Matt Ridley has been a scientist, a journalist, and a national newspaper columnist. He is the chairman of the International Centre for Life, in Newcastle, England and a visiting professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.
His books have been shortlisted for six literary awards. They include titles like The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (P.S.), The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, and the upcoming The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge about “bottom-up order and its enemy, the top-down twitch—the endless fascination human beings have for design rather than evolution, for direction rather than emergence.”
In a recent interview, Ridley said he reads mostly non fiction but also well researched fiction work. His selection of current reading covers the spectrum from science to historical narrative, from complex topics to lighter fare:
The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future by Peter Moore – about the innovative people who laid the foundations of scientific weather analysis in the 19th century
Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland – about how Augustus and his successors bit by bit turned a republic into an autocracy. This is a sequel book, for those who like to read in order, to Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic by the same author
- The Vital Question: Why is Life the Way it is? by biochemist Nick Lane – about the original of life with countless facts and numerous arguments on energy and genetics to support his hypothesis
- The Martian by Andy Weir – it’s about using practical tinkering and problem-solving to survive; the movie is out in theaters
Ridley’s best books in science are those that taught him “that science is not a catalog of facts, but the search for new and bigger mysteries.” His selection:
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
From this year’s crop of science-themed, in addition to The Vital Question, the books are about science in the making:
p53: The Gene that Cracked the Cancer Code by Sue Armstrong – about the gene with an unassuming name, p53, that is the most studied in history. Its job is to scan our cells to ensure that when they grow and divide as part of the routine maintenance of our bodies, they do so without mishap. If a cell makes a mistake in copying its DNA during the process of division, p53 stops it in its tracks, sending in the repair team before allowing the cell to carry on dividing. If the mistake is irreparable and the rogue cell threatens to grow out of control (as happens in cancer), p53 commands the cell to commit suicide. Cancer cannot develop unless p53 itself is damaged or handicapped by some other fault in the system.
Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature by Nick Davies – about how how cuckoos trick their hosts
A book that made him cry:
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis – about the story of how British adventurers Col. George Mallory and Sandy Irvine who survived the trenches of World War I and went on to risk their lives climbing Mount Everest. It was June 6, 1924
- One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson
- What you Want by Constantine Phipps – described as a literary feat: a novel written entirely in verse, depicting life in all its ordinariness. It gives voice to a new Everyman and brings forth an unparallelled modern epic
Ridely’s formative years book:
- My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell – about the family’s relocation from England to the sunny Greek isle of Corfu
What he plans to read next:
By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia by Sir Barry Cunliffe
Our imagination and the ability to discover new worlds, to tell and read stories are not the only characteristics that separate us from other species. “The essential virtuousness of human beings is proved not by parallels in the animal kingdom, but by the very lack of convincing animal parallels,” says Ridley in The Origin of Virtues.
The book’s central theme is an exploration of how we got to be so virtuous — we behave with self-interest foremost in mind, but also in ways that do not harm, and sometimes even benefit, others — over millions of years of evolution.
Virtues may give us a peek into the modern condition, it’s up to us to decide when to cooperate, when to compete. For a different take on modern virtues, an early conversation with Peter Tunjic. Tunjic, a business writer, foundational thinker, commercial lawyer and trusted counsel to leaders is now working on directorship.
The whole interview with Matt Ridley is a source of delight and ideas for a richer scientific exploration.