What Rational Optimist Matt Ridley is Reading

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 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:

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:

For laughs:

  • 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:

What he plans to read next:

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.


[images via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain / FAQ]