Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human
by Matt Ridley
A review by Doug Brown
Ever since humans first stumbled on the concept of heredity, the debate over nature
vs. nurture has raged. Does human nature come from our genes or our upbringing?
Camps on both sides have found plenty of evidence to support their position, and
have even used those positions to support social programs often to the detriment
of society. Matt Ridley, author of the popular genetics title Genome,
addresses the debate by pointing out it isn’t a debate at all. According to Ridley,
arguing nature vs. nurture is akin to debating whether a cake comes from the recipe
or the ingredients. Genes are the recipe for life not the blueprint as is commonly
analogized and the environment influences how the genes will be expressed.
Someone with genes predisposing them towards alcoholism has a greater chance of
becoming alcoholic if raised by alcoholic parents. But this doesn’t mean their
genes made them alcoholic, nor does it imply the parents are to blame. The two
cannot be separated. Our genes express themselves via the environment we are raised
in including the environment of the womb. Just as the cause of a cake’s moistness
is a combination of recipe and ingredients, the cause of a person's personality
is a combination of genes and experience.
Ridley begins with a discussion of how genes express themselves through development. He then goes through a history of the nature vs. nurture debate, using differing theories about schizophrenia as an example. This continues on with an interesting summary of twin studies. All the evidence presented by nurturists and naturists seems completely contradictory, until the "vs." in "nature vs. nurture" is replaced with "via." One of the most interesting discussions is near the end, where Ridley discusses various theories about the origin of language. One theory holds that language was first gestural – sign language and then later switched to verbal in order to free up the hands. Finally, he offers several different meanings of the term "gene," and closes with a discussion of the morals of the story some examples: "Being a good parent still matters," "Social policy must adapt to a world in which everyone is different," etc.
Thinkers will find lots of grist for the mill here. Much more than a book about genetics, Nature Via Nurture is about how life works, why people are so complex, and how unproductive it is to view the world in terms of A vs. B. This would make a good book club selection, since there are so many discussion points throughout. Ridley's book most certainly won’t settle the debate, which will probably continue for centuries. However, it provides a thoughtful path for resolving the apparent rift.