Matt Ridley on Today’s Influential Scientists
  Matt Ridley     Biography    
Recorded: 09 Sep 2003

Well, I think actually it’s very hard to start singling people out in the last ten years. And that’s because the genome became such a team effort. And because it became such a huge worldwide thing, that if you start to say, you know, this person made it important. I mean obviously the leadership of the genome project was important. But really I think, like John Sulston, you know, deserve a very big place in history because of pioneering the techniques that made it possible, together with Bob Waterston and people like that.

But in some ways what I like are the really ingenious experiments that made use of the fact that you now have a genome to look at with which to shed light on development or behavior or something like that. And I think in that regard some of the most thrilling and elegantly designed experiments that I’ve come across are the work of people like Larry Zipursky at UCLA on how the neurons from the fly’s eye find their way into the fly’s brain. Work that’s proved to, you know, shed a very interesting light on alternative splicing, for example. People like Tom Insel at Emory who did this extraordinary work on pair bonding in mice and how differences in the oxytoin and vasopressin receptors enabled some species of mice to form pair bonds and others not. Voles, I should say, not mice. Rodents. And so, you know, so it’s these kinds of experimental impresarios that I think are the ones who actually deserve the most credit. Often it’s the theoretical people who get talked about most. You know, and often they only do one thing and they need a huge team to do it and all that. But they are the ones that I’ve enjoyed writing about most.

And another team that I think deserves a lot of credit is Anthony Monaco’s team, Simon Fisher and Anthony Monaco in Oxford working on the Fox P2 gene. A gene that really does seem to give us an insight into how we became modern human beings because it changed about two hundred thousand years ago. That change swept through the species and seems to have affected our ability to build brains that learn language. And so, you know, this could be an absolutely vital key to understanding how the brain works.

Another, I think, a great breakthrough is coming from the work of Terrie Moffitt and his colleagues at King’s College London who, and this is where that Jim first drew my attention to, who are looking at how differences in genes make you more or less vulnerable to environmental factors. So, for example, having a certain genotype in a particular gene may make you turn anti-social if you experience abuse as a child, or in another case, having a certain genotype may make you turn depressive if you have traumatic life events, but you have to have both. You have to have both the genetic susceptibility and the environmental trigger. Now I think these are the way forward for understanding how genes fit into social behavior. So I think those are very important example.

Matt Ridley is a journalist and a leading science writer. He earned his Ph.D. in zoology from Oxford University in 1983. He worked as a correspondent and editor for The Economist, a columnist for Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph and as editor of The Best American Science Writing 2002.

His books include Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature; Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation; Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters ; Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human; and Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code. His books have been short-listed for many literary awards.

He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. Ridley is the honorary life president of the International Centre for Life, Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s park devoted to life science that he founded in 1996. He is chairman of Northern Rock plc, and other financial services firms.

In 1996, Ridley first visited Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and made James D. Watson’s acquaintance. In 2006 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and is a visiting professor at the lab.