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.
This is a disease averter, a health giver.
This sees the gene as a recipe: Genes have two jobs: copying themselves and expressing themselves through the construction of proteins.
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.