difference: we “science critics” rarely criticise. If we think a scientific paper is dumb, we just ignore it. There’s too much good stuff coming out of science to waste time knocking the bad stuff.
My Times column on Britain's opportunity to be the world's doctor:
If the 19th century saw extraordinary changes in transport, and the 20th saw amazing changes in communication, my money is on health as the transformative industry of the current century. It is already arguably the biggest industry in the world and it is growing at a phenomenal rate, especially in Asia, where India and China are expanding their health sectors at 15 per cent and 12 per cent a year respectively. And health is ripe for a series of revolutionary advances in biotechnology, digital technology, robotics and materials.
My Times Thunderer article on the pope's encyclical:
Why are people so down on technological progress? Pope Francis complains in his new encyclical about “a blind confidence in technical solutions”, of “irrational confidence in progress” and the drawbacks of the “technocratic paradigm”. He is reflecting a popular view, held across the political spectrum, from the Unabomber to Russell Brand, that technology, consumerism and progress have been bad for people, by making them more selfish and unhappy.
But however thoroughly you search the papal encyclical (a document that does at least pay heed to science, and to evolutionary biology in particular), you will find no data to support the claim that as people have got richer they have got nastier and more miserable. That is because the data points the other way. The past five decades have seen people becoming on average wealthier, healthier, happier, better fed, cleverer, kinder, more peaceful and more equal.
My Times column on the causes of extinction:
Human beings have been causing other species to go extinct at an unnatural rate over the past five centuries, a new study has confirmed. Whether this constitutes a “sixth mass extinction” comparable to that of the dinosaurs is more debatable, but bringing the surge in extinctions to an end is indeed an urgent priority in conservation.
So it is vital to understand how we cause extinctions. And here the study is dangerously wrong. It says that “habitat loss, overexploitation for economic gain, and climate change” are the main factors and that “all of these are related to human population size and growth, which increases consumption (especially among the rich)”.
My Spectator article on meeting the man who invented vaping, Hon Lik.
Few people have heard of Hon Lik, which is a pity because he’s probably saved more lives already than anybody else I have met. Twelve years ago, he invented vaping — the idea of getting nicotine vapour from an electronic device rather than a miniature bonfire between your lips. Vaping is driving smoking out at an extraordinary rate, promising to achieve what decades of public health measures have largely failed to do. And it is doing so without official encouragement, indeed with some official resistance.
My Times column on the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo:
In Waterloo week, I confess I am a sucker for tales of military glory. I cannot get enough of the closing of the doors of Hougoumont, the charge of the Scots Greys, Wellington’s use of the reverse slope, the moment when Ney’s Old Guard broke, or the disappearance of Lord Uxbridge’s leg. Not just Waterloo, but derring-do in general is often by my bedside: I’ve just finished reading books on climbing K2 and the Battle of the Bulge; I am up to speed on seracs and panzers.
My Times column on eco-modernism:
In the unlikely event that the G7 heads of state are reading The Times at breakfast in Schloss Elmau in Bavaria, may I make a humble suggestion? On their agenda, alongside Ukraine, Greece, ebola and Fifa, is Angela Merkel’s insistence that they discuss “sustainability”. The word is usually shorthand for subsidising things that are not commercially sustainable, but if they want to make it meaningful, they have a ready-made communiqué to hand. It comes in the form of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, a short but brilliant essay published online recently by 18 prominent greens. It gets sustainability right at last.
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