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Nature v. Nurture: an end to the war?

Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human. Matt Ridley. Fourth Estate. [pounds sterling]18.99. 328 pages. ISBN 1-84115-745-7.

This is a timely book. Hardly a day goes by without news bulletins featuring at least one item related to the debate between nature and nurture, genes and experience. Whether it is homosexuality, criminality, addiction or disease, the degree of human choice involved is invariably a factor. In short, what makes us what we are? One national newspaper visualised this dilemma in terms of a photograph of five new-born babies tagged with the labels Smoker, Alcoholic, Drug User, Sex Addict, Violent Crime.

In the last century, the debate affected the political domain every bit as much as the scientific community, with Fascism and Communism, for instance, adopting entrenched positions on either side of the divide. Appropriately, perhaps, Mr Ridley, author of the best-selling Genome, refers to this debate as the hundred years' war, a war which began at the outset of the twentieth century with the birth of modern genetics and which continues to this day. Indeed, the Human Genome Project, which began the current century, was reported almost exclusively in terms of whether it proved that we are the product of our genes or our experience.

Nature via Nurture proclaims an end to this war by setting out to show that the terms of the debate are entirely illusory. Far from attempting to blind us with science on behalf of one side or the other, Mr Ridley is determined to open our eyes to what is staring us in the face: the fact that we are the product of a transition between the two. Evidence for one side is not evidence against the other, he asserts, for the discovery of how genes actually influence human behaviour and, equally importantly, how they are influenced in turn, has recast the terms of the debate. Genes, Mr Ridley argues, are not gods in the sky but cogs in the machine, not puppet-masters pulling the strings of behaviour but puppets at the mercy of behaviour. This explains the book's title.

In support of his argument, Matt Ridley surveys the whole see-saw century of the nature versus nurture conflict as first one side celebrated victory and then the other. The sex life of apes, schizophrenia, psychoanalysis, homosexuality, and parenting are all grist to his mill. Each topic is covered in the same folksy style, with the minimum of 'geek-speak' and the text is often amusing in the extreme. In examining the relationship between the hormone oxytocin and falling in love, for instance, he points out that a female rat injected with intracerebral oxytocin immediately adopts the mating posture. A male rat, in contrast, begins yawning even as it simultaneously gets an erection.

Again, when considering the parents' long-term effect on a child's personality, he appeals to the 'bemused' experience of any parents who read the book. Having assumed that their children would be the product of their upbringing, they often find themselves reduced to the role of little more than 'a helpless spectator-cum-chauffeur' as their loved ones respond to their genes and to peer pressure. Then, to drive home his point about the need to abandon the contentious attitudes so often adopted towards the subject of nature and nurture, Mr Ridley concludes each chapter with an example of a 'hellish' utopia based on a limited understanding of human nature.

This is not to say that this examination of the way in which the mind works is not, at times, mind-boggling. In common with any serious scientist, Mr Ridley is enthralled by how the lifting of one veil of ignorance immediately reveals a number of new veils. This explains why the two-sided coin of Knowledge, with Science on the one side and Art on the other, is the greatest adventure known to Man. This sense of adventure is everywhere evident in this book. In the final analysis, Nature via Nurture offers no ultimate explanation of what makes us tic but it does provide a step along the way and an object lesson in how to find out. As Mr Ridley points out, the reason that the human species dominates the planet and gorillas are in danger of extinction lies not in our slight genetic differences but in the human ability to accumulate knowledge and transmit information across time and space. In other words, seeking truth is the only antidote to mankind's destructive tendencies.
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Title Annotation:Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human
Author:Karwowski, Michael
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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