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 article for The Critic:Near Fukushima, ten years after the nuclear accident that followed the tsunami, wild boar have colonised the suburbs. Near Chernobyl, bison and wolves wander abandoned streets. There is no doubt that if humans vanished, indigenous wildlife would return in abundance, minus the mammoths and sabre-tooths that our ancestors extinguished.
Rewilding is all the rage, and it is coming soon to a hillside near you. But what form should it take and how should it be done? In practice, rewilding began quite a long time ago. A recent study found that, contrary to what most people believe, the world now has more trees than 35 years ago and much of the regrowth is natural regeneration: Europe alone has gained an area of tree cover greater than France.
New England was once wall-to-wall fields; now it is a deer-filled forest pockmarked with cities and freeways. Wolves and beavers are spreading in Europe; cougars and bears in North America. There are 80,000 humpback whales today: there were 5,000 in the 1960s. Where I used to fish in the river Tyne as a boy, otters, buzzards and salmon were vanishingly rare; now they are common.
My article for the Times:
Like a lobster in boiling water, a parliamentary bill on animal sentience is being tortured in the House of Lords. The problem is political rather than ethical. Nobody objects to some animals being declared sentient, but the government seems to be saying to one audience that the bill is a dramatic change that will do more to prevent suffering, while to another audience it insists that the bill is an empty gesture that will change nothing.
The real reason for the bill goes back to 2017. Some alert activist who did not like Brexit spotted that in leaving the European Union we would lose the passing reference in Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty that animals are sentient. This was quickly weaponised in a letter-writing campaign to MPs. But there were two problems with the argument.
My article for the Telegraph:On Twitter this week an unfortunate hiker showed a short video of the midges swarming in their tens of thousands over his backpack and his arms in the Scottish Highlands. It was itchy just to watch. It would be silly to argue that his video is evidence that insects are increasing in number. Yet the evidence for a dramatic decline in insect numbers, an “insect apocalypse”, which activists and journalists have been proclaiming recently, is about as weak as such a claim would be.
A film called Insect O Cide is coming out soon. Its ludicrous central theme is that “human beings are on the verge of extinction due to the rapid decline in the insect populations”. “The Insect Apocalypse is here”, said the New York Times in 2018. “Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature’” said the Guardian in 2019. The source for this claim was a paper published in the journal Biological Conservation by two Australian scientists that claimed to reveal “dramatic rates of decline that may lead to the extinction of 40 per cent of the world’s insect species over the next few decades”.
This was junk science of the worst kind. As three other scientists then pointed out, “there is so much wrong with the paper, it really shouldn’t have been published in its current form: the biased search method, the cherry-picked studies, the absence of any real quantitative data to back up the bizarre 40 per cent extinction rate that appears in the abstract … and the errors in the reference list.” Of the studies cited by the apocalypse paper, the three said, “we were really surprised to discover how many of them we had to discard, because they contained no data”.
My article for the Telegraph:Back in the early 1950s scientists were baffled by one aspect of life itself. Our cells were full of proteins whose properties depended on their precise shapes, and the key feature of life was the ability to copy itself, but how on earth do you copy three-dimensional shapes? The unexpected answer was that you don’t: you copy a one-dimensional, linear sequence in a recipe book called DNA, which automatically determines how each protein folds into its shape.
Surprisingly, until last week, working out how this folding worked was beyond even big computers: tiny shifts in angles could result in wildly different shapes, and forecasting what shape would result from what sequence was as hard as predicting the weather. Now, thanks to the brilliant London AI firm DeepMind (which sold itself to Google a few years back), a learning algorithm has cracked the problem and has predicted hundreds of thousands of shapes from sequences. It did so as an encore after defeating the world champion at the fiendishly complicated game of Go: in neither case was it taught by experts but learned from examples.
Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel prize for figuring out the structure of the ribosome (the machine that translates DNA into proteins), told me last week that he thinks the DeepMind breakthrough is huge: “we probably have not yet grasped its impact and all the ways it will change the way we do biology.”
My interview with Tunku Varadarajan in the Wall Street Journal:
“Science” has become a political catchword. “I believe in science,” Joe Biden tweeted six days before he was elected president. “Donald Trump doesn’t. It’s that simple, folks.”
But what does it mean to believe in science? The British science writer Matt Ridley draws a pointed distinction between “science as a philosophy” and “science as an institution.” The former grows out of the Enlightenment, which Mr. Ridley defines as “the primacy of rational and objective reasoning.” The latter, like all human institutions, is erratic, prone to falling well short of its stated principles. Mr. Ridley says the Covid pandemic has “thrown into sharp relief the disconnect between science as a philosophy and science as an institution.”
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 from The Spectator:
I’m no Nostradamus, but 20 years ago when I was commissioned to write a short book about disease in the new millennium, I predicted that if a new pandemic did happen it would be a virus, not a bacterium or animal parasite, and that we would catch it from a wild animal. ‘My money is on bats,’ I wrote. We now know that the natural host and reservoir of the new coronavirus, Covid-19, is a bat, and that the virus probably got into people via a live-animal market in Wuhan.
This is not the first disease bats have given us. Rabies possibly originated in bats. So did, and does, Ebola, outbreaks of which usually trace back to people coming into contact with bat roosts in caves, trees or buildings. Marburg virus, similar to Ebola, first killed people in Germany in 1967 and is now known to be a bat virus. Since 1994 Hendra virus has occasionally jumped from Australian fruit bats into horses and rarely people, with lethal effect. Since 1998 another fruit-bat virus, Nipah, has also infected and killed people mainly in India and Bangladesh. Sars, which originated in China in 2003, is derived from bats, though possibly via civet cats. So is Mers, a similar bat-borne coronavirus that’s killed hundreds of people and camels in the Middle East since 2012.
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