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Book Review: Nature via Nurture

Having heard more about Nature versus Nurture than via, this book interested me from the start, as I always thought that one cannot be without the other—so being one of both seemed a bit weird, to say the least.

Matt Ridley does a good job at explaining difficult concepts, about which we hear but which are often only meagerly explained. Most people know what a gene is, but most people don’t know there are six different meanings of the word. Some of them I knew, some were new to me, being (p233-235):

The Mendelian Gene:

A gene is a unit of heredity, an archive for the storage of evolutionary information.

De Vries pangen/gene:

The stunning surprise from the reading of genomes in the 1990′s is that the human being has far more genes in common with the fly and the worm than anybody expected.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that genes in animals and plants are a bit like atoms: standard-issue parts used in different combinations to produce different compounds. The De Vriesian gene is an interchangable part.

Garrodian gene:

This is a disease averter, a health giver.

Watson-Crick gene:

This sees the gene as a recipe: Genes have two jobs: copying themselves and expressing themselves through the construction of proteins.

Development switch:

This concept can be credited to the two Frenchmen Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod: the gene as a switch, and therefore as a unit of development.

And then a bit later near the end of the book a 7th definition is added.

The beauty of the Tooby-Cosmides gene, for me, is precisely this. It integrates all the other six defintions and adds a seventh.

It is a Dawkinsian gene with attitude (in its dependence on passing the test of survivial trough the generations);
a Mendelian archive (inscribed with the wisdom derived from millions of years of evolutionary adjustement);
a Watson-Crick recipe (achieving its effect through the creation of proteins via RNA’s);
a Jacob-Monod developmental switch (expressing itself only in precisely specified tissues);
a Garrodian health-giver (ensuring a healthy developmental outcome in the expected environment); and
a De Vriesian pangen (reused in many different developmental programmes in the same species and in others).

But it is also something else. It is a device for extracting information from the environment. (p 247)

Looking at it this way really changed my understanding of what genes do, and are responsible for. How a human body develops, and what influences that, is rather complex, not so easy to understand in all its complexity, and even harder to explain. This book does a good job for interested novices or experts, explaining bit by bit what there is to be explained about this too-politised debate. Personally, I’ve always found the versus part of the argument to be like two parties who both want to be right, but cannot accept that they may be both right, and both wrong. Nuture does not exist without nature, and nature cannot be expressed without nuture. One does not go without the other.

The easiest way to illustrate this, is this: Look around you, wherever you are. How many people do you see who look exactly the same as you do, are interested in exactly the same things, are good in exactly the same things ?

If you look around, you may see people that look somewhat like you, or if you’re a twin, exactly like you, but are they exactly you? No they are not. They are slightly different. When I see somebody play the violin, I have a lot of respect.

Having tried playing guitar myself, it sounded like a teacher used to say about me playing flute, like a robot who tries to play music. How ever much I practise, I will never be as good as somebody with the talent for that. Talent and looks and character are inherited, but the way they are expressed is influenced by nuture, by the chances you get.

The author’s message of this book is clearly readable in the next few quoted phrases:

Genes themselves are implacable little determinists, chuming out utterly predictable messages. But because of the way their promoters switch on and off in response to external instructions, genes are very far from being fixed in their actions. (p 248)

For some, reading this book may have the following effect:

He had encountered the same wounded pride that had met Copernicus and Darwin: human beings do not enjoy seeing themselves removed from the centre of the universe. To see human behaviour dethroned from its supremacy and described in the same terms as ant behaviour was as insulting to the pride of the species as to see the Earth demoted to a a planet. Perhaps also there would have been less vitriol if Wilson had talked about constellations of innate predispositions rather than “genes.” The idea of a single sequence of DNA having the capacity to determine a human social attitude seemd intuitively wrong, as well as humiliating.

But I would be rather surprised, as he does a good job, at explaining things clearly, without bias, pointing out what things could be, but are not proven at this time, what is a possibility, and what could be a fact in the future. For an introduction to what “nature via nurture” is about, this truely is a good book.

For others it might be a confirmation of what they already knew or suspected.
You may find that some things are not explained, but then I would have to rewrite the book here—the best advice I can give there is to read the book.

The author has a great style, clearly explaining things step by step, offering glimpses into past and current debate, giving us a unpolitised view on a debate that, in my personal opinion, is not mutually exclusive—it should indeed be via, not versus.
Edited: PC

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