on July 5, 2004
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 popular scientist might acknowledge the complexity of how indirectly genes and biology affect human behavior (as opposed to the glib "gay gene discovered," "gene for aggression discovered" articles you see so often).
He did this-- his book acknowledges, for example, that if you do a twin study of families in middle-class America, you have indirectly limited the influence of the environment (by excluding more diverse cultures) and therefore the influence of genes on variability in a trait will be larger. The problem is, he then proceeds to completely ignore this informative, nuanced view when tackling the controversial issues that get people interested in the Nature-Nurture debate in the first place (gender roles, homosexuality, and mental illness for example).
Like so many science writers, he has little apparent knowledge of the humanities, social history, etc., and he holds his own preferred beliefs about human nature to a lower standard of proof than his opponents'. It is actually true that, as part of his defense of the idea of innate gender roles, he made reference to both the humorist Dave Barry *and* the popular work "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus." Don't get me wrong, I like Dave Barry, but he would be the first one to point out that he's not a scientific authority on cross-cultural gender studies!
Ridley claims that [American or British] men's focus on "things" over "relationships" is genetic, but this idea, combined with his bit on homosexuality, merely shows that he needs to travel more. In America, women have much gushier friendships than men-they have "girlfriends" but we aren't supposed to have "boyfriends"-but this is not true in most places. In Latin America and many parts of Asia, Africa, and southern Europe, it is normal for straight men to kiss each other, hold hands, sometimes even have rituals of commitment to their friendships, etc. This also challenges the "gay gene" hypothesis: if big chunks of what Americans call "gay" are considered to be "straight" throughout the rest of the world, what would the gay gene code for? Even if it coded strictly for sex, in Mexico the top boy is often considered straight, and plenty of people everywhere experiment outside their "official" orientation. What all of this shows is that even if you have a gene for something, language and culture get added to it to create the final meaning. Ridley even acknowledges this ("genes enable, they don't restrict") but doesn't follow his own theory to its logical conclusion.
In his section about the genetic basis of monogamy, he infers that because Margaret Mead failed to find a truly sexually libertine society in Samoa, they must not exist anywhere. (Mead was seeking a society without a taboo on premarital sex, which she could now find in any major American city.) He also assumes that all experiments with open marriage in Western societies had failed; if he had actually taken the time to look, he would know that people still practice open marriage today. Yes, some people have a lot of trouble with jealousy and give up on it, but others I have met find that open relationships are second nature to them. So, if Mr. Ridley had taken the time to talk to anyone from the cultures he claims cannot exist, he could have an interesting discussion about individual differences in sexual jealousy (genetic or environmental?). Instead, we simply learn that, in addition to not knowing where the social history section of the library is, Matt Ridley also does not know how to find subcultures on the Internet or check his local alternative paper for club meetings.
In an otherwise-well-written chapter, he says that schizophrenia genes might have survived natural selection because in another combination they can lead to inventiveness. Well and good, but another reason these genes could be passed down is because not all cultures see "hearing voices" as a bad thing-some even see it as a form of religious inspiration! Even among those cultures that do see it as bad, most cultures do not leave their ill members out in the woods to die. But in Ridley-land, our ancestors were apparently all American Republicans in gated communities who go on rants about the danger of socialized medicine!
I find it truly scary that this man has written a book called "Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature." He doesn't know the first thing about the diversity of human sexuality, friendship, or love. On the other hand, his book HAS awakened me to a new truth: maybe the problem with advocates of genetic sources of behavior isn't so much the fact that they believe that human diversity comes from genetic sources, as the fact that they base their theories on so little knowledge of what human diversity actually entails. Whether it's based on genes, environment, both, or neither, there's a whole lot more under the sun than is dreamt of in Matt Ridley's philosophy.