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Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human

Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human

by Matt Ridley

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
“Fascinating and important information from the world of science.”
“Terrific popular science.”
“Thoughtful and entertaining.”
Hartford Courant
“Ridley is simply one of the best science writers in the business.”
Washington Post Book World
“NATURE VIA NURTURE proposes a new way of looking at an ongoing debate.”
The New York Times
Ridley is a skilled science writer, and able to lighten the heaviest discussions with clever analogies and interesting nuggets of anecdote. He is sensible and understanding of issues beyond the narrow field of fact and theory -- for instance, toward the end of the book he has some worthwhile things to say about freedom and the will. What I do appreciate is that, when Ridley gets his teeth into a topic, he does not let go until he has extracted far more -- far more of great interest -- from it than you might think possible. — Michael Ruse
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. (May 1) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
For centuries the relative effects of nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) on an organism's development have been debated. Gene control systems (promoters) may be more important than the gene products (proteins) themselves. Chimps have bigger jaws than humans because the (same) jaw-growing gene is turned on in chimpanzee fetuses for longer than in human fetuses. In contrast, a "gene for schizophrenia" may not exist. More likely, the syndrome is caused by a variety of genetic abnormalities (physical gene differences), either inherited or environmentally caused, which in turn are affected by additional postnatal environmental or social features. In other words, schizophrenia results from a complex nature/nurture interaction. In another example, social behavior may be a response to a biologically programmed behavior. A preference for affluent, older men seems to be a human female universal and therefore genetically "hard-wired," but subconscious recognition of this tendency may increase acquisitive behavior patterns in males. Is this instance of nurture reinforcing nature also an example of natural selection? Nature via Nurture contains thought-provoking ideas, clear explanations of scientific concepts, and interesting supporting materials. Ridley has a charming voice and obviously likes reading his work aloud. This audio selection should be enjoyed by listeners at most public, secondary school, and community college libraries. Four-year institutions would probably be better off with an unabridged version.-I. Pour-El, Des Moines Area Community Coll., Boone, IA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
More on the ongoing debate of whether heredity or environment is in charge of who we are, from the assertive but knowledgeable English science writer Ridley. Rather than just another exercise in stating the mutual dependence/interaction of genetic and environmental factors, the author provides examples of new-found genes that may turn on or off, may be more or less active, may or may not trigger a cascade of other gene actions, depending on circumstances. Nor is "the gene" always well-defined, he states. It can often be spliced in multiple ways, using alternative forms of component parts (the exons) with variable effects in various tissues. So, on the gene side, much variety, and on the nurture side, contexts galore, creating circles of complexity and feedback that render cause-effect statements (à la determinism) moot. Ridley’s examples and inferences include genes and their mutations in the course of evolution that influence brain size and neuronal connections, personality, sexuality, language, culture, aggression, and nurturance, but still operate as cogs in the wheel of experience. Ultimately, he declares in favor of free will. He avers that we must replace linear with circular causality, "in which an effect influences its own cause"--sounding just like a physicist talking about quantum mechanics. Before reaching that point, Ridley cites a dozen graybeards over the century who have kept the N/N debate alive, with some kind remarks for Boas and Durkheim, even Lorenz and Tinbergen, but excoriation for Freud, Skinner, and Watson. Trouble is, for all Ridley’s celebration of mutuality, some of the evidence he cites, such as twin studies, comes down strongly in terms of genes determiningpersonality; while other data suggest that prenatal and infant experience (albeit via environmental influences on genes) are irrevocable. Certainly not the last word, but a lot of interesting turns of phrase and provocative findings to enrich the all-absorbing study of genes and behavior.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st. Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.09(d)

Read an Excerpt

Nature Via Nurture

Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human
By Matt Ridley


ISBN: 0060006781

Chapter One

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.

Meet the Author

Matt Ridley is the author of several award-winning books, including Genome, The Agile Gene, and The Red Queen, which have sold more than 800,000 copies in twenty-seven languages worldwide. He lives in England.

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