British science journalist and author, born on February 7 1958, in Newcastle
, England. Ridley holds a BA and PhD in zoology
from Oxford University
He is, incidentally, no relation to Mark Ridley, another biologist and writer on evolution with an Oxford connection. The two are sometimes both referenced in the same work - Daniel Dennett calls them the "Ridley conspecifics" - and Matt has written that being mistaken for Mark has been a great help.
From 1983 he spent eight years working for news magazine The Economist as an editor and science correspondent, and since 1993 has been a columnist for broadsheet newspapers The Sunday Telegraph and Daily Telegraph. He is chairman of the International Centre for Life and is also a research fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Ridley is best known for his books, most of which reflect his particular connection with biology:
- Warts and All: The Men Who Would Be Bush (1990), about US presidential politics.
- The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (1993), concerning the origins and subsequent evolution of sexual reproduction and its relevance in humans. Shortlisted for the Rhône-Poulenc prize for science books.
- The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (1996), in which he explores the biology of altruism and the evolutionary basis of human society.
- The Future of Disease (1997), a short book for the Predictions series.
- Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters (1999), in which he selects a gene from each human chromosome as the starting-point for a discussion of a particular theme of interest, including intelligence, stress and politics.
- The Best American Science Writing 2002 (2002) (editor), 21 articles on science drawn from scientific and general interest magazines and periodicals in 2002.
- Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human (2003), in which he uses modern genetic discoveries to argue that the "nature versus nurture" debate is a misnomer and we cannot understand the influences on ourselves if we remain within this simplistic dichotomy.
His work has been highly acclaimed by scientists and non-scientists and has received praise from high-profile comtemporaries including the philosopher Daniel Dennett
, the psychologist Steven Pinker
and the zoologist Richard Dawkins
. Indeed Dawkins has written, "If my The Selfish Gene
were to have a Volume Two devoted to humans, The Origins of Virtue
is pretty much what I think it ought to look like." In the last few years, in his own country at least, he has risen to the point where he is seen as an "authority" on genetics
and evolutionary psychology
, despite not being a professional scientist. As part of the public face of the Dawkins
school of evolutionary thought, his views are sometimes billed as representative of the entire discipline of evolutionary psychology
, a fact which has somewhat annoyed genuine researchers such as Geoffrey Miller.
His thinking is objective and scientific, and though his style is no-nonsense, it is also lucid and often humorous. In Genome he writes:
"Instruction manuals that come with new gadgets are notoriously frustrating. They never seem to have the one piece of information you need, they send you round in circles, they leave you high and dry, and they definitely lose something in the translation from Chinese. But at least they do not insert, just when you are getting to the bit that matters, five copies of Schiller's 'Ode to Joy' or a garbled version of a set of instructions for how to saddle a horse. Nor do they (generally) include five copies of a complete set of instructions for how to build a machine that would copy out just that set of instructions. Nor do they break the actual instructions you seek into twenty-seven different paragraphs interspersed with long pages of irrelevant junk so that even finding the right instructions is a massive task. Yet that is a description of the human retinoblastoma gene and, as far as we know, it is typical of human genes: twenty-seven brief paragraphs of sense interrupted by twenty-six long pages of something else."
He is not primarily a political writer, but his books do include allusions to some of his beliefs about the nature of society, which as a scientist
he draws more from a consideration of the topic at hand than from any off-the-shelf political package. Two recurring themes are the importance of individual rights over the power of the state, and a sense that economies
are too dynamic and heterogenous for command economics
to work. Both of these dispositions lead Ridley to be highly critical of socialism
, which has come up more than once in his books:
"Communism would have worked if there were more such men [i.e. who rejected all nepotism and favoritism], thought it would have been a bleak kind of success in which people could not be nice to their relatives. But most people are not like Wang Shou-yu. Indeed, given their immunity from criticism, Communist officials have consistently proved more corruptible and more nepotistic than democratic ones. Universal benevolence evaporates on the stove of human nature."
(From The Origins of Virtue.)
"No matter that the social sciences set about reinventing much more alarming forms of determinism to take the place of the genetic form... the socio-economic determinism of Marx; the political determinism of Lenin... Between 1950 and 1990 the edifice of environmental determinism came tumbling down... Marxism fell when the Berlin Wall was built, though it took until the Wall came down before some people realised that subservience to an all-powerful state could not be made enjoyable however much propaganda accompanied it."
Ridley is opposed to socialism
(on practical rather than idealist grounds), but he is not what most people would call right-wing
, writing in Alas Poor Darwin
, evidently disagreed, labelling him a "right-wing libertarian" on the grounds that he wants to cut funding to single mothers and dismantle the National Health Service
, two views which he has never expressed but which Rose nevertheless managed to infer from his writings). He argues strongly in favour of equality and the importance of basic human rights
, particularly the human right to be more than a cog in the society you live in. A belief in the importance of genetics
in understanding personality, and his connection with evolutionary psychology
, draw him to the conclusion, increasingly backed by anthropological evidence, that people across the world are innately very similar. In The Red Queen
, for example, he argues that IQ differences between races show no evidence of any genetic basis.