Ridley is a libertarian, and a staunch supporter of Brexit. Since 2013, he has been a Conservative hereditary peer, with a seat in the House of Lords.
Ridley was chairman of the UK bank Northern Rock from 2004 to 2007, during which period Northern Rock experienced the first run on a British bank in 150 years. Ridley chose to resign, and the bank was bailed out by the UK government leading to the nationalisation of Northern Rock.
Ridley was born to Matthew White Ridley, 4th Viscount Ridley (1925–2012), and Lady Anne Katharine Gabrielle Lumley (1928–2006), daughter of Lawrence Roger Lumley, 11th Earl of Scarbrough.
He attended Eton College from 1970–1975 and then went on to Magdalen College, Oxford, to study zoology. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree with First Class Honours and continued with research on the mating system of the common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) supervised by Chris Perrins for his DPhil in 1983.
Ridley joined The Economist in 1984, first working as a science editor until 1987, then as Washington, D.C. correspondent from 1987 to 1989 and as American editor from 1990 to 1992. He was a columnist for Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph and an editor of The Best American Science Writing 2002.
In 1994 Ridley became a boardmember of the UK bank Northern Rock after his father had been a boardmember for 30 years and chairman from 1987 to 1992. Ridley became chairman in 2004.
In September 2007, Northern Rock became the first British bank since 1878 to suffer a run on its finances at the start of the Financial crisis of 2007–2010. The bank applied to the Bank of England for emergency liquidity funding at the beginning of the financial crisis of 2007–08. but failed and Northern Rock was nationalized. A parliamentary committee criticised Ridley for not recognising the risks of the bank's financial strategy and "harming the reputation of the British banking industry." He resigned as chairman in October 2007.
From 2010 to 2013, Ridley wrote the weekly "Mind and Matter" column for the Wall Street Journal, which "explores the science of human nature and its implications".
Since 2013 Ridley has written a weekly column for The Times on science, the environment, and economics.
Ridley wrote the majority of the main article of the August 2017 BBC Focus edition. The article explains his scepticism regarding Resource depletion, challenging the widespread belief that resource depletion is an important issue. He cites various previous resource scares as his evidence.
From July 2000 to June 2008, Ridley was a non-executive director of PA Holdings Limited. From 1996 to 2003, Ridley served as founding chairman of the International Centre for Life, which opened in 2000 as a non-profit science centre in Newcastle, UK; he is honorary life president.
He had been a governor of the Ditchley Foundation, which organises conferences to further education and understanding of Britons and North Americans. He participated in a February 2000 Ditchley conference.
He is a patron of the British Humanist Association.
The Banks Group and Blagdon estate developed and sponsored the construction of Northumberlandia, or the Lady of the North, a huge land sculpture in the shape of a reclining female figure, which was part-commissioned and sponsored by Ridley. Now run by a charity group called the Land Trust, it is the largest landform in the world depicting the human form, and, through private funding, cost £3m to build. Attracting over 100,000 people per year, the Northumberland art project, tourism and cultural landmark has won a global landscape architecture award and has been named ‘Miss World’.
Ridley is the author of several books of popular science which have sold more than a million copies and have been translated into 30 languages.1993 The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature
In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, Alice meets the Red Queen who stays in the same place no matter how fast she runs. This book champions a Red Queen theory for the evolution of sexual reproduction: that it evolved so that the resultant genetic variation would thwart constantly mutating parasites.1996 The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. In an interview with Foreign Policy magazine, former US President Bill Clinton named this book as one which had influenced his thinking.
1999 Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters
This book examines one newly discovered gene from each of the 23 human chromosomes. This was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2000.2003 Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, & What Makes Us Human, also later released under the title The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture in 2004
This book discusses reasons why humans can be considered to be simultaneously free-willed and motivated by instinct and culture.2004 The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture
2006 Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code
Ridley's biography of Francis Crick won the Davis Prize for the history of science from the US History of Science Society. In 2006, Ridley contributed a chapter to Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think, a collection of essays in honour of his friend Richard Dawkins (edited by his near-namesake Mark Ridley).2010 The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves
The Rational Optimist primarily focuses on the benefits of the innate human tendency to trade goods and services. Ridley argues that this trait is the source of human prosperity, and that as people increasingly specialize in their skill sets, we will have increased trade and even more prosperity. This was shortlisted for the 2011 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize.2010 TED conference talk, "When Ideas Have Sex", received over 2 million views. Ridley argues that exchange and specialisation are the features of human society that lead to the development of new ideas, and that human society is therefore a "collective brain".
2015 The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge
In The Evolution of Everything, Ridley "makes the case for evolution, rather than design, as the force that has shaped much of culture, technology and society, and that even now is shaping our future.” He argues that "Change in technology, language, mortality and society is incremental, inexorable, gradual and spontaneous…Much of the human world is the result of human action, but not of human design; it emerges from the interactions of millions, not from the plans of a few."
In a 2006 edition of the on-line magazine Edge - the third culture, Ridley wrote a response to the question "What's your dangerous idea?" which was entitled "Government is the problem not the solution", in which he describes his attitude to government regulation: "In every age and at every time there have been people who say we need more regulation, more government. Sometimes, they say we need it to protect exchange from corruption, to set the standards and police the rules, in which case they have a point, though often they exaggerate it... The dangerous idea we all need to learn is that the more we limit the growth of government, the better off we will all be."
In 2007, the environmentalist George Monbiot wrote an article in The Guardian connecting Ridley's libertarian economic philosophy and the £27 billion failure of Northern Rock. On 1 June 2010 Monbiot followed up his previous article in the context of Matt Ridley's book The Rational Optimist, which had just been published. Monbiot took the view that Ridley had failed to learn from the collapse of Northern Rock.
Ridley has responded to Monbiot on his website, stating "George Monbiot’s recent attack on me in the Guardian is misleading. I do not hate the state. In fact, my views are much more balanced than Monbiot's selective quotations imply." On 19 June 2010, Monbiot countered with another article on the Guardian website, further questioning Ridley's claims and his response. Ridley was then defended by Terence Kealey in a further article published on the Guardian website.
In November 2010, the Wall Street Journal published a lengthy exchange between Ridley and the Microsoft founder Bill Gates on topics discussed in Ridley's book The Rational Optimist. Gates said that "What Mr. Ridley fails to see is that worrying about the worst case—being pessimistic, to a degree—can actually help to drive a solution"; Ridley said "I am certainly not saying, 'Don't worry, be happy.' Rather, I'm saying, 'Don't despair, be ambitious.'"
Ridley summarised his own views on his political philosophy during the 2011 Hayek Lecture: "[T]hat the individual is not – and had not been for 120,000 years – able to support his lifestyle; that the key feature of trade is that it enables us to work for each other not just for ourselves; that there is nothing so anti-social (or impoverishing) as the pursuit of self sufficiency; and that authoritarian, top-down rule is not the source of order or progress."
In an email exchange, Ridley responded to the environmental activist Mark Lynas' repeated charges of a right-wing agenda with the following reply:
On the topic of labels, you repeatedly call me a member of "the right". Again, on what grounds? I am not a reactionary in the sense of not wanting social change: I make this abundantly clear throughout my book. I am not a hierarchy lover in the sense of trusting the central authority of the state: quite the opposite. I am not a conservative who defends large monopolies, public or private: I celebrate the way competition causes creative destruction that benefits the consumer against the interest of entrenched producers. I do not preach what the rich want to hear — the rich want to hear the gospel of Monbiot, that technological change is bad, that the hoi polloi should stop clogging up airports, that expensive home-grown organic food is the way to go, that big business and big civil service should be in charge. So in what sense am I on the right? I am a social and economic liberal: I believe that economic liberty leads to greater opportunities for the poor to become less poor, which is why I am in favour of it. Market liberalism and social liberalism go hand in hand in my view.
Ridley argues that the capacity of humans for change and social progress is underestimated, and denies what he sees as overly pessimistic views of global climate change and Western birthrate decline.
Ridley has long argued for a "lukewarm" view of climate change and against renewable energy policies that he considers damaging to the economy as well as the environment. In a report for the Global Warming Policy Foundation in 2013 he wrote:
I have written about climate change and energy policy for more than 25 years. I have come to the conclusion that current energy and climate policy is probably more dangerous, both economically and ecologically, than climate change itself. This is not the same as arguing that climate has not changed or that mankind is not partly responsible. That the climate has changed because of man-made carbon dioxide I fully accept. What I do not accept is that the change is or will be damaging, or that current policy would prevent it.
Ridley has consistently argued that the evidence suggests that carbon dioxide emissions are currently doing more good than harm, largely because of the CO2 fertilisation effect, which boosts crop growth and the growth of forests and wild vegetation, and that the best evidence suggests this will continue to be the case for many decades. In 2015 he wrote about a report by the independent scientist Indur Goklany as follows:
As Goklany demonstrates, the assessments used by policy makers have overestimated warming so far, underestimated the direct benefits of carbon dioxide, overestimated the harms from climate change, and underestimated the human capacity to adapt.
In 2014, a Wall Street Journal op-ed written by Ridley was sharply challenged by Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University's Earth Institute. Sachs termed "absurd" Ridley's characterization of a paper in Science magazine by two scientists Xianyao Chen and Ka-Kit Tung. Sachs cited the data from the Science article to rebut Ridley's contentions, and stated that the "paper's conclusions are the very opposite of Ridley's". Ridley replied that 'it is ludicrous, nasty and false to accuse me of lying or "totally misrepresenting the science..I have asked Mr. Sachs to withdraw the charges more than once now on Twitter. He has refused to do so ...."'
He gave the 2016 Global Warming Policy Foundation annual lecture on “Global warming versus global greening”, in which he said:
I published an article in the Wall Street Journal in January 2013 on these various lines of evidence, including Myneni’s satellite analysis, pointing to the increase in green vegetation. This was probably the very first article in the mainstream media on the satellite evidence for global greening.
Ridleys views on climate change have been criticised by Friends of the Earth because he has connections to the coal industry. He is the owner of land in the north east of England on which the Shotton Surface coal mine operates, and receives payments for the mine. In 2016 he was accused of lobbying for the coal industry. This was summarily dismissed by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
Ridley was one of the earliest commentators to spot the economic significance of shale gas. In his 2011 report, "The Shale Gas Shock", for the Global Warming Policy Foundation, he wrote that:
shale gas will undoubtedly prove to be a significant new force in the world energy scene, with far-reaching consequences.
Ridley is a forthright proponent of fracking. However he has been found to have breached the Parliamentary Code of Conduct by the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards for not orally disclosing in debates on the subject personal interests worth at least £50,000 in Weir Group, which has been described as, 'the world's largest provider of special equipment used in the process' of fracking.
Ridley is a Eurosceptic and advocated for the withdrawal (Brexit) of the UK from the European Union, during the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, 2016. He appeared in Brexit: The Movie, arguing for Britain to recapture the spirit of free trade said to be characteristic of its 19th-century industrial past.
In 1996, he was a visiting professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and in 2006 was awarded an honorary degree.
In 2003 he received an honorary Doctor of Science from Buckingham University and in 2007, an honorary DCL from Newcastle University.
In 2010, his book The Rational Optimist (reviewed in Nature ) was shortlisted for the 2011 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize.
In 2011, the Manhattan Institute awarded Ridley their $50,000 Hayek Prize for his book, The Rational Optimist. In his acceptance speech, Ridley said: "As Hayek understood, it is human collaboration that is necessary for society to work... the key feature of trade is that it enables us to work for each other not just for ourselves; that attempts at self-sufficiency are the true form of selfishness as well as the quick road to poverty; and that authoritarian, top-down rule is not the source of order or progress." In 2011, Ridley gave the Angus Millar Lecture on "scientific heresy" at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) .
In 2012, Ridley became the 5th Viscount Ridley and Baron Wensleydale on the death of his father. He is also the 9th Baronet Ridley. In 2013, he was elected as hereditary peer in the House of Lords as a member of the Conservative Party.
In 2013, he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and won the Julian L. Simon award in March 2012. In 2014 he won the free enterprise award from the Institute of Economic Affairs.
His nomination to become a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences (FMedSci) reads:1958–1964: Mr Matthew White Ridley
1964–1999: The Honourable Matthew White Ridley
1999–2012: The Honourable Matthew White Ridley FRSL
2012– : The Right Honourable The Viscount Ridley FRSL
When his father died in 2012, Ridley succeeded him as the 5th Viscount Ridley, having taken over the running of the family estate of Blagdon Hall, near Stannington, Northumberland, some years before.
In 1989, Ridley married Anya Hurlbert, a Professor of Neuroscience at Newcastle University; they live in northern England and have a son and a daughter.
In 1980, his sister Rose married the British Conservative Party politician Owen Paterson, who held the posts of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs until July 2014. During this time Ridley was described as 'in many ways Paterson's personal think tank'.
Interestingly in 2015 Ridley won the celebrity Christmas special of University Challenge representing Magdalen College, Oxford, the year after his son, also Matthew, had won the student version representing Trinity College, Cambridge.