Nature Via Nurture

by Matt Ridley
ISBN: 0002006634

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human
by Rob Thomas

Nature Via Nurture is almost the type of book that lets you feel smart without making you do too much work. Matt Ridley's style is conversational, his arguments are simple and persuasive and he has mastered that tricky balance-game of making a complex subject understandable and entertaining for the average reader. His prose, peppered with quips and literary illusions, bears comparison to the science prose stylings of Oliver Sacks, Stephen Jay Gould or even Daniel Dennett.
Nature Via Nurture isn't a textbook, nor is it a "made-simple" book. It is a science book written for thoughtful and inquisitive outsiders. Its topic is the Century-old debate over human development. Does environment determine human character or is it inherent? As Ridley points out, several times, the only real answer, that both factors play essential roles, has become a meaningless clich that all sides of the debate pay lip service to. The aim of Nature Via Nurture is to escape the limitations of that tired debate by applying new research on the machinations of human genes.
Ridley, of course, is the author of the successful book Genome (1999). Each of the book's 23 chapters-there are 23 human chromosomes-told a small piece of the whole Genome story. But that was back in the heady days of Genome research, when a high profile race to map the Genome was playing itself out in the press. Does the world need another book about the Genome now?
Well, Nature Via Nurture suggests that the answer is yes and no. Take an example: The premise for Ridley's book is the, now well-known, preliminary discovery that the Human Genome was much shorter (30,000 genes) than was expected (100,000 genes). This is material that Jennifer Ackerman has covered with a great deal of flare in her 2001 book Chance: In the House of Fate. And she is not the only one. As Ridley points out in his own prologue the discovery was big news in February of 2001. "Genome discovery shocks scientists," proclaimed the San Francisco Chronicle. But this fact itself-the public awareness, the popular and academic discussions-is a subject that hasn't been addressed.
This is Ridley's true subject: the consequences of Genome research. At the time of this preliminary discovery it was argued that 30,000 genes wasn't enough genes to explain human nature along purely hereditary lines. It seemed to some that the idea that Nurture was paramount to development had finally vanquished the idea that Nature was paramount forever. Of course, you only have to sit back and ask yourself "how many genes would be enough?" to realize the flimsiness of the argument. A figure for the number of genes proves nothing. The real question is how do so few genes seem to accomplish so much?
"My argument in a nutshell," writes Ridley, "is this: the more we lift the lid on the genome, the more vulnerable to experience genes appear to be." His answer, quite literally, is the same old clich that it really is both. Pavlov may have trained dogs to salivate when a bell was rung but he would have had trouble teaching them something that didn't come so... let's say... naturally. Ridley's argument is strong because it is the self-evident clich that has been argued over but never explored. But, as direct and timely as the book's subject is, it remains both fascinating and frustrating. It is fascinating because Ridley marshals such a plentiful array of examples and ideas to his cause. (A monkey can be taught to fear a snake but not a flower, for example.) It is frustrating because, at times, his argument can become so sloppy that a lazy reader would have to be asleep not to stumble over it. For example on page 80 he writes, "Many people argue that questionnaires are unreliable, crude measures of people's real thoughts; but that simply makes these results conservative." The non-euphemistic translation, of course, is that the methods are crude and unreliable-end of story.
Further, although Ridley has clearly made an effort to avoid sexist or racist language, particularly when presenting contentious ideas, he makes a few monumental slip-ups. "Pretty women are not necessarily stupid, but nor are they necessarily brilliant," he writes at one point for example. Obviously there is a less pejorative way of saying that there is no inherent connection between beauty and intelligence. Similarly, Ridley uses a categorical statement, "Racism might be an instinct," to describe curious results from a single study.
The faults are small but difficult to ignore. Perhaps this is Nature Via Nurture's great flaw: The premise is good, the argument is direct, the supporting evidence is fascinating (if awkwardly developed) but a certain amount of care is lacking. And, a book that is nearly really good is almost more disappointing than a book that is really bad.

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