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 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.
My recent Spectator diary:
Martin Williams, former head of the government’s air quality science unit, has declared that the reason we have a problem with air pollution now is that ‘policy has been focused on climate change, and reducing CO2 emissions, to the exclusion of much else, for most of the past two decades. Diesel was seen as a good thing because it produces less CO2, so we gave people incentives to buy diesel cars.’ Yet another example of how the global warming obsession has been bad for the environment — like subsidising biofuels, which encourage cutting down rainforests; or windfarms, which kill eagles and spoil landscapes; or denying coal-fired electricity to Africa, where millions die each year from the effects of cooking over smoky wood fires.
Greens are too hard on coal. If much of the world had not switched from wood to coal in the 1800s, we would have deforested the planet almost entirely. By 1860, Britain was getting as much energy from coal as a forest the size of Scotland could yield; today, we’d need a forest the size of South Africa. And coal produces less carbon dioxide than wood per unit of energy. I would say this, wouldn’t I? My ancestors were in coal from about 1700 and I still am, hosting a temporary surface mine on my land. It provides good jobs, lots of tax, a community benefits fund and an income windfall for local residents as well as me. Plus opportunities for spectacular restoration schemes, like Northumberlandia (look it up). It also helps keep electricity affordable.
My Times column on unaccountable chairmen of international agencies:
The Fifa fiasco is not just about football. It is also emblematic of a chronic problem with international bureaucracies of all kinds. The tendency of supranational quangos to become the personal fiefdoms of their presidents or directors-general, and to sink into lethargy or corruption, followed by brazen defiance when challenged, is not unique to Fifa or sport. It is an all too common pattern.
My Times column on the U-turn over cholesterol and saturated fat:
If you are reading this before breakfast, please consider having an egg. Any day now, the US government will officially accept the advice to drop cholesterol from its list of “nutrients of concern” altogether. It wants also to “de-emphasise” saturated fat, given “the lack of evidence connecting it with cardiovascular disease”.
My Times column on the flawed fossil-fuel divestment campaign:
Institutions and pension funds are under pressure to dump their investments in fossil-fuel companies. The divestment movement began in America, jumped the Atlantic and has become the cause célèbre of the retiring editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger. The idea is that if we do not “leave it in the ground”, the burning of all that carbon will fry the climate.
Some are resisting: the Wellcome Trust has politely declined to divest, saying it thinks it is better to keep the shares so it can lean on company executives to decarbonise; the University of Edinburgh unexpectedly voted last week not to divest, using a similar argument; and Boris Johnson has just rejected a motion by the London Assembly to divest its pension funds of fossil-fuel shares. The Church of England has cunningly confined its divestment to “thermal coal” and Canadian oil sands companies, getting good publicity but not having to sell many shares.
My review in The Times of Dieter Helm's book Natural Capital:
The easiest way to get a round of applause at a conference of ecologists is to make a rude joke about economists. Nature-studiers think money-studiers are heartless vandals who demand the rape of Mother Nature in the quest to build up piles of financial assets at the expense of natural ones. Dieter Helm, an Oxford professor, is a professional economist but he is bravely crossing the floor into ecology and wants to show how to build up “natural capital”.
Extreme greens — those who advocate giving up civilisation and handing the planet back to nature — will not like it. Not a man to pull his punches, Helm thinks economic growth is a good thing for poor people, that the followers of Malthus have “never appreciated the full impact of technology on resource scarcity” and that “a sort of totalitarianism lurks uncomfortably and implicitly in some of the manifestos of more extreme green groups”.
My Times column on bee declines and neonicotinoid pesticides:
So those beastly farmers want the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides lifted to help them to poison more bees, eh? Britain’s honeybees are supposedly declining and so are our 25 species of bumblebee and 230 species of solitary bee. “Almost all are in decline,” laments one of the green blob’s tame journalists, echoing thousands of other articles.
But it’s bunk. There is no continuing decline in honeybee or wild bee numbers. There was in the 1980s when the varroa mite hit bee hives. But not today. Honeybee numbers are higher today than they were in the 1990s when neo-nics began to be widely used. This is true in Europe, North America and the world. There are about ten million more beehives in the world today than there were in 2000.
My Times column on reform as a political theme:
If there is political paralysis on Friday, as seems likely, and given how many of their powers national politicians have anyway passed to bodies like the Bank of England and the European Commission, perhaps we can look forward to a spell of legislative calm. That might be no bad thing. But there is one thing even a weak minority government can and should do: reform.
The great political battles that shaped the history of parliament, especially in the 19th century, were all about reform. Prison reform, social reform, moral reform, civil service reform, reform of the corn laws, above all parliamentary reform. The very purpose of the old Liberal party, meeting in the Reform Club, was reform.
My Times column on a perverse outcome of the election:
In one respect last week’s election result has made David Cameron’s life more difficult. While gaining seats in the Commons from the Liberal Democrats, he has effectively lost them in the Lords. That is to say, the 101 Lib Dem peers will presumably all cross the aisle from the government benches to the opposition benches when the Lords next meet.
My Saturday essay in the Wall Street Journal:
Imagine what it must have been like to look through the first telescopes or the first microscopes, or to see the bottom of the sea as clearly as if the water were gin. This is how students of human prehistory are starting to feel, thanks to a new ability to study ancient DNA extracted from bodies and bones in archaeological sites.
Low-cost, high-throughput DNA sequencing—a technique in which millions of DNA base-pairs are automatically read in parallel—appeared on the scene less than a decade ago. It has already transformed our ability to see just how the genes of human beings, their domestic animals and their diseases have changed over thousands or tens of thousands of years.
My column in The Times is on the undeniable truth that western countries are preventing Africans getting access to the cheapest power, which is fossil-fuelled.
In what is probably the silliest comment on climate since a Ukip councillor blamed floods on gay marriage, a green journalist opined of the refugees dying in the Mediterranean: “This is what climate crisis looks like . . . We know there is evidence that the violence triggered by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 were in part fuelled by protests over soaring food prices.”
The soaring prices were actually exacerbated (as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN confirmed) by the diversion of much of the world’s farmland into making motor fuel, in the form of ethanol and biodiesel, for the rich to salve their green consciences. Climate policies were probably a greater contributor to the Arab Spring than climate change itself.
My Times column argues that only high-tech innovation will give us the cash to fund our future, so why won’t Cameron or Miliband talk about it?
Fifty years ago yesterday, a young computer expert called Gordon Moore pointed out that the number of transistors on a silicon chip seemed to be doubling every year or two and that if this went on it would “lead to such wonders as home computers . . . and personal portable communications equipment”.
My review of Nick Lane's book The Vital Question in The Times:
Nick Lane is not just a writer of words about science, he is also a doer of experiments and a thinker of thoughts. And these days he is hot on the trail of one of the biggest ideas in the universe: the meaning of the word “life”. In this, his third book about energy and life, he comes triumphantly close to cracking the secret of why life is the way it is, to a depth that would boggle any ancient philosopher’s mind. He can now tell a story of how, when and where life started, and what happened to it in its early days. Most of that story looks as if it is true.
Life uses information (stored in DNA) to capture energy (which it stores in a chemical called ATP) to create order. Humans burn prodigious amounts of energy — we generate about 10,000 times as much energy per gram as the sun. The sun is hotter only because it is much bigger. We use energy to create and maintain intricate cellular and bodily complexity, the opposite of entropy, just as we do in the economy, where the harnessing of power from burning fuel enables us to build skyscrapers and aeroplanes. But we — and here “we” means all living creatures, including bacteria — have an idiosyncratic way of trapping energy to make it useful. We pump protons across lipid membranes.
My Times column on Britain's remarkable and unexpected plunge in unemployment and what lies behind it:
Five years ago, almost nobody expected that inflation would vanish, as tomorrow’s figures are expected to show, or that unemployment would plummet, as Friday’s numbers will confirm. Whatever else you think about this government, there is no doubt it has presided over an astonishing boom in job creation like nowhere else in the developed world.
The milestones are impressive: an average of a thousand new jobs a day over five years; unemployment down by almost half a million in a year; a jobless rate half the eurozone’s; more jobs created than in the rest of Europe put together; more people in work, more women in work, more disabled people in work than ever; the highest percentage of the population in work since records began. All this while the public sector has been shedding 300 jobs a day.
My Times column on what might happen if the British election prouces a messy result:
had a bad dream. It was April 2016. The country was tumbling into a constitutional crisis, dragging the Queen into a gathering storm in the week of her 90th birthday. The financial markets were hammering the pound and threatening a bond strike as the deficit rose and growth faltered. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said he feared that Britain had become ungovernable.
It had begun with the election. The Conservatives had won the most seats, 290 to Labour’s 260. But with only 26 Lib Dems in the Commons, the Tories were unable to form a workable coalition, and with Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander gone there was no appetite for it anyway, not when David Cameron would have to rely also on Ukip or the Ulster Unionists to get bills through parliament. So Mr Cameron had formed a minority government, but could not carry a Queen’s speech and lost a vote of confidence.
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