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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His new book How Innovation Works is coming June 25th in the UK and was released May 19th in the US and Canada.
My review of Unfit for Purpose: When human evolution collides with the modern world by Adam Hart, for The Critic:
Our ancestors have spenta few hundred years in cities at most. Before that, they spent a million years or more on what was essentially a perpetual camping trip, most of it in Africa. Little wonder then that people are more easily scared of snakes than cars, of deep water than speed, of spiders than guns. We are, to a significant extent, adapted to the environment we evolved in, rather than the one most of us now inhabit.
This mismatch explains quite a lot about our modern problems, and Adam Hart, an entomologist and broadcaster, has set out to see just how far, and how convincingly, mismatch can explain things like allergies, obesity, and our addiction to drugs, social media and even fake news. His book is especially valuable because it does not fall for simplistic “just-so” stories without checking the actual evidence first.
My article for The Times:
When he knew he was dying, the scientist JBS Haldane wrote that he hadn’t walked on the seafloor from England to France, but he had been wounded in war, known the love of two women, tried heroin and bhang, eaten 60g of hexahydrated strontium chloride in an attempt to change the acidity of his blood, and spent 48 hours in a miniature submarine.
His spine was permanently damaged by the convulsions brought on by more than 100 self-experiments, during the Second World War, inside decompression chambers filled with various gases, trying to understand how to save submariners’ lives.
My article for The Telegraph:
Like the ancient mariner, the virus refuses to leave us alone. Resurging in Blackburn, Spain, and America, it is still going to be around here when the winter comes. As we head indoors, it will be back for a dreaded second wave, disguised among a host of colds and flus. Yet I am now optimistic that the nightmare will end this year or at least by the spring. Here are five reasons.
First, vaccine trials were promising. Having proved safe and capable of raising both a T-cell response and an antibody response, Oxford University’s vaccine, developed in collaboration with Astrazeneca, is now more likely to succeed than to fail, so long as its side effects are manageable in the elderly. And behind it comes a stream of other vaccines, some of which will surely work.
The second half of my much-anticipated interview with Silicon Valley legend Naval Ravikant in May is now available. We discussed my new book How Innovation Works and more.
It was a wonderful discussion, and I appreciated hearing the perspective of a true entrepreneur and innovator.
You can listen to it via his YouTube page below, or download it on Apple Podcasts, or download it elsewhere or read the transcript on his website.
The first half of my much-anticipated interview with Silicon Valley legend Naval Ravikant in May is now available. We discussed my new book How Innovation Works and more.It was a wonderful discussion, and I appreciated hearing the perspective of a true entrepreneur and innovator.
You can listen to it on his YouTube page below, download it on Apple Podcasts, or download it elsewhere or read the transcript on his website.
My article for PERC:
In 1980, the year that PERC was founded, I spent three months in the Himalayas working on a wildlife conservation project. The purpose was to do wildlife surveys on behalf of the Indian government in the stunningly beautiful valleys of the Kulu region in northern India, among forests of deodar cedar and evergreen oak. One species of particular interest was a bird called the western tragopan, a large, spotted gray forest pheasant with red plumage around the neck and bright blue skin on the male’s throat. The bird was found only in a few places and thought to be teetering on the brink of extinction.
Though we saw other pheasant species, we never saw a tragopan that year, but some of the people we met knew of the bird, and one even handed me the remains of a tragopan that had been shot for food. I feared it might be the last one. I wanted to come back in the spring when the birds’ mating calls might give them away in the deep bamboo thickets they preferred, but work prevented me.
My article for the Telegraph:
It is now three weeks since thousands of protesters first gathered in Trafalgar Square, and two weeks since London filled with even larger crowds, few of whom wore masks or kept two metres apart, and some of whom got involved in fights, resulting in arrests and injuries: a perfect recipe for spreading the coronavirus. Yet there has been a continuing decline in new cases of the disease and no uptick in calls to 111 or 999 about suspected Covid-19. By now, some effect should have shown up if it was going to. In June, London has seen fewer deaths from all causes than in a normal year. Why is this?
While respiratory viruses nearly always evolve towards lower virulence, essentially because the least sick people go to the most meetings and parties, this one was never very dangerous for most people in the first place. Its ability to kill 80-year-olds in care homes stands in sharp contrast with its inability to kill younger people. Fewer than 40 people under the age of 40 with no underlying conditions have died in Britain. On board the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, 1,100 sailors tested positive, many had no symptoms and only one died.
My article for the Inside Sources network:
The agriculture bill before the House of Lords today offers a chance for plant breeders to make safer, more productive crops that need fewer chemicals. Britain has a long track record of safe and efficient plant breeding but the industry is unable to use the latest techniques because of a rogue decision by the European Union in 2018.
A proposed amendment to the bill would allow the government to consult on whether to use the same definition of a genetically modified organism (GMO) as most of the rest of the world. Doing so would exempt 90 per cent of crops produced by the new and precise method known as genome editing.
In a few minutes, I will be returning to The Yaron Brook Show for another interview. A lot has happened in the 2.5 months since my last visit, so I am sure we will have a lot to discuss. We will be discussing not just innovation and the pandemic but other recent news, and anything you wish to ask about.
If you haven't been able to get your question answered at any of my talks in recent weeks, this would be a good chance to, as Yaron hosts a Q&A-based show and we'll be taking questions on YouTube in real time!
Please join us, and please be sure to watch it here after if you miss it.
The scientific establishment in this country has had a bad war. Its mistakes have probably made the Covid-19 epidemic, as well as the economic downturn, worse. Britain entered the pandemic late, with lots of warning, so we should have done better than other countries. Instead we are one of the worst affected in Europe and one of the last to begin to recover.
Not all the mistakes were driven by science. The decisions by Public Health England not to go out to the market for testing, protective equipment and logistics, to cease testing almost completely in March and to send people to care homes from hospitals affected by the virus – these were just bureaucratic bone-headedness. But the obsession with mathematical modelling lies behind other mistakes and continues to this day with the ridiculous fixation on a meaningless generalisation called R.
My article for Spectator:
The killer came from the east in winter: fever, cough, sore throat, aching muscles, headache and sometimes death. It spread quickly to all parts of the globe, from city to city, using new transport networks. In many cities, the streets were empty and shops and schools deserted. A million died. The Russian influenza pandemic of 1889-90 may hold clues to what happens next — not least because the latest thinking is that it, too, may have been caused by a new coronavirus.
In addition to the new diseases of Sars, Mers and Covid-19, there are four other coronaviruses that infect people. They all cause common colds and are responsible for about one in five such sniffles, the rest being rhinoviruses and adenoviruses. As far as we can tell from their genes, two of these coronaviruses came from African bats (one of them bizarrely via alpacas or camels), and two from Asian rodents, one of them via cattle.
I have taken a break from media appearances since Thursday—I needed a rest, and I'd say I like birds even more than innovation—but it was a wonderful first two weeks for me and for the book, thanks to you.
Here's an update on the launch, and what's planned for the coming weeks.
What Did You Think?
My article for the Wall Street Journal:
New research has deepened, rather than dispelled, the mystery surrounding the origin of the coronavirus responsible for Covid-19. Bats, wildlife markets, possibly pangolins and perhaps laboratories may all have played some role, but the simple story of an animal in a market infected by a bat that then infected several human beings no longer looks credible.
My blog post for Human Progress:
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.
I am delighted to be launching my new book How Innovation Works this week, which has officially arrived in the United States and Canada.
If you want to read it now, you can get the Kindle or audiobook (read by myself!) instantly.
But hardcover orders are even better! More on that below.
My latest article for Spectator:
The argument that vitamin D deficiency may contribute to more severe cases of Covid is gaining ground. It is now reaching the point where it is surprising that we are not hearing from leading medical officials and politicians that people should consider taking supplements to ensure they have sufficient vitamin D.
This is not the same as arguing that vitamin D is a magic bullet that will cure the disease. Vitamins are not medication, the taking of which will have positive effects on everybody. They are top-ups: things that hurt you when you don’t have enough of them in your system but do no extra good when you have enough. Indeed, with many vitamins, including D, taking too much can be toxic.
My article for the Wall Street Journal Saturday Essay, adapted from How Innovation Works which is available Tuesday, the 19th of May:
The Covid-19 pandemic reveals that far from living in an age of incessant technological change, we have been neglecting innovation in exactly the areas where we most need it. Faced with a 17th-century plague, we are left to fall back mainly on the 17th-century response of quarantine and closing the theaters.
At the start of the pandemic, China built a hospital in double-quick time and we all thought, “that’s why they are so good at economic growth”. Then Britain did the same, proving we can do it too. Medical devices have been rushed through the approval process in days. Vaccine development is being brilliantly accelerated. We have shown we can do things quickly. Why can’t we do the same in ordinary times?Like every small business owner, I find that quangos always take far, far longer than they need over decisions.A local river trust cleaning out an old fish-pass on a river took several months to get approval from the Environment Agency; the work took one day. An attempt to turn derelict farm buildings into shops has so far taken local planning officials seven years to (not yet) decide.Getting permission to extend a track by a hundred yards took Natural England many months of hesitation and several site visits.The problem that faces firms up and down the country is not that regulators say no, but that they take an age to say yes. A local firm has been trying to start a project that would bring 200 good jobs and millions of pounds of tax revenue. It has been through planning permission, an inquiry, an appeal and a court case – winning at every stage. It was promised a ministerial decision last June and is still waiting, five years after applying.From Heathrow Airport’s new runway to notifying you of a medical test result, everything seems to take far longer than necessary.For private enterprise, time is money; delay can be lethal. Companies like Amazon, for all their faults, recognise this and promise you rapid delivery. For the public sector, there is no urgency. If the rules state that you must receive a reply within three weeks, then lo and behold, the reply arrives after three weeks, never two.It can take up to six years to get a medical device – a new and faster diagnostic test for viruses, say – licensed in most European countries, including this one. Entrepreneurs cannot wait that long; their money runs out. We will never know how many innovations such delays have deterred, but they are surely one of the main reasons we were not better prepared for this pandemic.
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Last week, I did an AMA with a community called whatshouldireadnext.com and the answers are now available on their blog.
I answered 23 questions in total from their community and staff as well as a few from social media, discussing the usual topics of innovation and the pandemic, but also some new ones like time management, murder hornets, and what the Earth might be like in one hundred or a thousand years. Here are some highlights:
The thing that most surprised me about this episode was realising how slow vaccine development still is. The big prize would be much faster and more oven-ready vaccines for viruses. But I suspect antiviral drugs will make big strides during this pandemic too as they did during ebola. And hand-held, instant DNA PCR testing kits will surely become a big part of the world's preparedness.
With the North America release of How Innovation Works just one week away, I am unable to travel to the US to promote the book as I would normally do. So my team and I are trying to come up with creative ways to promote the book while also sharing free content and prizes with you.When books are released, those who have helped me write the book as well as press and other insiders get free, often signed copies. We thought regular readers should have a chance to get one themselves, especially with live events being impossible right now.So we decided to give away at least ten free signed copies of How Innovation Works to fans in the US and Canada.
In fact, I recently signed over one hundred labels to mail to the US publisher to put on review copies and other copies for media and influencers. So this year, these ten fans will be among the very few to get a directly signed copy!There are three ways to enter the drawing:
My article with MP David Davis for The Telegraph:
My article for The Spectator:
We know everything about Sars-CoV-2 and nothing about it. We can read every one of the (on average) 29,903 letters in its genome and know exactly how its 15 genes are transcribed into instructions to make which proteins. But we cannot figure out how it is spreading in enough detail to tell which parts of the lockdown of society are necessary and which are futile. Several months into the crisis we are still groping through a fog of ignorance and making mistakes. There is no such thing as ‘the science’.
This is not surprising or shameful; ignorance is the natural state of things. Every new disease is different and its epidemiology becomes clear only gradually and in retrospect. Is Covid-19 transmitted mainly by breath or by touching? Do children pass it on without getting sick? Why is it so much worse in Britain than Japan? Why are obese people especially at risk? How many people have had it? Are ventilators useless after all? Why is it not exploding in India and Africa? Will there be a second wave? We do not begin to have answers to these questions.
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.
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.
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