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Following his highly praised and bestselling book Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Matt Ridley has written a brilliant and profound book about the roots of human behavior. Nature via Nurture explores the complex and endlessly intriguing question of what makes us who we are.
In February 2001 it was announced that the human genome contains not 100,000 genes, as originally postulated, but only 30,000. This startling revision led some scientists to conclude that there are simply not enough human genes to account for all the different ways people behave: we must be made by nurture, not nature. Yet again biology was to be stretched on the Procrustean bed of the nature-nurture debate. Matt Ridley argues that the emerging truth is far more interesting than this myth. Nurture depends on genes, too, and genes need nurture. Genes not only predetermine the broad structure of the brain, they also absorb formative experiences, react to social cues, and even run memory. They are consequences as well as causes of the will.
Published fifty years after the discovery of the double helix of DNA, Nature via Nurture chronicles a revolution in our understanding of genes. Ridley recounts the hundred years' war between the partisans of nature and nurture to explain how this paradoxical creature, the human being, can be simultaneously free-willed and motivated by instinct and culture. Nature via Nurture is an enthralling,up-to-the-minute account of how genes build brains to absorb experience.
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About the Author
Matt Ridley is the award-winning, bestselling author of several books, including The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves; Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters; and The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. His books have sold more than one million copies in thirty languages worldwide. He writes regularly for The Times (London) and The Wall Street Journal, and is a member of the House of Lords. He lives in England.
Read an Excerpt
Nature Via NurtureGenes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human
By Matt Ridley
The Paragon of Animals
Is man no more than this? Consider him well: Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume: - Ha! here's three of us are sophisticated! - Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. King Lear
Similarity is the shadow of difference. Two things are similar by virtue of their difference from another; or different by virtue of one's similarity to a third. So it is with individuals. A short man is different from a tall man, but two men seem similar if contrasted with a woman. So it is with species. A man and a woman may be very different, but by comparison with a chimpanzee, it is their similarities that strike the eye - the hairless skin, the upright stance, the prominent nose. A chimpanzee, in turn, is similar to a human being when contrasted with a dog: the face, the hands, the 32 teeth, and so on. And a dog is like a person to the extent that both are unlike a fish. Difference is the shadow of similarity.
Consider, then, the feelings of a naive young man, as he stepped ashore in Tierra del Fuego on 18 December 1832 for his first encounter with what we would now call hunter-gatherers, or what he would call "man in a state of nature." Better still, let him tell us the story:
It was without exception the most curious & interesting spectacle I ever beheld. I would not have believed how entire the difference between savage & civilized man is. It is much greater than between a wild & domesticated animal, in as much as in man there is greater power of improvement ... [I] believe if the world was searched, no lower grade of man could be found.
The effect on Charles Darwin was all the more shocking because these were not the first Fuegian natives he had seen. He had shared a ship with three who had been transported to Britain, dressed in frocks and coats, and taken to meet the king. To Darwin they were just as human as any other person. Yet here were their relatives, suddenly seeming so much less human. They reminded him of ... well, of animals. A month later, on finding the campsite of a single Fuegian limpet hunter in an even more remote spot, he wrote in his diary: "We found the place where he had slept - it positively afforded no more protection than the form of a hare. How very little are the habits of such a being superior to those of an animal." Suddenly, Darwin is writing not just about difference (between civilized and savage man) but about similarity - the affinity between such a man and an animal. The Fuegian is so different from the Cambridge graduate that he begins to seem similar to an animal.
Six years after his encounter with the Fuegian natives, in the spring of 1838, Darwin visited London zoo and there for the first time saw a great ape. It was an orangutan named Jenny, and she was the second ape to be brought to the zoo. Her predecessor, Tommy, a chimpanzee, had been exhibited at the zoo for a few months in 1835 before he died of tuberculosis. Jenny was acquired by the zoo in 1837, and like Tommy she caused a small sensation in London society. She seemed such a human animal, or was it such a beastly person? Apes suggested uncomfortable questions about the distinction between people and animals, between reason and instinct. Jenny featured on the cover of the Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge; an editorial reassured readers that "extraordinary as the Orang may be compared with its fellows of the brute creation, still in nothing does it trench upon the moral or mental provinces of man." Queen Victoria, who saw a different orangutan at the zoo in 1842, begged to differ. She described it as "frightful and painfully and disagreeably human."
After his first encounter with Jenny in 1838, Darwin returned to the zoo twice more a few months later. He came armed with a mouth organ, some peppermint, and a sprig of verbena. Jenny seemed to appreciate all three. She seemed "astonished beyond measure" at her reflection in a mirror. He wrote in his notebook: "Let man visit Ouranoutang in domestication ... see its intelligence ... and then let him boast of his proud preeminence ... Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I believe true to consider him created from animals." Darwin was applying to animals what he had been taught to apply to geology: the uniformitarian principle that the forces shaping the landscape today are the same as those that shaped the distant past. Later that September, while reading Malthus's essay on population, he had his sudden insight into what we now know as natural selection.
Jenny had played her part. When she took the mouth organ from him and placed it to her lips, she had helped him realize how high above the brute some animals could rise, just as the Fuegians had made him realize how low beneath civilization some humans could sink. Was there a gap at all?
He was not the first person to think this way. Indeed, a Scottish judge, Lord Monboddo, had speculated in the 1790s that orangutans could speak - if educated. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was only one of several Enlightenment philosophers who wondered if apes were not continuous with "savages." But it was Darwin who changed the way human beings think of their own nature. Within his lifetime, he saw educated opinion come to accept that human bodies were those of just another ape modified by descent from a common ancestor.
But Darwin had less success in persuading his fellow human beings that the same argument could apply to the mind ...
Excerpted from Nature Via Nurture by Matt Ridley
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Reading Group Guide
In February 2001 a researcher announced that the human genome contained, not 100,000 genes as had been commonly supposed, but 30,000 -- less than twice as many as a worm's. Many commentators concluded that this was simply too few genes to account for the diversity of human behavior and that genetic inheritance -- nature, if you will -- must be far less crucial to what we are than environmental influences: nurture. Of course, this epochal discovery represented simply another chapter of a debate that has been raging for over a hundred years, pitting Darwinians against Freudians, hereditarians against environmentalists. To what do we owe our characters, our talents and weaknesses: Nature or nurture?
In this timely, far-ranging, and lucidly written book, Matt Ridley arranges a truce between those warring conceptual camps. Nature via Nurture demonstrates the astonishing extent to which human beings are a joint production of heredity and environment. It ushers readers into a world where genes are not puppet masters pulling the strings of behavior, but are puppets at the mercy of behavior; where instinct is not the opposite of learning; where environmental influences may be less reversible than genetic ones, and where nature is designed for nurture. "The more we lift the lid on the genome," writes Ridley, "The more vulnerable to experience genes appear to be."
To make his point, Ridley ranges across disciplines from ethology to anthropology, sexology to neurochemistry. He explores the role genes play in the sexual behavior of humans, chimps, gorillas, and blissfully promiscuous bonobos, and the extent to which environment shaped theevolution of the human brain. He assesses evidence for the genetic bases of intelligence, body weight and religious fundamentalism and the links between birth order and male homosexuality. He describes experiments that unveil the neural mechanisms of love and learning. He offers lively précis of the legacies of Darwin, Mendel, Freud, B. F. Skinner and Konrad Lorenz. The end result is a book as provocative as it is informative, rich in research and implication.
Topics for Discussion
- Presiding over Nature via Nurture are the ideas and personalities of twelve scientists, each of whom played a role in the nature/nurture debate. Did any succeed in bridging the nature-nurture divide? Which of these thinkers remains relevant to our understanding of human nature today?
- How have our ideas about the differences between human beings and other animals changed since Descartes? Given the evidence that animals -- or at least certain apes -- make tools, wage war on their fellows, use some kind of language, and enjoy 'recreational' sex -- what capabilities still seem exclusively human? And considering that human beings may share as much as 98.76 percent of their genetic material with chimpanzees, what other factors might explain the differences between our species?
- Discuss the 'blind watchmaker' argument of biological design. Contrast it with Ridley's idea of a 'Genome Organising Device,' or GOD.
- Recent experiments with rodents suggest that the substances vasopressin and oxytocin -- or rather the receptors for those substances -- determine their ability to form lasting pair bonds. What implications does Ridley think this has for our own romantic proclivities?
- Describe John Money's experiments in gender-assignment. Where else in this book do we find accounts of scientific hubris and heartlessness?
- Many of the thinkers Ridley discusses -- Francis Galton and B. F. Skinner among them -- wrote about utopias. Is there something about the study of human nature that predisposes one to plan perfect societies?
- Even as we become more capable of saying which human traits are heritable, says Ridley, the notion of heritability becomes more slippery. What does he mean by this? Why does he claim that "the more equal we make society, the higher heritability will be, and the more genes will matter"?
- How would you summarize the evolution of scientific theories of schizophrenia? Why is Ridley particularly critical of Freud's ideas?
- According to Ridley, what roles do heredity and environment play in learning? How do some genes change their behavior in response to information from the outside world?
- How does Ridley support his argument that nurture is sometimes less reversible than genetic inheritance? Discuss the significance of Lorenz and Gottleib's experiments with ducks, Barker's findings about the relation between birth weight and heart disease, and studies that indicate a link between male homosexuality and birth order.
- What do experiments on fruit flies reveal about the formation of memory, and particularly its genetic component? Can genes be said to remember?
- Ridley notes that in their extreme forms both naturism and nurturism have proven attractive to totalitarian regimes. What examples does he cite? Why should Nazis have favored a hereditarian view of human nature while communists embraced an environmental one?
- What role does Ridley believe genes play in human culture and language? Is there such a thing as a 'culture gene,' and how might it operate? And how might the development of culture have reshaped human physiology?
- What 'morals' does Ridley derive from the nature-nurture debate? Do you agree with his conclusions?
About the Author
Telling the Story of Science
For the first time in 4 billion years, a species is reading its own recipe, and I am privileged to have a ringside seat at the reading. That is the way I feel about writing popular books about genes these days. The stories that I hear about how human nature was put together over eons of evolutionary time, and how it is built afresh during each lifetime, are going to be the epics of our age. I get a kick out of telling them.
I have always been fascinated by living things. In my youth it was watching birds and keeping fish in an aquarium. That got me into biology, and I was lucky to get to Oxford University at a time when evolutionary science was being turned upside down by the "selfish gene" theory, a fascinating new way of looking at the world. So I was quickly hooked on science. But you have to be patient to do good science, and patient I am not. Journalism seemed to suit me more, with its grasshopper attention span. I joined the Economist and learned to report, to write, and to edit over the next nine years. But I never forgot science, and when I went freelance in 1992, I thought I would try and write a book about a scientific mystery: the origin of sex. Good science writing, I think, like good science, should be about the questions we do not yet know the answers to. It is not like science education.
The book became The Red Queen, and it did well, so I wrote The Origins of Virtue, a book that brought together game theory, anthropology, and evolution in an attempt to explain what makes society work. Then, one day, I was leaning over a scientist's shoulder as he showed me something on his laptop, when he made a casual remark. "Chromosome 19 is my favorite chromosome," he said. Something clicked in my head. I'd been looking for a way of telling stories about newly discovered genes -- the project to read the entire human genome was just getting going -- and suddenly here was the answer. I could tell the tale of each chromosome, as if it was a chapter in a book of life. The result was Genome, which came out just as the Human Genome Project reached a climax and became a national and international bestseller, translated into 23 languages.
Yet I knew I had been dancing around a question in all my books, and it was a question that scientists suddenly had the beginnings of an answer to: What is human nature? The very day the human genome was published, people started tying to figure out if it supported nature over nurture or vice versa. No, no, no, I wanted to cry: It's not like that. Now we can see real genes building and rebuilding human nature throughout life, we can see that many are designed to bring experience into the developing mind. Nature works via nurture, not versus. I knew then I had my next book title. The next year was a time of great excitement as I contacted lab after lab, hearing ever more amazing stories about how the genes put the mind together. The result is Nature via Nurture. Matt Ridley