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Home » Viral: The Origin of COVID-19: Matt Ridley (Transcript)

Viral: The Origin of COVID-19: Matt Ridley (Transcript)

Transcript of JBP Podcast titled ‘Viral: The Origin of COVID-19’. In this discussion Dr Jordan B Peterson and Matt Ridley go in depth to explore the Covid 19 outbreak, scrutinizing the lack of criticism, the inherent red flags widely accepted as benign, the possible motive for a multi-government cover up, and ultimately the demise of the scientific enlightenment as it bends to a more fearsome pandemic: totalitarianism.


DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Hello, everyone. I’m happy today to be speaking with Dr. Matt Ridley, one of the world’s most well-known and lucidly-minded rationalists. I’ve spoken with Matt before on my podcast, and we’re going to talk today about, among other things, about the origin of the COVID virus. So that should be entertaining.

Matt Ridley is a British writer, journalist, and public speaker. He has a BA and DPhil degree from Oxford University. Matt also worked for The Economist for nine years as science editor. He worked as a Washington correspondent and American editor as well, before becoming a self-employed writer and businessman. Matt writes a weekly column in The Times of London and also writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal.

As Viscount Ridley, he was elected to the House of Lords in February 2013 and served on the Science and Technology Select Committee from 2014 to 2017. He won the Hayek Prize in 2011, the Julian Simon Award in 2012, and the Free Enterprise Award from the Institute of Economic Affairs in 2014. He’s a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Academy of Medical Sciences and a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He is honorary president of the International Center for Life in Newcastle. Matt also holds honorary doctorates from Buckingham University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and University Francisco, Merrick, in Guatemala. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into 31 languages, and have won several awards.

His books include The Red Queen, The Origins of Virtue, Genome, Nature Via Nurture, Francis Crick, The Rational Optimist, The Evolution of Everything, How Innovation Works, and the revised and expanded version of his latest book, Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19.

We’re going to talk about a variety of issues, including not least the politicization of science and perhaps the politicization of everything. But I think maybe we’ll start by walking through your book on the origin of COVID-19.

And so the first thing I’m curious about, I suppose, is why did you decide to investigate the origin of COVID-19? Why didn’t you just accept the idea that it emerged in the exotic meat market in Wuhan and like a good boy, let’s say, and leave it at that?

MATT RIDLEY: It’s a good question. And the answer is, to start with, I did accept the conventional version. But I’m a zoologist by background, and I was interested in how these diseases jump. And I thought it was highly likely this one had jumped like SARS did from a bat through the food chain. But I wanted to know where and when and how.

And I knew that the scientists in Wuhan had an idea about a similar virus. So I got the Wall Street Journal to commission an article from me called The Bats Behind the Pandemic. What was it about horseshoe bats that was harboring such viruses? How were people coming into contact with them? What did we know? What was the story in this case?

It was a very interesting story in the case of SARS in 2003 to do with food markets near Hong Kong. What was going to be the story in this case? And in investigating it, I came upon anomalies like the fact that this virus was not particularly closely related to the bat one they had, like they couldn’t tell me where they found the bat one. The paper that I read didn’t give the location. And the name of the virus, the bat virus, was one that didn’t appear in the scientific literature. And yet they said they’d found it previously.

So I was rather puzzled by all this. And I called up a number of virologists. And they said, well, yes, there’s some anomalies here we don’t understand. But it’s nothing to do with a lab leak. You can rule that out. Now, I believed that for about two and a half months. And then I came across the work of Alina Chan, who eventually became my co-author on this book. And she was saying, actually, we can’t rule out a lab leak. There’s quite a lot of things about this story that make it really quite plausible that what’s happened here is an escape from a lab. Because we’re dealing with a virus that turns up in the city, which has the lab that does work on SARS-like coronaviruses more than any other lab in the world.

And that geographical coincidence has to be taken seriously, particularly when we find that the virus from the bat that they identified as being closely related to SARS-CoV-2 had been found effectively in their own freezer. And that’s a starting point for a query.

So by the middle of May 2020, the Chinese were announcing they didn’t think it started in that market. Alina Chan was saying there’s lots of evidence to suggest this thing is well adapted to human beings. And the geographical coincidence all got me interested in this being an open question, not a closed one, and one that needed further investigation. And the deeper I dug, the more emerged.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Okay, so let me summarize that. So the first smoking pistol, in some sense, as you point out, is the coincidence of the location of this lab, which studies exactly this kind of virus and the outbreak itself. And that’s a problem, right? So that means that it’s reasonable to look at that and think that, well, it could have escaped from the lab there. That’s the first conclusion. And that it has to be demonstrated in some sense that it didn’t. And then, so that’s a problem.

And I can’t see how that’s anything but an incontrovertible problem. The mere fact that that lab is there and that it does research on those types of viruses and that that’s where the outbreak was doesn’t prove that it originated in the lab, but it certainly makes that a plausible hypothesis.

But then you add this additional twist, which is, I think, more complicated for people to understand. And you detail this out. You provide some detail for this in the book, that this virus is somewhat remarkably well adapted to human beings. Now, there are literally trillions and trillions of different forms of viruses. And so, obviously, most of them aren’t particularly well adapted to human beings because otherwise we would have trillions of viruses producing pandemics all the time.

So it’s generally the case that viruses are not well adapted to transmission in human beings. And that’s true for the overwhelming majority of viruses. And so the fact of this human adaptation or adaptation to human transmission is something of signal importance. And so maybe you could walk me and everyone else listening through why a typical virus isn’t adapted to human transmission and what it means that one is and how that develops.

MATT RIDLEY: Yes. The normal pattern when a virus first emerges into the human species is for it to be very difficult for the virus to spread human to human. It can infect someone. It can even possibly kill someone. But they’re not very good at passing it on to people. The virus is not really very good at transmitting between members of this new host.

Now, if enough time goes by with enough infections happening, then eventually it will get good at it. And that’s what was starting to happen with SARS in 2003. It first infected people in the fall of 2002. By the spring of 2003, you were starting to see chains of transmission from person to person.

And the reason for this is that the virus has to evolve. It has to change its genetic code in such a way that it can better fit the receptors on the cells of humans as opposed to the receptors on the cells of bats or, in the case of SARS, the intermediate host, which was a palm civet.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: So we should point out that the problem of transmission that a virus has to solve is no different from the problem of the virus determining in some sense or evolving so that it can live. Transmission in a virus is the same thing as propagation in the environment. And so this is a very knotty problem, K-N-O-T-T-Y, for a virus to solve. It’s not simple at all because it has to not kill the host too quickly. And it has to be able to replicate within an individual, but then it not only doesn’t have to manage those things, which is very difficult, but also has to figure out how to transmit itself with some degree of effectiveness. And thank God most viruses can’t solve that problem. So this is a very thorny problem.

Maybe you can outline for everyone how viruses do solve that problem and why most don’t, and why the fact of adaptation to humans is so important.

MATT RIDLEY: Yeah. So just to give you a good example, bird flu, which is a big problem at the moment in poultry flocks and wild birds, is not very good at infecting human beings. People can catch it. People have even died of it. If you’re exposed to a huge dose by working in a poultry farm, you can get sick and you’ll probably die, but you probably won’t give it to anybody else. We’ve not seen any human-to-human transmission of that virus.

This virus was good at transmitting between human beings from the word go, from November or December of 2019. And the reason for that, we now know in molecular terms, it has a so-called receptor binding domain on its spike gene, which is well-adapted to the human ACE2 receptor on our cells, not very well-adapted to other species’ receptors, which is intriguing.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: It’s a specific human adaptation.

MATT RIDLEY: Well, not specific. It’s not completely specific. It’s quite good at lots of animals, but it’s really good at us, okay? And the other feature that it has that is very striking and very surprising is that it has something called a furin cleavage site. Now, this is a small section of the spike gene that is coded by about 12 letters of RNA genetic code, which has been inserted into it, compared with all its close relatives, and that gives it the ability to use a human enzyme called furin that is in many of our cells in order to reconfigure the virus as it leaves the cell to make it, as it were, prime it to attack another cell.

So it’s actually using one of our enzymes to spread in the body. This enables it to infect more tissues in the body and to multiply much more effectively. So it’s the reason we’re having a pandemic is the furin cleavage site. If this virus didn’t have that, it would probably have been pretty easy to control in the early months.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: You said something very interesting, and this is another piece of the puzzle, I presume, is that compared to other viruses of its type, it has this interesting furin cleavage site. I’ve got that right. And you said that it had been inserted, and that’s a, well, that’s an anomalous statement, let’s say. So there’s something about this particular virus that sets it out against other viruses of its type, and it’s this particular ability to use a human enzyme, and you described that as inserted, and so I presume that could be inserted as a consequence, hypothetically, of natural selection processes or that there’s other alternative explanations. So what do you see when you look at that?

MATT RIDLEY: What I mean by inserted here is that it’s an extra piece of genetic information. We can look at 20 or 30 other very similar viruses, and we can line their genomes up and match them up against this one, and the furin cleavage site is not an altered bit. It’s an added bit. It’s an extra chunk that’s been added in the middle of the spike gene.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: So how do you differentiate between added and different? I presume that’s a consequence of degree of divergence. So you could imagine that there’s a set of viruses that are genetically and evolutionarily similar, so they stem from a similar source, and they have a predictable pattern of variation. And you’re saying that this is an anomaly that exists outside that.

MATT RIDLEY: Well, you line them up. You align the genetic codes of the viruses, and in this particular part of the spike gene, they all align up quite well. The sequence is mostly the same. You can tell it’s been added because you can align the spike genes of other viruses alongside each other and see that this is an extra piece of RNA, not a changed piece of RNA. It’s about 12 letters long, and this spells out a sequence that allows… It’s called a furin cleavage site, and it allows the virus to use a human enzyme called furin to spread from cell to cell, from tissue to tissue, and effectively makes the virus much more dangerous and much more transmissible. It’s the reason we’re having a pandemic. If the virus didn’t have this furin cleavage site, we’d probably have been able to get it under control very easily early in the pandemic.

Now, what’s interesting is that a number of Western virologists, when they first saw the sequence of this virus, said, whoa, it’s got a furin cleavage site in. That’s very unusual for a SARS-like virus. In fact, it’s unique. We’ve never seen one with this before. There are other coronaviruses with furin cleavage sites, but not SARS-like coronaviruses. And they said, ‘I’m afraid that suggests it might have been engineered.’ Now, they kept those thoughts to themselves. We only know about them now because of leaks of emails that have emerged more than a year later.

But they got on a conference call at the beginning of February, US and UK and other virologists, about a dozen of them.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Who are these people, this they that you’re referring to?

MATT RIDLEY: These are virologists, so senior virologists who’ve been studying this kind of virus or other similar outbreaks. There’s about a dozen of them. But also on the call was Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases in the US and the main advisor to the president on this. And Dr. Jeremy Farrar, a senior advisor to the British government and the head of the Wellcome Trust in the UK, which had funded a lot of research of this kind.

And they discussed on this call, their doubts that this virus was natural and their worry that it might have been engineered. Within two days, however, that same group of virologists started drafting an article, which was eventually published in Nature Medicine, saying it couldn’t possibly have been engineered. The furin cleavage site will probably turn up in a wild bat virus. Well, it hasn’t so far.

And the reason they have given for changing their mind after these emails emerged, showing what they were actually thinking in February, is that the Chinese had announced they’d found a virus in a pangolin. You probably remember that. A scaly anteater that is trafficked because of the belief that it contributes to good medical health and so on, if you eat its scales; it’s not true. They’re made of the same stuff as fingernails. You might as well eat your fingernails. But still, it’s a widely held belief. And as a result, many of these scaly anteaters are trafficked into China.

Well, it turns out that a university in China announced in February 2020 that they found a very similar virus, a 99% similar virus in pangolin. And people thought: ‘Right, case closed. We found the intermediate animal. We know what’s happening.’

Well, there’s three problems with that. One, when they eventually published the sequence of this pangolin virus, it was not very similar. It was 90% similar. That’s not good enough. It’s nothing like close enough. Two, it didn’t have the furin cleavage site in. And three, there were no pangolins on sale in Wuhan. So it couldn’t have explained how the outbreak happened in Wuhan.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Those are problems.

MATT RIDLEY: Those are big problems. So we’re in this strange situation where this particular feature has alarmed Western virologists, but they’ve kept the information to themselves. We didn’t find out about all this for months, remember.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: No, it’s worse than that. It’s worse than that because these virologists that you’re talking about include Fauci. And so it’s not just virologists. It’s the virologists who end up being in charge of the entire response. And so the question that emerges for me there is that if they were concerned about this being a lab leak, then why this strenuous attempt to deflect?

Now, there’s two possible reasons. One is that they didn’t want to move forward with their presumption that it was a lab leak without a smoking pistol. And that’s fair enough because you might think, well, we’re concerned and we’re incurring, but we’re not going to beat the drum about the lab leak until we’re certain. And then there’s whatever other reasons might be lurking in the background, and I suppose that’s part of what we’re trying to investigate.

And so that would be the scandal that would emerge, perhaps, if it was a lab leak and what that might do to Chinese-American relationships and what it says about virology research in general. And God only knows what other host of explanations. But it’s very striking to me.

So you’ve laid out a story that goes, well, first of all, there was a lab in Wuhan that was doing research that was strikingly similar on viruses that were strikingly similar to the virus that caused the pandemic. And that is the geographical locale of the origin of the pandemic. And then the virus itself has peculiarities that might indicate engineering. And so that’s two pieces of evidence that are starting to converge pretty hard and unlikely convergence.

And then you have the virologists themselves, including those who were in charge of the response or who will be eventually, also noting that this looks suspicious to say the least. And then for some reason, and in a great scientific journal or at least a once great scientific journal, downplaying their own fears. And so what’s the motivation here? What’s going on precisely?

The smoking gun, Project Defuse

MATT RIDLEY: Well, there was an exchange of emails among these scientists in which some of them said it’s important that we don’t damage international harmony. That was the phrase used by Francis Collins, the head of NIH, in these emails. And another one says we mustn’t damage the reputation of science and of Chinese science in particular. Now, at the same time, another letter was.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: You mean by my point — you mean by pointing out that something unbelievably and God awfully and unforgivably dangerous had actually happened. That was how we were going to damage the reputation, so to speak, by just admitting that something catastrophic had happened. And so it was reputation management.

MATT RIDLEY: Yes. But clearly, you know, if you there is a risk that the world rushes off and comes to the conclusion it came out of a lab and this damages biotechnology. And it’s not true. It might have. That is a natural way. And then we’ve done unnecessary damage to science, which is a great pity. And I’m a big fan of biotechnology. I would think that was a problem. That is one risk.

But the other risk is that we are so worried about doing damage to the reputation of science that we overlook the possibility that this thing did start in the laboratory. Now, at the same time, also in February 2020, the closest collaborator of the Wuhan lab in the West, a man named Peter Daszak, who runs an organization called EcoHealth Alliance, which had funneled millions of dollars from US taxpayers to this research in Wuhan over the years. He was preparing a letter for the Lancet, which he got 27 scientists to sign, saying it was it couldn’t possibly have come from a lab. And we’ve got to shut down that possibility.

He didn’t reveal his role in orchestrating that. He was just one of the signatures. He didn’t note his conflict of interest in that letter. The fact that he was a very close collaborator and friend of the Wuhan lab, it took 18 months before the Lancet published a statement of conflict of interest under pressure on that.

But more important than any of that, the one crucial thing that Peter Daszak didn’t reveal and that we didn’t find out until September 2021, was that he had put in an application to the Pentagon, to the DARPA, the research arm of the Pentagon, in 2018, in collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, among others, to do experiments on SARS-like viruses that they found in bats. And those experiments were to include, if they found ones that weren’t very similar to SARS-1, that were new, were to include putting a furin cleavage site into such a virus.

Now, that is a major discovery. And as I say, we found that out from a leaked document. It’s called the Project Defuse. It came to light in September 2021 because someone in DARPA, I think, leaked it to people who were investigating this. And Peter Daszak hadn’t bothered to tell us that he was the lead investigator on exactly this proposal.

Now, you know, for me, as a citizen of the planet Earth, that’s pretty annoying. As a scientist and a writer about science, it’s even more annoying because, you know, we all want to know what happened here. You know, I don’t go into this wanting it to be a lab leak. I just want to know the truth. And it seems absolutely vital to get us as much information as we can.

Now, some of that information is in China and they’re not being very forthcoming. But information that is in America ought to be volunteered in this case. The other thing, but the thing that the Chinese have failed to do is tell us what’s in their database. They had a database of with 22,000 entries in it at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was wildlife pathogens. It was bacteria and viruses that affected wildlife, about 15,000 of them related to bats. And most of those were viruses. So these were the viruses they’d been collecting from mostly not from Wuhan, but from a long way away from southern China and Laos and other neighboring countries.

And they’d been collecting thousands of these viruses and they’d been sequencing them and they’d been characterizing them and describing them. And they had a database. And the purpose of this database, partly funded with U.S. money, was to predict and prevent future pandemics.

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When — on the 12th of September 2019, that is about two months before the pandemic started, as far as we can tell, at two o’clock in the morning, that database went offline. It’s never come back online. We’ve never, therefore, been able to access it. And look at what viruses they had in that lab.

Now, when we asked them, why won’t you show us that database, which, after all, the purpose of which was to share with the world so that we could predict pandemics, remember, they say, oh, well, people might hack it. Well, that’s a meaningless statement. You know, if you’re going to share it, you don’t need to worry about people hacking it. You know, it’s a sort of circular non-argument, if you like.

And remember, showing us what’s in that database would be the quickest way to exonerate the Wuhan Institute of Virology, because it would show, look, they didn’t have a virus resembling SARS-CoV-2 in their database. And so case closed. But they won’t show us that document. And that, for me, is a very, very important piece of information.

The impossibility of ethical science in a totalitarian country

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Well, this begs a broader question, too, that was popping up in my mind. And perhaps this is a reasonable place to interject, to broaden out the conversation.

We don’t really know what the preconditions are for science to function as it has functioned, let’s say, in the West for the last 400 years. But it’s certainly the case that real scientists, and there are very few of them, because most scientists are technicians in some real sense. And they’re certainly not on the cutting edge. They’re worried about the pushing forward of their career, let’s say, and other extraneous issues rather than concentrating on the science at hand. It’s an unbelievably stringently ethical enterprise.

If you want to be a good scientist, you have to assume that what you don’t know should take priority over what you do know. That’s hypothesis testing in some real sense. And you also have to be willing to go where the data takes you, and you have to do your statistical analysis in the most honest possible manner. And all of that requires abiding by an extraordinarily stringent ethic.

And yet, we tend to think of science as a technical enterprise. And when we presume that it’s a technical enterprise, we also presume that, for example, it could take place in any real sense in a totalitarian country, that you can do science in a totalitarian country. And it isn’t obvious to me at all that you can do science in a totalitarian country. And the reason for that is that in a totalitarian country, everyone lies about everything all the time.

MATT RIDLEY: That’s a very good point. And that actually brings up questions that were raised in a report that came from the Senate in recent weeks. The HELP committee of the Senate, the Republican side of that committee, has employed experts to spend a couple of several months, a year and a bit actually, investigating exactly what was going on in that laboratory in Wuhan in 2018, ‘19 and ‘20.

And what they discovered was that there was some kind of crisis over biosafety in the lab in November of 2019. There were meetings, very high-level meetings. Beijing got involved. Xi Jinping himself seems to have been consulted. And the lab was basically given a major ticking off about failures on biosafety. And there’s a lot of sort of self-examination going on.

But to your point, these documents that revealed this are Communist Party documents. That is to say, like every organization in China, the Wuhan lab is basically run by the Communist Party. And as part of that, you, as a scientist, have to keep reporting to the party what you’re doing, how hard you’re working, and how it’s going to glorify the Communist Party.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Right, right, right. To the party. Yes, exactly. And that’s not science.

MATT RIDLEY: Well, you can do good science while doing that. But it’s very clear that the direction the party is giving you in 2019 is, come on, ‘We want more results out of this science. We haven’t seen enough from these virology experiments. We need to… Why aren’t you getting more results, getting more papers published, etc.?’ There’s a real pressure on these scientists. You can read it in these documents to do more work.

But then there’s also real pressure to, for God’s sake, stop having these accidents or whatever it is. It’s never quite that explicit. But, you know, what can you do to solve these biosafety problems that you’ve got in the lab? Now, all of that suggests that there was pressure to do risky experiments and there was pressure to clean up the safety record of the lab at the time that something started in Wuhan.

Now, again, none of that proves that that’s how it began. But given the experiments that we know they were doing, that they published, these were chimera virus experiments where you take part of the gene from one virus and you insert it into another in order to make a hybrid virus to see how dangerous the spike gene of the newly discovered virus is in a live virus that you know how to grow. And those experiments resulted in up to 10,000 times increases in the infectivity of viruses in human cells, human airway epithelial cells in the lab.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Is that the gain of function research that people refer to constantly?


DR JORDAN B PETERSON: And the function that’s being gained is transmissibleness, is the capacity of the virus to be transmitted.

MATT RIDLEY: The original gain of function debate was about how to turn a bird flu into a mammal flu, how to give it the new function of infecting mammal. But the term then came to be used for increases in the infectivity or the virulence of viruses in the laboratory that are capable of infecting human beings.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: All right. So let me ask you a question about that. So we’ve already established earlier in this conversation that there are trillions upon trillions of viral variants. And a very, very tiny fraction of those pose a human risk, almost an infinitesimally small fraction. And so the vast majority of viruses are harmless.

And then the theory would be, well, there are some that are still harmful and we need to understand those. And fair enough. And one of the ways of understanding them is to produce more dangerous viral variants in the lab. And then we can study these more dangerous variants. But that seems to me to assume that you’re presuming that the more dangerous functions that you’re adding to the viruses are in some sense going to be representative of more dangerous viruses in general so that you can generalize beyond them. And you’re also assuming that the risk of an accident or an outbreak in relationship to poor handling of these new viruses that you’re creating is less of a risk than natural variation in the viruses themselves would be likely to produce. It isn’t obvious to me at all a priori that any of those presumptions are even vaguely correct.

MATT RIDLEY: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly the calculation that they were making. That it was worth doing this research because you would identify viruses that could cause a pandemic this way and that that risk would the risk of causing an accident was less than that risk that were running naturally.

There was a lot of criticism of this when they began this sort of research, not just in Wuhan, but elsewhere in the world. About 10 years ago, under a US funded program called PREVENT, there was a number of virologists who quite openly said, we think this is a mistake. We think you’re looking for a needle in the haystack. You’ll probably find the wrong needle. We don’t think that you’re going to find anything useful this way. And they didn’t also add. But there was other people saying, and by the way, aren’t you creating the very risk that you’re worrying about? You’re looking for a gas leak with the lighted match, as someone put it.

Now, I think most of us now looking at what was going on in Wuhan in that laboratory in the years leading up to the pandemic are convinced that even if this one didn’t happen that way, it could have. And that going forward, we should not be doing this kind of research.

Well, after a short pause, the US government resumed its donations to the EcoHealth Alliance to work with partner labs doing this kind of research elsewhere in the world during and after the pandemic.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Recently, and the recently means October 27th in the journal Science Online. And so just for everyone watching and listening to know, there’s two journals in the world, Science and Nature, that are regarded by scientists in virtually every discipline as the pinnacle of scientific publication. And so if you’re a career scientist and you publish in Science or Nature, that’s a career making publication. It’s the equivalent of a bestseller, let’s say, or a hit movie in the scientific community.

And both Science and Nature are among the oldest of scientific journals and the most prestigious. And they have their origin in the UK. And so everyone in the scientific community has been for decades very impressed with Science and Nature. So I’m telling everyone that just so you know the significance of this of this publication outlet.

Now, there’s an article there that was written by John Cohen on October 27th, 22, talking about this Senate investigation that Matt just referred to. And let me read a little bit about this: “The mysterious origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, like so many aspects of the response, has created deep divides along party lines in the United States.”

OK, so that’s the opening statement. And so basically, the opening statement is designed to convince both the writer and the reader that the primary issue here with regards to the lab leak hypothesis is one of politics and not a fact or science. And then the article continues. Many virologists and evolutionary biologists who have studied the origins of outbreaks dismissed the lab leak hypothesis. Many virologists, let’s say, but other scientists have complained that the possibility was too readily downplayed.

OK, so there’s this dispute. But then the writer continues: “And it has become increasingly popular among conservative media outlets and some Republican politicians.” So instantly politicizing it again.

Now, this Senate report, which is reported here as a minority staff, concludes in its 30-page report, 35-page report, that the COVID pandemic was more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident. And then the author immediately jumps to this statement, which is ‘that conclusion stands in sharp contrast to that of other panels, including from the World Health Organization and U.S. intelligence agencies, which have deemed a zoonotic jump more likely or remain neutral, given the lack of direct evidence on the origin of the virus.’

OK, so we’re being enjoined by the journal Science itself to assume that all of this discussion about the origin of the lab leak is somehow politicking. OK, so let’s take that apart for a minute. That’s predicated on the assumption that the Republicans and the conservatives, let’s say, both narrowly and more broadly, have something specific to gain in a power-related manner by advancing the claim that the origin of the virus was in some sense a lab leak. And for the life of me, I can’t understand why that’s political. It’s like it was either a lab leak or it wasn’t. That’s pretty damn evident. And it isn’t obvious to me that the facts stand on one side of the political divide or another.

So then I’m wondering, why in the world is it that Science magazine is publishing an article claiming that the real reason that anybody’s concerned about whether or not this was a lab leak is because of Republican Party shenanigans? And so what do you think about that?

MATT RIDLEY: Well, it’s true that America is very politically polarized, and there’s a tendency in much of the media to see everything in a Republican versus Democrat lens these days. That doesn’t work for the rest of us who aren’t Americans. We don’t have to see the world that way. We can think of it as a scientific question rather than a political question.

And it’s true that early in the pandemic, a Republican president, Donald Trump, kept saying it might have come from a lab. Well, we happen to know that a number of scientists privately agreed with him but didn’t say so at the time. But the real divide here, and we see this on social media all the time, we get active debates about this going on.

The real divide is not between people who think it was a lab leak and people who think it was a market zoonosis, but people who think that we haven’t answered the question yet and we need to keep looking at both hypotheses. What I call the open question side of the debate, which I’m on, which my co-authors on, which everybody who thinks a lab leak is possible thinks. I don’t know anyone who thinks it’s 100% certain it was a lab leak.

80,000 animals tested in Wuhan, 0 infected

And on the other side of the question are the case closed crowd who say, no, no, we can already rule out a lab leak for certain. And that seems to me immensely premature. And here’s why. In the case of SARS, we were able to rule out a lab leak and know that it came over a market because we found the infected animal. We found the civet cat that had caught the virus from the bat and gave it to people. And we found the index cases. You know, these were food handlers and chefs and people who were cooking civet cats. You know, the chain of transmission was very clear.

In this case, we found no infected animals. We found no evidence in blood banks of previously infected people. We found nobody who looks like an index case. The only thing we found is that there was a concentration of early cases in that food market in Wuhan. And a number of scientists, the ones referred to in that John Cohen article in Science, regard that evidence that there were quite a lot of early cases in that market or near that market as so-called dispositive. In other words, we can close the case. We can go home, shut up the inquiry, and say we know for certain it came out of that.

And the rest of us say, no, hang on. You haven’t found an infected animal. You haven’t found an early case. And by the way, we know why there was a concentration of cases in that market. Because in the early days of the pandemic, if you had pneumonia and you went to hospital, they were told to consider Covid as a cause only if you live near that market. So it’s a circular argument.

Of course, the early cases were near the market because that’s the only place they were looking. It’s like the drunk who says, I’m looking for my car keys under this streetlight because that’s where the light is. So, you know, again, I’m not making the case that the market couldn’t have been the place where it happened. I’m making the case that we can’t just definitively conclude that yet.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Well, you’re actually you’re making a stronger case. Well, you’re making a stronger case than that, I would say, in some sense, because you’re saying that when we’ve done similar things previously, we’ve been able to find animals who had that virus variant. And we just haven’t been able to find those animals at all. So what you’re saying is that the only evidence that it came from the market is that there are cases that were reported earlier that were associated with the market. But that’s the only piece of evidence that it’s coming from the market.

And so I think it seems to me, and correct me if I’m wrong, that you’re being cautious and underplaying the evidence that suggests that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, let’s say. I mean –

MATT RIDLEY: Well, it’s slightly the evidence. To be fair, the evidence is slightly better than that, because there were a number of samples in the market that were taken that were positive for this virus. They were environmental samples, that is to say, doorknobs, countertops, sewage, things like that. You know, they weren’t animals or people. They were swabs, swabs taken.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: So we know the virus was circulating there.

MATT RIDLEY: Exactly. But they’re all but one of one strain of the virus, which is one of the only human strains. The other is the other human strain. And there’s one swab that shows that one. But most of the other swabs — for most of the other early cases of that one come from the other side of the river of the Yangtze River as it happens.

So it looks like one strain was certainly circulating in the market and maybe the other. But it could easily have been circulating in people. There’s no evidence that it was animals. There’s a slight concentration of those samples in one corner of the market, which is where animals were on sale. So that’s perhaps suggesting — well, where the toilets were and the mahjong clubs were and things like that. So, there’s lots of other reasons why it might have been in that corner. But they tested 80000 animals.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Is there any evidence of animal to animal transmission of this virus?

MATT RIDLEY: Well, since the pandemic began, animals like mink and deer have caught it and are transmitting it to each other. So, yes, it is capable of transmitting in other animals.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: But does it do it effectively?

MATT RIDLEY: Much less effectively than it does in people or monkeys or mice.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: OK, so that’s a big problem, right? Because we have these trillions of viruses and this variant, this COVID variant doesn’t transmit very well in animals. And so that also makes it incumbent upon the people who claim that it had an animal origin to explain that. How given that it isn’t very transmissible in animals and that the probability of a human transmitted virus is very unlikely. That puts additional constraints on the notion that this was an animal transmitted virus. Right, because it’s not very good at doing that.

MATT RIDLEY: Yeah. I mean, remember, the one thing we do know about it is that it’s originally a bat virus. It’s these SARS, like coronavirus, SARS-CoV viruses are found in horseshoe bats. They’re not found in other kinds of bats or other kinds of animals. That’s their natural reservoir. And in those bats, they’re not particularly lethal. And they cause mainly intestinal disease rather than a respiratory disease. And they use very different receptors.

So some things happened to enable that virus to adapt to causing a respiratory disease in human beings rather than an intestinal disease in bats. Now, that’s something could have been an intermediate host like a bamboo rat or something on sale in the market. Or it could have been a humanized mouse in a lab because what the Wuhan Institute of Virology were doing, they were infecting humanized mice. Now, these are mice that have had the ACE2 receptor gene from human beings inserted into them in place of their own ACE2 receptor. So their lungs are expressing a particular protein that is only found in human beings.

And so if you infect an animal, this mouse with the virus, you’re effectively testing how dangerous this virus is on human beings. Now, the worry here is that if one of those mice escapes or if it bites a lab worker or something like that, we’re dealing with a virus that’s been trained in these mice and in human cells in the lab to infect human beings. And that’s the concern with this kind of experiments.

The lack of criticism for the Chinese government

The mouse experiments were done at Biosafety Level 3. That’s pretty good. That’s a negative pressure cabinet, you know, completely sealed where, you know, the air is properly filtered before it can get out. But the human airway epithelial cell culture experiments, also done with the same chimeric viruses, were done at Biosafety Level 2 in some cases. Now, that’s where a glove and masks — sorry, where gloves and a mask. In fact, you don’t even have to wear a mask at Biosafety Level 2.

Now, if this thing was, you know, if SARS-CoV-2 was in one of these human airway epithelial cell cultures and at Biosafety Level 2, it’s more likely than not that the researcher would have picked it up and might well have been asymptomatic. You know, it’s not a very severe disease in many people. And he might well have gone to the market. You know, he might have gone to the mahjong club or something. And so something could have happened along those lines.

The contortions you have to go through to say that we can close the case on this are pretty extraordinary. I mean, for a start, you’ve got to assume that the Chinese are telling us everything we need to know about the early cases. Were some of the early cases lab workers? The CIA says they were. They won’t give us the evidence as to how they know that. The Chinese say they weren’t.

The South China Morning Post reported that the earliest case was a man who caught it in November the 17th, 2019. Well, since then, the official Chinese that was based on a leaked document, the official Chinese have disavowed that document said, no, no. The first case was in early December. Well, we don’t know.

Now, if this was in the West, we would be all over this. The media would be all over this, demanding more transparency. And yet the extraordinary thing is we don’t hear much criticism of the Chinese regime over this. We don’t hear it at the G7 or what’s called the COP 27 meeting. You know, we hear criticism of China quite rightly over their treatment of Hong Kong and the Uyghurs. But this to me is an even more scandalous thing that 20 million people or nearly that may be dead. And an awful lot of people have been had their lives turned upside down. And we know where it started and we know there are two possible things that could have happened there. And we’re not doing anything to try to push back against the regime’s lack of transparency.

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DR JORDAN B PETERSON: And we’re continuing to engage in gain of function research.

MATT RIDLEY: Yes. And in cities, too. You know, I mean, my co-author, Alina Chan, makes the point that we shouldn’t be doing this kind of research in cities. You know, if you’re going to have a lab doing this kind of work at all, it should be in an isolated area.


MATT RIDLEY: Like Greenland or Mars. You know, we don’t do — we don’t cite nuclear power stations in the middle of cities. Why should we cite virology labs in the middle of cities? It’s exactly the same argument.

I follow genomics, molecular biology, pathology quite closely as a writer, not as a practitioner. And yet I didn’t know that these experiments were being done. And when I first heard the argument that it might have come from a lab, I said, no, no, we’re not nearly clever enough to design a virus this good.

Well, once I found out what we were doing or what they were doing and how it goes completely against the rules that biotechnology set itself in the 1970s, saying, look, let’s do this kind of work, but not on dangerous pathogenic viruses, because that could be dangerous. I was really shocked by how far into the manipulation and testing of dangerous viruses we have gone in the last 10 years.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Well, so I guess part of the reaction might be because I’m trying to understand why there would be motivation to shut down, let’s say, speculation, investigation into the possibility of a lab leak. And I guess maybe part of the reason is that it reveals a reality that in some sense is too dreadful to conveniently comprehend.

And we have a lot of problems like that confronting us at the moment, apocalyptic problems of one variety of another. And the problem here is that we’re doing potentially — we’re stupidly doing potentially dangerous things on a scale that can produce exactly the kind of result that perhaps has already been produced. And it’d be easier in some sense in the short term just to stick our heads in the sand and pretend it isn’t happening. And then you could add the complication there that, well, we don’t want to upset whatever international harmony we’ve managed to establish with the Chinese.

But — and I can understand why people would be loath to reinvestigate that problem, too, because we have an associated problem here. So we’re engaged with the Chinese in in a multitude of different ways. And to some degree, that’s very beneficial. I mean, there are far fewer Chinese people facing acute privation than there were, say, a few decades ago. And the Chinese have been relatively successfully integrated into the world economy. And we have all of the cheap and desirable goods that the Chinese are producing. And all of that seems a lot more positive than two antagonistic populations facing each other in a state of absolute economic privation.

But we also have another problem, which is, well, the Chinese are pretty damn authoritarian and they’re still run by the Communist Party, which is a dreadful organization. And then we don’t know how much our entanglement with the Chinese tilts us towards that totalitarian structure.

And so one of the things I’ve been noting is that when the pandemic emerged, the totalitarians acted first and they acted in a totalitarian way, which is, well, why don’t we just lock everyone down? Which is sort of the totalitarian answer to everything. And then in our herd like panic in the West, we immediately imitated them. And so that’s the spread of a pathogen, too, right? That’s the spread of a totalitarian pathogen of ideas. And that’s also shook us up terribly in the West. It isn’t obvious to me at all that the lockdowns were the least bit justifiable. They certainly were justifiable ethically, as far as I’m concerned, and it isn’t obvious to me at all that they were justifiable practically.

And so we have a pathogen of COVID to contend with, but we also have a pathogen of totalitarian totalitarianism to contend with. And I would say the latter poses a much bigger threat than the former. Lest we keep mucking about with gain of function research.

China envy, recalling the USSR

MATT RIDLEY: Yeah, well, you’re absolutely right that a lot of the proponents of lockdown in the early days were very explicit about saying we’d never have contemplated this policy if we hadn’t seen it work in Wuhan. So there was a deliberate work. Yes, exactly. Well, it worked for a while and then it didn’t work and so on. And so there was a very explicit sort of China envy going on.

But I think, you know, I completely agree with you that, you know, China’s transformation in the last 50 years has been spectacular from one of the poorest nations on Earth to a middle income country, lifting more people out of poverty than has happened in any generation in tens of thousands of years. That’s magnificent. And it was done by liberation. It was done by Deng Xiaoping’s policy of economic liberation. You can start a business. You can make money. You can trade. You can do all these things as long as you don’t set up a rival to the Communist Party. There was economic liberation, but not political liberation. That was continued under his successor, particularly under Hu Jintao, and very successful. It was, too.

It took a long time for us to realize, and certainly for me to realize, that Xi Jinping is not like that. He is not sticking to that policy at all. He has completely abandoned any idea of free enterprise for ordinary Chinese people and gone to a completely state directed view of the economy as well as society and a police state of the most brutal kind. And that does change the calculation.

Can I just tell you one little story in respect of that about the Soviet Union that I think is quite interesting here? Because people often say to me, look, we’ll never know because the Chinese are not going to let us find out what happened in Wuhan in the autumn of 2019. So why bother speculating?

Well, in Sverdlovsk in the Soviet Union in 1979, there was some kind of industrial accident and 65 people died of what the American intelligence community said was anthrax poisoning as a result of a leak from a biowarfare plant. The Russians said, no, it’s not a biowarfare plant. No, they weren’t handling anthrax. No, that’s not what happened. They got food poisoning. You’re wrong.

The Russians invited in an international panel of scientists to investigate, led by a Nobel Prize winner, a wonderful guy called Matt Meselson. And after looking around and visiting Sverdlovsk, now called Ekaterinburg, but it was then called Sverdlovsk, they concluded that the Russians were right. The Americans were wrong. This was not an anthrax leak. And case closed and the international community was satisfied.

Then the Soviet Union collapsed and scientists who had worked in the biowarfare plant, because that’s what it was in Sverdlovsk, came to the West and told us exactly what had happened on that day. One shift had taken off a filter to repair it and had not put it back on. They hadn’t told the next shift what they’d done. And as a result, a plume of anthrax spores was sent over the city of Sverdlovsk, killing 65 people. If it had gone the other way, it would have killed hundreds of thousands because it went over a relatively unpopulated suburb. So it took the best part of a decade before the truth came out.

And the lie had survived an international investigation, but the truth did eventually come out in that case.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Yeah. So the moral of that story is that not only do these things happen, but that they can be covered up quite effectively, although in that case, not finally and perhaps not in this case. So do you accept the psychological hypothesis, let’s say, of convenience in some sense, this hoping that an inconvenient truth will go away as motive for those who are attempting to make the case that the assumption of a leak is just politicization? Or do you think what else is going on here?

MATT RIDLEY: Well, there’s also a sort of priesthood aspect to it. Virologists have been talking to each other and living in their own world for a while, and they’ve now got scruffy people like journalists and people on the Internet and people who’ve done a little bit of research coming along and invading their space and saying, I want answers to questions. And they find that impertinent. They find that annoying. And they it’s sort of — you know, it’s sort of beneath them to have to answer questions from these people. So that’s another motivation.

A third motivation is that there was a lot of — there was a big buildup behind the idea that the reason we had a pandemic was because we’re interfering with Mother Nature. We’re encroaching on habitats of bats and things like that. They wanted it to be an ecological cautionary tale. And so there’s a reluctance to have it teach a very different cautionary tale instead.

So there’s a whole slew of motivations that are causing establishment science to behave a bit like a priesthood here. I mean, there’s also financial. Remember, there’s big money in virology research. And a lot of scientists spend a lot of their time thinking about where’s the next million dollars going to come from to support my lab? Quite rightly, it’s very competitive world. And they fear that if the world concludes that high risk virology research led to this accident, that there will be no more funding for high risk virology research. You or I might think that’s a good thing, but it genuinely affects these people’s livelihoods. So no wonder they’re going to fight that corner.

The demise of the enlightenment

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: It’s also a complicated thing. I mean, I am an advocate of — an admirer, let’s say, for what it’s worth of open inquiry. And it isn’t obvious to me that it’s certainly not a simple thing, a simple matter to conclude that there’s an area of investigation that’s now permanently off limits. And then there’s always the danger that deciding that that area of scientific inquiries permanently off limits leads to the spread of areas that are permanently off limits. And that becomes politicized, which it would, instantaneously.

So I know already that there is politicking taking place on the genetic database front, such that those who are investigating such heresies as the heritability of intelligence, the multifactorial heritability of intelligence, are having a very difficult time getting access to the previously publicly accessible databases that made such investigation possible. And so being concerned about arbitrary restrictions being placed on the domain of scientific inquiry by well-meaning politicians is definitely something to be concerned about. So this is a very complicated problem.

I mean, do you think it’s even possible to conclude, let’s say, that while maybe gain of function research is like an exception to the rule, we’re not going to fund a lot of random experimentation on the new development of atomic weapons in the middle of cities, and we shouldn’t be doing– we should be doing, we should be equally cautious with regards to gain of function research in relationship to viruses.

But then, you know, can we constrain the constraints themselves so they don’t interfere with the scientific process? And that doesn’t, the answer to that certainly doesn’t seem to be obvious.

MATT RIDLEY: Well, the sheer lack of curiosity about investigating this question has shocked me. I approached the Royal Society, I knew some senior people at the Royal Society, and I approached them and said, look, this is developing into a very interesting debate. Lots of interesting evidence has been put forward on the lab leak side and lots on the market side. Don’t you think it would be a good subject for a set piece debate at the Royal Society with some experts? It doesn’t have to be me. I’m not necessarily pushing myself forward to talk about this.

And they said, oh, no, we only discuss scientific topics as if this was a political topic. So I approached the Academy of Medical Sciences and I got roughly the same answer. Oh, it’s too controversial. Well, you know, I’m sorry. A new virus has erupted into the human species, forming, causing the worst pandemic in several hundred years, killing close on 20 million people as far as we can make out, totally turning upside down the world economy. And we don’t want to investigate how it happened and whether it will happen again. I’m sorry, but I find that bizarre.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Well, and we also insist that all such investigations are nothing but politicking, which is also a sign on a broader sense of what of the almost universal acceptance of certain postmodern dictums. Right. That there’s no science without politics, let’s say, which is, well, a problematic claim, let’s say, to say the least.

MATT RIDLEY: On that, I mean, you know, I haven’t been a practicing scientist for 30, 40 years, but most of what I did had no political edge to it. Now, when I open the journals, I find pretty well every article, even scientific papers seem to have to nudge their conclusions towards some sort of quasi political issue, whether it’s climate change or economic inequality or whatever, rather than just saying, here’s what I found. And I don’t know what it means. If you see what I mean, I actually went for completely different reasons.

I was doing some digging into the scientific literature about what happened at the end of the ice age in the UK. You know, when the ice melted, it wasn’t because I was interested in modern climate change or anything like that. I just wanted to know, you know, when did the ice disappear from different parts of Britain? And what did the landscape look like at the time? And how long did it take for vegetation to appear? You know, there’s no particular reason for doing this, but this just intrigued me one day. And I spent a few days digging into the scientific papers.

And I found a very interesting pattern, which was that any paper published in the last seven or eight years was sort of political. It had this sort of angle to it. Either it wanted to use the information that it was digging up about the ice age to tell a moral story about today’s climate change or something. Or it was sort of interested in a kind of political argument between two factions in science.

And I had to go back to the 1990s where I found some very refreshingly good papers that were saying things like, well, here’s what we think happened. And here’s a map of what we think happened. And I don’t agree with Fred who thinks something else, you know. And I just suddenly had a moment where I thought, ‘Hang on. Are we losing the Enlightenment view of science where we were inquiry on its own is good?’

The antagonism between religion and science

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Yeah, well, I’ve got an idea about that. And so it’s a complicated idea, but I wouldn’t mind discussing it with you. And just tell me what you think about it. It is obviously the case that what we might describe as the postmodern critique, which has a Marxist edge to it for reasons we could get into, has definitely made itself manifest on the scientific front. And that the claim of the postmodernists in some real sense is that there never was any science without politicking and that science itself is a political enterprise. And if you deny that, and usually conducted on behalf of those who have the current power, and that if you deny that, that’s only an indication of the degree to which you’re captured by the narrative of power. It’s something like that.

And there’s no doubt that that’s had an unbelievably corrosive effect on the scientific endeavor in the social sciences and also on the philosophic endeavor on the humanities front. And I saw years ago that this was eventually going to be aimed at the STEM types, the science, technology, engineering and mathematics types. And at that point, nobody believed that was a possibility, but I saw it as a certainty. I thought that the postmodernists would go through the scientists like a hot knife through butter. And that made me ask myself, what are the preconditions for the scientific enterprise? Because we shouldn’t be thinking, us scientists, that being able to think scientifically or being allowed or encouraged to think scientifically is something like a deep norm. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite, right? It’s an unbelievable exception, and it only emerged in the domain of human cognitive endeavor once in history. And that was, say, 500 years ago, and it’s had its run in some real sense and made us technologically powerful. But it’s reasonable to view it as a very fragile enterprise, the preconditions for which we don’t understand.

And so let me outline a precondition, and you tell me what you think about this. So I’ve been very interested in the Nietzschean idea of the death of God, right? And Nietzsche believed, like Dostoevsky, that once our faith in a transcendent being collapsed, that the political, in some sense, would immediately become religious, or that nihilism would prevail. Those were the basic two outcomes, and both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky took that farther. They also prophesied that not only would the political become sacred as it took the place of what was sacred, but that there would be a particular kind of political endeavor that would become sacred. And that would be the endeavor that eventually manifested itself as in the communist ethos. And that all came true with a vengeance.

But I was wondering more recently, the Judeo-Christian claim, and this is the monotheistic claim, is that there’s a transcendent spirit to which we must pledge allegiance. So we must worship and celebrate, let’s say, that we must mimic. And that constitutes the basis of the religious enterprise.

But then there’s an analogous claim, which I think is derived from that claim, that there’s a transcendent object whose fundamental nature escapes our apprehension, and that pursuit of a relationship with that transcendent object is the proper activity of the scientist. And so that would be the scientist who always assumes that his epistemology, that his theories are incomplete, that something real and comprehensible lies outside the domain of that theory, and that attempting to make contact with that transcendent domain is actually the proper mode of conduct for a scientist. And I can’t help but see that as both deeply analogous to and maybe even a derivation of that more fundamental religious orientation.

And so then I’ve been wondering more recently is that if the death of God, so to speak, also, although surprisingly, will mean the demise of the enlightenment enterprise, because it was predicated on an unconscious religiosity that presumed the existence of a transcendent object and the possibility of a beneficial relationship between the inquirer, the scientist, and that object itself. And so, well, I know that brings us somewhat far afield with regard to our discussion of COVID, but…

MATT RIDLEY: Yeah, that’s fascinating. And I’m going to pick up on a couple of points and may forget to address some of the very interesting points you just made. The first thing to say is that, like you, it dawned, I mean, not as soon, but it eventually dawned on me that the postmodern revolution was going to consume not just the soft sciences and humanities, but hard sciences too.

And I remember realizing that there was a sort of, you know, anthropology departments 20 years ago had a sort of line down the middle of the corridor in each department in each university. On one side were rational people who looked at bones or did ethnography or something. And on the other side were people who were very politicized, very postmodern, very meta in their approach. And these two tribes were at each other’s throats in anthropology. Now, that then happened to psychology. It happened to quite a lot of other sciences.

And, you know, those of us who thought, well, it’ll never happen to maths. Well, I’m afraid mathematics is already being challenged. You know, is it sufficiently feminist? Is it sufficiently non-white? You know, all these sort of things are trying to dismantle what seems to me a completely objective discipline at the same time.

Now, how far it will go, I don’t know. I like you and like that other great Canadian, Steven Pinker. I’m really worried about the fragility of the Enlightenment philosophy. I think the sort of high point of people like Richard Feynman and Francis Crick saying wonderfully open minded and skeptical things about everything. And as a result, challenging each other to find out things about the world looks a little to me like it’s harder to do these days.

And it’s as if I’m living through the period at the end of the Roman Republic when the tremendous open mindedness of people like Lucretius and others like that got swept away in the book burning and idea suppressing stuff that came, frankly, with Christianity. And so I’m less sympathetic than you, I suspect, to the role of religion here. I don’t think religion was a friend of open inquiry into mysteries of the world.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: And we should — maybe let me differentiate two subcategories in relationship to that. I’ve talked a lot to people like Sam Harris and to Richard Dawkins about exactly these issues, say, about the antagonism between religion and science. And so one of the things that I really saw.

So Dawkins regards the religious enterprise as pseudoscientific all that that body of pseudoscientific proclamation that impedes the rational progress of Enlightenment science. And so that’s his perspective. And I’m not trying to parody it or to put it down in any sense. I’m just trying to relate it.

And whereas Harris and I’m using these two people because they’re examples, perhaps, of the world’s most famous atheists. Harris’s argument is more. It’s more emotional than that, in some sense. And I don’t mean irrational. I mean, based in a deeper emotion. Harris identifies the spirit of totalitarianism and malevolence with a religious enterprise. And I think that’s an error because he’s throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And it’s interesting to me in relationship.

Well, so I would say you’re talking about the antagonism between religion and science. But so one of the things I really admired about Dawkins and his work has been quite helpful to me, by the way, is that he has this clear headed faith in science is in rationality. That’s typical of the best scientists, perhaps someone like Feynman, for example. And but Dawkins, like all true scientists, believes that there is a transcendent truth and that the pursuit of that truth will set us free. And it’s those claims that I think are essentially religious.

And so I think it’s useful to differentiate between the religious impulse towards truth. If you can call that the religious impulse and the totalitarian aspect of the imposition of religious dogma, which I see actually is a variant, not of the religious spirit, but of the totalitarian spirit. Because I do believe the greatest scientists that I’ve known have a religious reverence for truth. Now, they say objective truth. And that’s fine. It’s perfectly reasonable variant of truth.

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But the reverence itself doesn’t seem to me to be scientific. It’s predicated on whatever it is that drives reverence. And I’m afraid that what’s happening at the level of the postmodern critique is that it’s actually a corrosive critique of that reverence itself. It’s the claim that that reverence is nothing but a mask for power claims, for example. And that man, that is a corrosive criticism. And it might be corrosive enough to bring the whole damn enterprise to a halt. And I see it shuddering forward with the corruption of journals like Nature and Science and the increasing politicization of every scientific discussion.

MATT RIDLEY: And I am with both you and Dawkins in the sense that I, like him, have got this reverence for science and truth and somewhat skeptical of whether religion shares that because I think faith is antithetical to it. But he is perhaps wrong that the enemy is conventional religion, because actually creeping up on us has been a much more dangerous anti enlightenment force. As you say, the postmodernism and I think a lot of other things that go with it and totalitarianism. Exactly.

And, you know, I think the critique you can make of atheists like me very validly is that when we throw out the baby, sorry, the bathwater, the baby goes too and we end up with something far worse.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Well, that’s the that’s the issue –

MATT RIDLEY: The cults of Stalin or the cults of Foucault or whatever it might be. And so in that sense, and actually Richard concedes this, that if you’re going to have — if you can’t extirpate faith from the human spirit, then you might as well have a mild version of it called the Church of England.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Let me push you a little bit on that, too, because I’m very curious about this issue of the faith predicated presumption of the properly functioning scientist. So it seems to me. So imagine that you tell me if you think I’ve got any of these presuppositions wrong because they’re crucially important to this argument.

So the first is the belief in the existence of a transcendent object. And I would say that’s a faith based belief. And here’s why. So you have a scientific theory and you can’t help but look at the world of objects through that theory. So when you see the world of objects in your discipline, that vision, that perception is informed by your epistemology. But you know, as a scientist, that you’re wrong. But the knowledge that you’re wrong is predicated on an assumption. And the assumption is that there is a domain of information that as yet that exists as yet outside your presuppositions. And that has to be a faith based axiom, because given that that source of information exists beyond your current set of axioms, you can’t encounter it. You have to just accept it as a continuing reality. And it would be the reality of that knowledge that currently lies beyond us.

MATT RIDLEY: Well, I certainly think that the purpose of science is to find new mysteries. It’s not just to solve them, because in solving one, you always come upon more, you know, in finding out that we’re just a marble, a blue marble spinning through space. We then find there are things like suns and galaxies and black holes and things, each of which is a new mystery that we have to address.

And I love that aspect about science, that, you know, the more trees we chop down in the clearing of knowledge, the more forest comes into view, as it were, the more stuff we don’t know and don’t understand. And I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that, what gets scientists up in the morning in a lab is not the things they know already. You put them on the shelf and feed them to the students. It’s the things you don’t yet know. It’s the part of the puzzle you haven’t yet found out. And we mustn’t lose that.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Well, I knew if you did refer to that. And I think this is extremely interesting. You referred to that as a love. And that’s not an objective observation in some sense. Right. It’s a reference to a particular kind of motivation. And so but then let’s say we could look — we can inquire into that a little bit more deeply. We might say, well, what’s that love predicated on? And one possible source is that while you see that it engages you in a meaningful enterprise. So there’s a sense of implicit meaning in this search to make contact with that which still lies beyond you.

And so that’s engaging and it’s deeply engaging as part of the instinct of meaning as far as I’m concerned. But it’s also predicated on the idea. And I can’t help but think that this is fundamentally a religious axiom. And I think it’s a Judeo-Christian derived religious axiom, which is that you also believe that the truth will set you free. And in some sense, Matt, our whole bloody discussion today centers on that. I mean, you’re delving into the COVID-19 mystery because you are making a presumption here against those who would take the pathway of convenience and deceit.

Let’s say that. No, you don’t get to do that. I don’t care what your rationales are. Something actually happened in Wuhan. And the reason we need to find out what it is, is because finding out what is true is actually the best pathway forward, regardless of your bloody political preconceptions. And I can’t see.

This is a genuine question to you. I don’t see that as anything different than a reference to the work, to the idea, for example, that the divine word or that the word of truth itself is divine. And that the manifestation of that truth is, in fact, freeing. And I don’t think that’s a within science claim.

MATT RIDLEY: I know I’m completely happy with that. I can give you some very dull, practical reasons why we need to find out how the pandemic started so that we can predict where the next one’s coming from, so that we can deter bioterrorists and bad actors who might be thinking of copying what happened, et cetera, et cetera.

But those aren’t my real motivation. My real motivation is because I think truth matters more than anything else. There’s a wonderful quote somebody gave me the other day, which he said was from Solzhenitsyn. But I don’t think it is. I’d like to know who said it. Truth matters more than consequence.

Don’t want us to know what happened or worried about the consequence of finding out what happened. But I’m sorry. The truth comes first. We have to deal with the consequences of finding out the truth. But the truth is what I really care about. And I do think, in a sense, it’ll set me free and you free and all of us free.

It may be uncomfortable just as finding out that we’re not at the center of the universe. We’re not a unique creature. We have the same genes as others. We’re 40 percent genetically the same as a banana. You know, these are all humiliating things science has found. But they’re not. But for me, they’re liberating as well.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Well, and you made a very strong argument there on the consequence front. So because, look, here’s the totalitarian presumption. It essentially is that, well, we have a political theory. So let’s say it’s Marxism in this case. And we bloody well know it’s right. And so because we already have the truth at hand, then all of our endeavors should be devoted towards the promotion of that truth. And it’s a final truth. And we have it at hand. There’s no transcendent truth there apart from the doctrine itself.

Now, your proposition, and I think this is the proposition of true scientists, is no, no, you have to abandon your political presumptions completely. And that means that you have to face even those truths that make you tremendously uncomfortable cognitively and emotionally in the moment. You cannot use that discomfort as evidence. You have to assume, regardless of such evidence, strangely enough, that in the final analysis, all things considered, there’s nothing that’s more liberating than the truth.

And Matt, I think that that’s the core doctrine. I do believe that’s the core doctrine upon which Judeo-Christian society itself is founded because the doctrine of the divine word is something like this. As far as I’ve been able to tell, it’s something like the proper action of the consciousness that liberates us is the forthright confrontation with possibility itself, with potential itself, and the willingness to confront that head on in truth. And the consequence of that confrontation is the construction of the habitable world that is good. That seems to me to be the doctrine of the word at the beginning of Genesis.

And there’s a notion there that human beings, men and women alike, are made in that image. And I suppose you could argue about my theological interpretation, but that does seem to be the doctrine.

MATT RIDLEY: Yeah. I’m no theologian, but I think what you’re describing, and this is perhaps where I do differ from you, is Judeo-Christian philosophy as tamed or refracted by the Enlightenment, by Spinoza and Descartes and David Hume and Adam Smith and Voltaire.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: By the Greeks before that.

MATT RIDLEY: Well, no, but I think the problem, you know, I think if you go back and look at the early history of the church, it was a brutally nihilistic cult that stamped out a lot of openness that came from the Greeks. And so I don’t think that it was as harmless for its first 1,000, first 1,500 years as bishophood. That’s what bishops and priests like to tell us.

Now, in that sense, I think it was like the modern Communist Party, which in China says the party matters most. Xi Jinping is right about everything. You must see everything through the lens of how you can help to further our aims, which is a deeply unimaginative way of seeing the world. And I think a lot of modern Islam is like that. And I think quite a lot of the most fanatical parts of Christianity are like that.

And I think Christianity was like that for most of its first 1,500 years, or at least in bursts it was. And then it came to terms with the wonderful ideas of the Enlightenment. And I just want to introduce another word here that I think is very important, and that word is wonder. I do love the wonder that I get from deep understanding of, I don’t know, deep geological time or the scale of the universe or where a virus came from or whatever. It’s wonderful in the literal meaning of the word.

And I don’t feel that Christianity or religion generally has a monopoly on that wonder. I think Richard Dawkins has made a very good point here that unweaving the rainbow, finding out what a rainbow is made of, has not made it less wonderful, it’s made it more so. And Keats was wrong about that.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Well, I agree with that, by the way. I also think, and this is why we have to be very careful about our use of terminology, is that I would say that the negative religious phenomena that you’re describing are a manifestation not of the religious spirit but of the totalitarian spirit, and that those are often conflated.

And then I would say, and to put this into a deeper context, that sense of wonder that you described, I don’t think that there is any difference between that and proper worship, because I think attending to the wonder of being is the fundamental religious act in some real sense. And there are preconditions for that, and one of them is an epistemic humility, right? You have to allow yourself to apprehend that which is beyond. And that is an instinct, and I think it’s part of the instinct that drives love itself.

And so I’d be very interested, for example, in the psychophysiology of awe, and that’s associated with wonder. And so one of the things that’s extraordinarily interesting about awe is that it involves piloerection. And so, you know, when you see a cat puff itself up in a burst of fur, when it sees a giant predator, it’s piloerection that’s driving that. And when you get those chills up and down your back, and maybe your hair stands on end, it’s that same apprehension of, you could think about a predator as an unsolved mystery to an animal. We use that same framework of wonder and awe to apprehend the unknown itself. And we’ve learned to contend with the unknown as a potential predator, obviously, but also as a potential source of redemption.

And that, I would say, being guided by that sense of wonder, which is humility predicated and driven by a desire to pursue the truth, that is the manifestation of the most fundamental religious instinct. And I think that needs to be differentiated from religion as a dogmatic structure, which can degenerate towards totalitarianism like any other human endeavor, and does, right? And we have to be on the watch for that. But we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

MATT RIDLEY: Yeah. That distinction between religion as an institution and religion as a psychology and epistemology is vital, and one that I see in science now, too. I keep saying science is a fantastic human achievement. I think it’s the greatest human achievement. You know, the knowledge that we’ve acquired of the world is, to me, more important than music, poetry, art, et cetera. Now, that marks me out as a bit of a philistine, I fear, but it’s what I think.

But that doesn’t make me a fan of science as an institution. Increasingly, I’m disaffected with it, with the way that it turns into a cult, the way it behaves in a self-interested way, the way it turns its back on knowledge. And I think there’s a real problem with science as an institution, but not a problem with science as a philosophy.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Okay, so I want to make a differentiation there, too, because you talked about science and your admiration for science in part as an admiration for the body of knowledge that’s being generated. And I can understand the utility of that because that delivers for us our technological and pragmatic capability, let’s say.

But I don’t think that by your own testimony, so to speak, that that is what you admire most about the scientific enterprise, because you said to me that – you spoke to me about your love of inquiry. And it seems to me you could distinguish science as a practice from science as a body of knowledge. And you could say, well, that the attempt to put forward that body of knowledge can degenerate into a totalitarian enterprise or become corrupted by political matters.

So let’s just parse that off for a second. We could say this is worth thinking about in relationship to what universities do, is that when you’re training a scientist, you’re not stuffing someone’s head full of scientific facts. Not primarily, although you may also be doing that. What you’re doing is training a certain – you’re training an adherence to a certain spirit of inquiry. And then I would say that the great achievement of the scientific enlightenment is not the production of that body of knowledge, even though that’s admirable in and of itself. It’s the training and fostering of a spirit of inquiry that’s passed forward from, let’s say, PhD supervisor to student in the entire scientific enterprise.

MATT RIDLEY: You’re quite right.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: And then I would say it isn’t obvious to me that true – those who pursue a genuine religious or alternative creative path are distinguishable in some sense in their ethical orientation from genuine scientists. It’s the same spirit. It’s a spirit of humility. It’s a spirit of pursuit of truth. It’s a desire for relationship with the transcendent. I know that’s viewed differently by scientists because of their emphasis on the object. But it isn’t obvious what the transcendent object is. I mean, it gets less obvious as we investigate it in some real sense.

And so I’m afraid that this battle – and you already made allusions to this – this continuing battle between those who profess religious belief in the most fundamental sense and those who profess scientific belief is blinding us to the fact that there’s an enterprise afoot that will bring both down.

MATT RIDLEY: Absolutely. I think that’s extremely well put. And just back to the point you made about how it’s not the body of knowledge. It’s the method of inquiry that turns me on, as it were, philosophically, psychologically at least. I had a very vivid experience. First term at university, new book published by one of the professors who was about to teach me, it turned out. His name was Richard Dawkins. The book was called The Selfish Gene. And that sent the hairs up on the back of my neck reading it because it was the first science book I’d read that didn’t say, here’s the answer to the question. It said, here’s a question, and I don’t know the answer, but I’m going to take you on a journey to try and understand my way of framing this mystery.

And it was suddenly, it was like being shown the edge of the world. It was like being shown, you know, the opening up of the mysteries was so important. The early pages of that book that he does very, very beautifully. And so I think you’re absolutely right. There was something almost religious in the way that the famous atheist Richard Dawkins came across to me in those early days.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Yeah, well, you know, I’ve met Dawkins a number of times. And as I said, his thinking has had quite a lot of influence on the way I think in many, many ways. And I can’t help but admire him. And it’s an interesting thing because I believe that his insistence that the religious enterprise is nothing but a superstitious impediment to the clear progress of science. I think that that’s insufficiently differentiated because it doesn’t differentiate spirit from totalitarianism. It conflates them. And the totalitarian spirit is subtle enough so that identifying it with a given domain of endeavor, let’s say the religious, is a dangerous understatement of the true danger of that ethos. Because it can permeate everything and is likely to.

And so if we put the enemy in the wrong place. So if the scientific types, for example, assume that it’s manifestation of the religious spirit, that’s the primarily primary impediment to the scientific endeavor. Then we’re going to be fighting the wrong war and we’re going to make enemies out of people who should be allies.

MATT RIDLEY: I think that’s a key point. I completely agree with you on that.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: All right. Well, so let me recap because we’re running out of we’re running out of time. And so we’ve been delving into the origin of the COVID virus. And we’ve also been trying to answer the question, well, why is this not merely a political enterprise? And even more deeply than that, why should we care beyond the mere practicalities of specifying the origin?

And there are obvious practical reasons to specify the origin, because if it was a lab leak, then maybe we shouldn’t be doing gain of function research in labs in cities or maybe not in totalitarian countries for that matter. Certainly not with Western aid. And those are all relevant questions.

But then we also addressed a deeper question, which is, well, is this investigation into the origin of the COVID virus not also an exemplar of faith in the pursuit of the truth itself, regardless of short term and convenient political considerations. And is it not also an expression of the idea that there is a pursuit that whose value transcends that of any set of short term or even medium term political considerations? And so that’s really where we — that’s what we investigated at the end of the conversation. And so that’s a summary for everyone watching and listening.

MATT RIDLEY: It’s been very helpful to me, actually, to have this conversation, to clarify that point, that my motivation and I believe the motivation the world should have to answering this question is not just practical, but is in some sense predicated on the transcendent importance of truth.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: Right. Well, right. And, I mean, I do believe that the West at its best and that would be the West insofar as the West has been has carried the beacon of freedom and human dignity. And of course, we faltered in that in many ways that at its best, the West acts out that claim that the truth will set you free. And we have done that on the religious front, when we have been properly religious and we have done it on the scientific front when we have been properly scientific and we lose that fundamental faith at our immense peril. Unless we are willing to believe that human engineered deceit which is not a bad definition of totalitarianism is, is it desire or nihilism itself as belief in everything collapses, we don’t want to — do we want a world where we accept either of those alternatives or their dreadful marriage, let’s say, as the alternative.

And this is a decision that we’re all making, not least those of us who are scientists. And so the scientists who are listening, I would also say you great scientists or not so great, even you bend the truth to political purposes, not only at your own great peril as practicing scientists and as human beings, but you also work the entire structure of the world. And that is an absolute abdication of the opportunities that have been granted to you by a society that strived for hundreds of years to give you the privilege of engaging in this pursuit of the truth.

MATT RIDLEY: Couldn’t put it better myself.

DR JORDAN B PETERSON: All right. Well, to everyone who’s watching and listening, I’m going to talk to Matt for another half an hour, as I do always with my guests on the Daily Wire Plus platform.

And we’re going to talk about, well, I think what we’re probably going to talk about is how that spirit of wonder made itself manifest in Dr. Ridley’s life and how following the manifestation of that spirit informed the development of his extraordinarily interesting and successful career.

For Further Reading:

Cometh the Horsemen: Pandemic, Famine, War: Michael Yon (Transcript)

America’s Invisible Crisis: Nicholas Eberstadt (Transcript)

Israel, Russia, China, Iran: The World in Conflict: Walter Russell Mead (Transcript)

AI, Man & God: Prof. John Lennox (Full Transcript)