Ridley, Matt 1958–

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Ridley, Matt 1958–

(Matthew White Ridley)

PERSONAL: Born February 7, 1958, in Newcastle upon Tyne, England; married Anya Hurlbert (a professor of neuroscience); children: Matthew, Iris. Education: Attended Eton College, 1970–75; Magdalen College, Oxford, B.A., Ph.D, 1983.

ADDRESSES: Home—Blagdon, England. Office—10 Clifton Gardens, London, England W9 1DT.

CAREER: Writer, journalist, scientist, educator, financial expert, and columnist. Economist, London, England, science correspondent, beginning 1983, science and technology editor, beginning 1984, Washington correspondent, American editor; Daily Telegraph, London, science correspondent. Northern Investors, director, 1994–; Northern Rock PLC, director, 1994–, chair, 2004–; International Center for Life, Newcastle, England, chair, 1996–2003; Northern 2 Venture Capital Trust, chair, 1999–. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, visiting professor.

MEMBER: Royal Society of Literature (fellow), Academy of Medical Sciences (fellow).

AWARDS, HONORS: Glaxo Science Writers Award, 1983; fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1999; Samuel Johnson prize for nonfiction shortlist, 2000; fellow, Academy of Medical Sciences, 2003; Book Award, National Academies of Science, 2004, for The Agile Gene; Aventis prize for science books shortlist; honorary fellow, Magdalen College, Oxford; honorary degree, Buckingham University.


Warts and All: The Men Who Would Be Bush, Viking (New York, NY), 1989.

The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, Viking (London, England), 1993, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1994.

Down to Earth: A Contrarian View of Environmental Problems, IEA Environment Unit (London, England), 1995.

Down to Earth II: Combating Environmental Myths, IEA Environment Unit (London, England), 1996.

The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, Viking (London, England), 1996, Viking (New York, NY), 1997.

Future of Disease, Phoenix (London, England), 1997.

Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in Twenty-three Chapters, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1999.

(Editor) The Best American Science Writing 2002, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.

Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2003.

Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code, Atlas Books (New York, NY), 2006.

Author of foreword to Inspiring Science; Jim Watson and the Age of DNA, edited by John R. Inglis, Joseph Sambrook, and Jan A. Witkowski, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press (Cold Spring Harbor, NY), 2004. Contributor to periodicals, including Smithsonian, Times Literary Supplement, Library Review, New Scientist, New Statesman, Newsweek, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Discover, Natural History, New Scientist, Times, Guardian, and Atlantic. Also author of ethological papers on the mating habits of birds. Author of weekly columns for the Sunday Telegraph, 1993–96, and the Daily Telegraph, 1996–2000. Ridley's works have been translated into twenty-three languages.

SIDELIGHTS: British science journalist Matt Ridley, who once served as Washington correspondent for the London, England-based Economist, documents the 1988 U.S. presidential election in his first book, Warts and All: The Men Who Would Be Bush. Ridley's book, written from a British perspective, likens the election to a coronation, postulating that personalities, not issues, are paramount in the choosing of an American president. Citing Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan as the fathers of contemporary campaigning due to their strong personalities, Ridley maintains that Michael Dukakis's lack of charisma overshadowed the issues he espoused, thus causing his loss to George H.W. Bush in the presidential election.

Although critics generally appreciated Ridley's British angle on the election, some reviewers complained that Warts and All merely rehashes what anyone who closely followed the election already knows. Washington Post Book World contributor Jonathan Yardley, for example, wrote: "Although Warts and All is smoothly if unexceptionally written and even occasionally interesting, it proves nothing so much as that you can teach a young dog old tricks." Yardley deemed Warts and All "a standard-issue campaign book, recapitulating in excessive detail a story we'd just as soon forget and adding relatively little to our understanding of its larger meaning." American Spectator reviewer James Bowman offered similar comments. Bowman chided Ridley's "superficial knowledge of the country" and attested that "for those who followed the election closely and who already know something about America, this is at best an unnecessary book."

Ridley's second book, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, exhibits his skill as a science writer and, as such, fared well with critics. The Red Queen discusses why sex exists, how the need and desire to reproduce influences human nature, and how differences in reproductive capabilities create differing and unique characteristics among men and women in virtually all cultures. The title of Ridley's book comes from the Red Queen character in Alice in Wonderland, who had to run as fast as she could simply to stay in the same place. The Red Queen reference was first made by a University of Chicago evolutionary biologist; Ridley uses it to explain the theory that sex originated in order to strengthen and perpetuate the evolution of the species, keeping it one step ahead of destruction by invading parasites.

Among the ideas Ridley sets forth in The Red Queen is that the female of the species is largely responsible for determining the quality of the next generation. Unlike males, who never lose their ability to spawn offspring, females have limited cycles of fertility and few years for reproduction; therefore, females greatly influence the way the species evolves through the way they choose their mates, according to Ridley. In The Red Queen Ridley illustrates this point with an example suggested in the 1930s involving the peahen: "Sir Ronald Fisher had suggested then that females need no better reason for preferring long tails than that other females also prefer long tails…. Once most females are choosing to mate with some males rather than others and are using tail length as the criterion—a big once, granted … then any female who bucks the trend and chooses a short-tailed male will have short-tailed sons…. Each peahen is on a treadmill and dare not jump off lest she condemn her sons to celibacy."

Ridley also draws on various aspects of nature to arrive at explanations for elements of human sexuality, such as homosexuality, monogamy, and the differences between the two sexes. He suggests, for example, that sexual differences caused varying intellectual and reasoning abilities to evolve in men and women, perhaps explaining differences such as boys' tendency to score higher than girls in mathematical challenges and girls' greater ability at verbal tasks.

While some reviewers took exception to some of the ideas Ridley sets forth in The Red Queen, a number of critics applauded the volume. Beryl Lieff Benderly, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, praised Ridley's "lucid, witty prose" and his "illuminating discussions of non-human animals," while Derek Bickerton, in a New York Times Book Review assessment of three books on evolution, found Ridley's volume "the most thoughtful," and judged Ridley "by far the best writer." New Statesman & Society contributor Marek Kohn maintained that The Red Queen's "flaws are all generic; its strengths are individual and considerable," and recommended the volume as "a terrific book to have a damn good argument with." Pamela Wells, while noting several weaknesses in The Red Queen, also applauded Ridley's effort in her Times Literary Supplement review: "Ridley's book is eclectic, persuasive, unapologetically concerned with humans and what they get up to." Wells declared: "The Red Queen is a book that should be read by anyone who is interested in the evolution of behavior, and, most of all, by those who think they aren't."

Ridley's The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation also explores the evolution of the human species, but with a different aim in mind. According to the author, the book "is about the billion-year coagulation of our genes into cooperative teams, the million-year coagulation of our ancestors into cooperative societies, and the thousand-year coagulation of ideas about society and its origins." The question Ridley addresses in The Origins of Virtue has to do with the apparent contradiction between the theory of evolution and human altruism. In short, given the cutthroat nature of "survival of the fittest," how did human beings learn to be virtuous and even generous in their behavior toward one another?

Traditional explanations of human behavior have fastened on the nature-nurture dichotomy to explain this contradiction. Although humans are creatures of biological evolution, they are also the product of civilization and the values it has instilled in them. Ridley grants the "nurture" argument, but goes further. In a study that Robert Constanza described in Bioscience as "an engaging and entertaining synthesis of a broad range of theoretical and empirical information from both the natural and social sciences," Ridley contends that the origins of human virtue can also be found in evolutionary biology and that our genetic coding incorporates cooperative intraspecies behavior. Among the numerous topics covered in the course of his presentation are game theory, blood sharing among vampire bats, the behavior of nonhuman primates, the survival value of emotions, cooperation among mole rats, and the comparative advantage in trade. In his final chapter, Ridley draws political conclusions from his thesis. Since humans cooperate instinctively, he suggests they are best left to themselves with a minimum of government intervention or regulation.

Reviewing The Origins of Virtue, a critic for the Economist praised Ridley as "easily one of the best science writers around," yet found the book "a disappointment: over-ambitious in scope, frustratingly muddled in argument and showing tell-tale signs of haste." Constanza faulted Ridley for both his reductionist approach—reducing human behavior to the genetic level—and for failing to acknowledge when his arguments went beyond this approach. In response to Ridley's final chapter, David Papineau remarked in the New York Times Book Review: "For all the biological sophistication of Mr. Ridley's ideas, they don't show that we shouldn't make an effort…. [to] build systems of government that can channel our basic moral reflexes." In contrast, Bryce Christensen wrote in Booklist: "At a time of rising fears about bioscience, Ridley still inspires hope that biology may be an ally, not a foe, in the fight for a moral world." Beyond political considerations, Library Journal contributor Constance A. Rinaldo characterized The Origins of Virtue as "a fascinating tale" that will "captivate a wide audience."

Ridley's Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in Twenty-three Chapters was partly inspired by the Human Genome Project, a joint effort by government and industry to create a comprehensive map of the three billion characters on the twenty-three chromosomes that contain human DNA and determine our traits as individuals. Publishers Weekly critic Frederick Kaufman characterized Ridley's study as "a highly accessible account of what may well be the most important scientific achievement—and most stupendous can of ethical worms—we will have to process in our lifetimes." Ridley devotes one chapter to a particular gene on each of the twenty-three chromosomes, discussing such general gene-based determinations as growth, sex, mutation, and intelligence, along with more specific inheritable characteristics, such as the propensity for the degenerative disease Huntington's chorea, or for Down syndrome. Each chapter serves as a springboard for further discussion, not only of the positive and negative possibilities inherent in certain genes, but the implications for both individuals and society once the entire human genetic map is known. For example, the chapter on Down syndrome evolves into an examination of the history of the science of eugenics and warns of the dangers of possible government-enforced human breeding schemes. Reviewing Genome for American Scholar, Aaron E. Hirsh described the book as "a delightfully entertaining variety show, featuring an eclectic farrago of the most intriguing personalities, fascinating findings, and captivating tales of the last one hundred and fifty years of biology." Hirsh went on to note that what "begins as a variety show of biology, turns into a mystery, and ends as a meditation on free will." Michael Shermer, writing in the American Scientist, praised Ridley for "an admirable job of clarifying the enormous complexities involved in gene-environment interactions." A contributor to Publishers Weekly credited Ridley's ability to "explain with equal verve difficult moral issues, philosophical quandaries and technical biochemistry," and concluded: "Among many recent books on genes, behavior and evolution, Ridley's is one of the most informative. It's also fun to read."

Ridley takes an in-depth look at a perpetual debate that crosses the boundaries of genetics and behavioral sciences in Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human. The question has long loomed in science whether it is one's genetic and biological makeup (nature) or one's social upbringing, environment, and experience (nurture) that has the greatest effect on the type of person a human grows up to become. "Nature via Nurture proclaims an end to this war by setting out to show that the terms of the debate are entirely illusory," stated Michael Karwowski in Contemporary Review."Far from attempting to blind us with science on behalf of one side or the other, Mr. Ridley is determined to open our eyes to what is staring us in the face: the fact that we are the product of a transition between the two." For Ridley, the evidence is clear that "heredity and environment are inextricably intertwined influences on our personalities," noted a reviewer in Science News. Ridley explains in detail that genes can be altered by experience. For example, the human genome contains a gene that is essential to the development of speech; however, if the human organism is not exposed to speech during its first thirteen years, that essential speech gene shuts itself off and the individual becomes unable to learn speech from that point onward. He also cites other examples of how genes switch on and off over the course of a lifetime, changing in accordance with experience and the environment and altering personality traits over time.

Ridley writes in a "very eloquent, fluent style that leaves no space for boredom," remarked Marga Hogenboom in the British Medical Journal. Kevin K. Laland, writing in Science, commented: "Few science writers strike the balance between accessibility and rigor better than Matt Ridley, and Nature via Nurture has a visionary quality that may yet herald in a new, empirically rich interactionism." Tom Shakespeare stated in the Lancet that Ridley "succeeds admirably in achieving reconciliation between the many competing explanations of how we come to be." Booklist reviewer Ray Olson called Ridley's book "terrific popular science," while a Kirkus Reviews contributor concluded that the volume is "certainly not the last word, but a lot of interesting turns of phrase and provocative findings to enrich the all-absorbing study of genes and behavior."

With Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code Ridley turns his attention to the English scientist who is one of the most formidable figures in the history of genetic research. Francis Crick is a legendary modern figure in science, well known as one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA. Crick's 1952 discovery of DNA's double-helix construction led to further significant breakthroughs in genetic science. In what American Scholar reviewer Priscilla Long called an "excellent first biography," Ridley chronicles Crick's scientific background, notable works, and personality. A garrulous and talkative man, Crick's early science education was unremarkable and did not augur the prominence he would achieve later in life. Still, Crick was dedicated to science, and he had the ability to direct prodigious concentration onto subjects that interested him. During World War II, he sought to expand his scientific knowledge, and over the years collaborated with several prominent scientists, including mathematician Georg Kreisel; fellow geneticist Sydney Brenner; Christof Koch, who worked with Crick on issues related to the human brain; and James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, with whom he shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the double helix. Ridley describes Crick's working methods, which he attributes to Crick's success in discovering the answers that other scientists of the time were also seeking. Crick lived to see the early twenty-first century's advances in genetics, dying in 2004 at age eighty-eight. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the book "well written," and noted that Crick "comes across as a likable, highly motivated man without undue foibles; portraits of his coworkers and the period are also sharply drawn."

The Best American Science Writing 2002, edited by Ridley, contains a selection of works on such topics as the ethical ramifications of human cloning, new developments in computer viruses, the controversies surrounding stem cell research, discouraging news from the years-long fight against cancer, and a humorous piece on the clash of art and science in the form of a rabbit allegedly genetically modified to glow green. "Ridley has done a fine job in choosing the twenty-one essays" that appear in the book, noted John Tyler Bonner in New Scientist. A Publishers Weekly critic concluded: "Provocative and informative, engrossing, this sparkling anthology is a treat for all science enthusiasts, armchair and otherwise."



Ridley, Matt, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1994.


American Scholar, spring, 2000, Aaron E. Hirsh, review of Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in Twenty-three Chapters, p. 145; summer, 2006, Priscilla Long, "Worked Well with Others; Discovering the Structure of DNA Was Not Francis Crick's Only Important Collaboration," review of Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code, p. 121.

American Scientist, January-February, 1998, Lee Alan Dugatkin, review of The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, p. 93; January, 2001, Michael Shermer, "The Metagene Gene," p. 74.

American Spectator, July, 1990, James Bowman, review of Warts and All: The Men Who Would Be Bush, p. 44.

Bioscience, April, 1998, Robert Constanza, review of The Origins of Virtue, p. 318.

Booklist, April 15, 1997, Bryce Christensen, review of The Origins of Virtue, p. 1368; February 1, 2000, Ray Olson, review of Genome, p. 1001; August, 2002, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Best American Science Writing 2002, p. 101; March 15, 2003, Ray Olson, review of Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human, p. 1251; April 1, 2006, Gilbert Taylor, review of Francis Crick, p. 10.

British Medical Journal, June 21, 2003, Marga Hogenboom, review of Nature via Nurture, p. 1402.

Contemporary Review, March, 2004, Michael Karwowski, "Nature v. Nurture: An End to the War?,' review of Nature via Nurture, p. 180.

Economist, December 7, 1996, review of The Origins of Virtue, p. S5; April 12, 2003, "The Generation Game: Evolutionary Biology," review of Nature via Nurture.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2002, review of The Best American Science Writing 2002, p. 1015; April 1, 2003, review of Nature via Nurture, p. 525; March 1, 2006, review of Francis Crick, p. 223.

Lancet, April 2, 2003, Tom Shakespeare, "What's in Our Genes?," review of Nature via Nurture, p. 1483.

Library Journal, March 1, 1990, A.J. Anderson, review of Warts and All, p. 105; May 1, 1997, Constance A. Rinaldo, review of The Origins of Virtue, p. 135; January, 2000, Leila Fernandez, review of Genome, p. 152; May 1, 2003, Margaret Henderson, review of Nature via Nurture, p. 151.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 27, 1994, Beryl Lieff Benderly, review of The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, p. 4.

National Review, June 16, 2003, Wesley J. Smith, "Blinded by Science."

New Scientist, October 16, 2002, John Tyler Bonner, review of The Best American Science Writing 2002, p. 52.

New Statesman, March 31, 2003, Edward Skidelsky, "Divine Creation," review of Nature via Nurture, p. 48.

New Statesman & Society, October 29, 1993, Marek Kohn, review of The Red Queen, p. 37.

New York Times Book Review, May 22, 1994, Derek Bickerton, review of The Red Queen, p. 15; May 11, 1997, David Papineau, "You Scratch My Back, I'll Scratch Yours;" February 27, 2000, Lee M. Silver, "Map of Life."

Publishers Weekly, April 6, 1990, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Warts and All, p. 107; March 10, 1997, review of The Origins of Virtue, p. 60; January 10, 2000, review of Genome, p. 51; March 6, 2000, Frederick Kaufman, "The Evolution of a Darwinian," p. 76; July 22, 2002, review of The Best American Science Writing 2002, p. 167; April 14, 2003, review of Nature via Nurture, p. 57; March 20, 2006, review of Francis Crick, p. 45.

Quarterly Review of Biology, September, 2004, Rena Selya, review of Inspiring Science: Jim Watson and the Age of DNA, p. 293.

Reason, November, 1997, Jack Hirshleifer, review of The Origins of Virtue, p. 56; August, 2000, Ronald Bailey, "Strands of Life," p. 58.

Science, June 20, 2003, Kevin L. Laland, "The New Interactionism," review of Nature via Nurture, p. 1879.

Science News, July 19, 2003, review of Nature via Nurture, p. 47.

Scientific American, review of Nature via Nurture, p. 89.

Spectator, May 3, 2003, Jonathan Sumption, "The Afterwaves of Darwin's Shock," review of Nature via Nurture, p. 46.

Times Literary Supplement, September 30, 1994, Pamela Wells, review of The Red Queen, p. 12.

Washington Post Book World, May 13, 1990, Jonathan Yardley, review of Warts and All, p. 3.

Yale Review, January, 2001, Edison Miyawaki, "The Information We Were Born For," p. 114.


HarperCollins Web site, http://www.harpercollins.com/ (September 1, 2006), biography of Matt Ridley.

Matt Ridley Home Page, http://www.mattridley.co.uk (September 1, 2006).

Popular Science UK Web site, http://www.popularscience.co.uk/ (September 1, 2006), biography of Matt Ridley.