Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience, And What Makes Us Human Hardcover – Apr 17 2003
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In the follow-up to his bestseller, Genome, Matt Ridley takes on a centuries-old question: is it nature or nurture that makes us who we are? Ridley asserts that the question itself is a "false dichotomy." Using copious examples from human and animal behavior, he presents the notion that our environment affects the way our genes express themselves.
Ridley writes that the switches controlling our 30,000 or so genes not only form the structures of our brains but do so in such a way as to cue off the outside environment in a tidy feedback loop of body and behavior. In fact, it seems clear that we have genetic "thermostats" that are turned up and down by environmental factors. He challenges both scientific and folk concepts, from assumptions of what's malleable in a person to sociobiological theories based solely on the "selfish gene."
Ridley's proof is in the pudding for such touchy subjects as monogamy, aggression, and parenting, which we now understand have some genetic controls. Nevertheless, "the more we understand both our genes and our instincts, the less inevitable they seem." A consummate popularizer of science, Ridley once again provides a perfect mix of history, genetics, and sociology for readers hungry to understand the implications of the human genome sequence. --Therese Littleton
From Publishers Weekly
"Nature versus nurture" sums up in a nutshell one of the most contentious debates in science: Are people's qualities determined by their genes (nature) or by their environment (nurture)? The debate has only grown louder since the human genome has been found to comprise only 30,000 genes. Some scientists claim that we don't have enough genes to account for all the existing human variations. Ridley, author of the bestseller Genome, says that not only are nature and nurture not mutually exclusive, but that "genes are designed to take their cue from nurture." Genes are not unchanging little bits of DNA: their expression varies throughout a person's life, often in response to environmental stimuli. Babies are born with genes hard-wired for sight, but if they are also born with cataracts, the genes turn themselves off and the child will never acquire the ability to see properly. On the other hand, stuttering used to be ascribed solely to environmental factors. Then stuttering was found to be clearly linked to the Y chromosome, and evidence for genetic miswiring of areas in the brain that manage language was uncovered. But environment still plays a role: not everyone with the genetic disposition will grow up to be a stutterer. Ridley's survey of what is known about nature-nurture interactions is encyclopedic and conveyed with insight and style. This is not an easy read, but fans of his earlier book and readers looking for a challenging read will find this an engrossing study of what makes us who we are.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
The thesis he puts forward, that nature and nurture are intextricably interwoven is undoubted. I believe he stops short of making the argument even more strongly. From a human standpoint, we can differentiate between "nature" and "nurture" but from the standpoint of the germ cell nature and nurture blend together. Is mitochondrial DNA nature or is it nurture? Surely we overstate the importance of the genetic "code" in the DNA. It can only be expressed because of all the other cellular components. So the distinction between code and non-code, and the individual and its environment is a lot blurrier than we suppose.
Matt Ridley has penned some of the best books on evolutionary science ever written. Nature via Nurture is at least as good, perhaps better than the best of his others, Genome and The Red Queen.
What makes reading "Nature via nurture" all the more so fascinating, therefore, is that the author allows those "great men", together with others such as Galton, De Vries, Pavlov and Durkheim, their moment of glory. Grant Freud the idea that there is a role for early experience in shaping the psyche. Grant Pavlov "the power of learning to reshape adult mind"; grant Durkheim the autonomous power of culture and society. Ridley places all these authors in their context, and sheds proper light on their findings. In the process, he proves that he is a balanced scientist who is not out for cheap publicity.
I have read quite a few of the most recent works in the field of nature versus nurture - I particularly enjoyed reading Dawkins and Pinker - but "Nature via nurture" is a must-read for anyone like me with a keen interest in this field without a background in biology (I studied economics).
Ridley is a former columnist for The Economist, which goes to show that his English style is extremely accessible.
Post scriptum - As an "outsider", I find it mind-boggling to read that the struggle between naturists and nurturists was so intense. Ridley's theory, that there is no such thing as an "either nature or nurture" and that there are plenty of feedback loops between the environment and the genes, is so common-sensical, that I deplore the fact that I did not study biology and be the first to "invent" this idea.
This book is not, contrary to one other reviewer, hard to follow for anybody with a basic, basic education in heredity or genetics. And it's chock-full of information that will open one's eyes about the field.
Take, for example, the fact that humans have about 30,000 genes. Nurturists, and even more, mind-body dualists (particularly religious ones), seized on this as proof that human nature is sui generis and not physically determined by such a relative paucity of genes.
Ridley shows the falsehood of this on several fronts. First, on the mathematics, 30,000 genes, with recombinant variants, would produce well more variants than human population numbers.
Second, he addresses this from a botany vs. zoology view, showing how plants have separate genes for manifestation of certain genetic information, rather than reduplication of genetic segments, as is the case with animals.
Third, Ridley tells how some genes have multiple exons, slightly variant, only one of which is selected during a particular protein translation after RNA transcription, and that each different exon can produce a different protein.
Testimony to the power of this book is shown on the dust jacket, which has blurbs from such strong naturists as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker.
I will agree with one reviewer below that it is amazing this book comes from the author of Genome, as just a couple of years ago I would have placed Ridley firmly in the camp of Dawkins and Pinker. Unfortunately, the book has no comments from Ridley as to how and why his views evolved.
As Ridley points out, the ideological question of whether human behavior is more the product of heredity or environment has distinguished not just scientists, but fascists and communists, just as surely as any of their political theories. During the well-known sociobiology debates, technical issues were rarely discussed much less resolved. Rather politics and the question of hidden agendas always raised its head.
While virtually all scientists and indeed anyone with a modicum of learning, observational skills, and common sense, have long known that heredity and environment were interacting factors in human nature, that answer truly satsifies almost no one. We still argue over the many implications of being either victims of our genes, victims of our environment, or somehow free of both. We still seek the answer to the technical question of *how* exactly biology and environment interact to produce living things, especially ourselves. And more abstractly, we still want to know what defines us as individuals, and what determines our fate.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
I have really enjoyed each and every Matt Ridley book and "The Agile Gene" is no exception - but for the fact that it is an identical 'word-for-word' copy of his book... Read morePublished on July 9 2004 by D. H. Dean
I am reviewing the Agile Gene, which is a reprint of Nature via Nurture (it is the identical book). The first part of the book gave me hope for some sort of middle ground where a... Read morePublished on July 5 2004 by David L White
Following on from Genome (which I've reviewed), I find Matt Ridley very easy to read.
Here he selects 12 'Hairy Scientists', some famous (eg Freud, Pavlov, Darwin), some not... Read more
You can be reasonably sure that any "scientist" who readily endorses Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist is inappropriately abusing his position to promote his... Read morePublished on May 10 2004 by J. F KRADEL
Ridley laced his summaries of research with his personal values, more specifically fidelity, monogamy, anti-homosexuality, and the existence of moral absolutes. Read morePublished on March 24 2004 by Amazon Customer
Matt Ridley has written a very good book on the origins of human behavior. It's worth reading two or three times just to keep all the information straight, unless you're one who... Read morePublished on March 16 2004 by Eugene A Jewett
This book addresses the dichotomy between the thesis of nature and the antithesis of nurture by presenting convincing but not overwhelming arguments for their synthesis as the... Read morePublished on March 15 2004 by GD
The history of this debate, recent findings, and anecdotes are fantastic. These make up the bulk of the book, and as a parent and teacher I learned a lot. Read morePublished on Feb. 23 2004 by N. Hade
Matt Ridley's new book deftly and cleverly explores the age-old debate, assimilates reams of evidence, and reassures us that it isn't an "or" but an "and"... Read morePublished on Nov. 15 2003
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