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Matt Ridley


Genes, experience and what makes us human

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The nature-nurture debate is an ancient one but it acquired a modern interpretation when the science of genetics took off in the twentieth century. Evidence from twin studies and other research suggested a fatalistic conclusion, a kind of genetic determinism.

When genes were discovered, late in the second milennium of the Christian era, they found a place already prepared for them at the table of philosophy. They were the fates of ancient myth, the entrails of oracular prediction, the coincidences of astrology. They were destiny and determination, the enemies of choice. They were constraints on human freedom. They were the gods.
In reaction to such fatalism, some have sought to redress the balance by emphasizing the importance of environment and upbringing, but the role of genes in determining what we become remains difficult to deny. In consequence, it has become almost a clich^eacute; for many to say that nature and nurture are both important and that neither should be over-emphasized at the expense of the other. But this could easily be taken to mean that genes and environment are rivals, engaged in a kind of struggle for control.

Ridley, in contrast, seeks to show that there is no competition between nature and nurture. What we have instead is a complex interaction in which each influences the other. Genes, or at least their expression, are modified by the environments in which they find themselves.

Genes themselves are implacable little determinists, churning out utterly predictable messages. But because of the way their promoters switch on and off in response to external instruction, genes are very far from being fixed in their actions.

The line of argument followed here has much in common with Richard Dawkins's The Extended Phenotype, as indeed Ridley acknowledges. The "selfish gene" notion has been widely misunderstood but, as Ridley makes plain, it is an important contribution to our understanding of ourselves.

Ridley draws on a wide range of recent research to illustrate his conclusions, which are intended to be broadly reassuring. His message is: don't be frightened of genes. They are enablers, not the arbiters of our fate. He compares them to computer programs, which extend the range of functions that a computer can perform, to make it more useful and flexible. And he finishes by drawing a number of morals for society, even having a quick stab at the issue of free will. The solution to this ancient riddle, he suggests, will come from recognizing that the chains of causation that determine our actions are circular, not linear; effects can influence their own causes.

Like other books by Ridley, this is a stimulating read providing plenty of ideas.

8 November 2005

%T Nature via Nurture
%S Gene, experience and what makes us human
%A Ridley, Matt
%I Harper Perennial
%C London
%D 2003
%G ISBN 1-84115-746-5
%P 328 pp
%K biology
%O paperback edition


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