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Nature via Nurture Matt Ridley

Nature via Nurture Matt Ridley

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Published by peteremart
Acclaimed author Matt Ridley's thrilling follow-up to his bestseller Genome. Armed with the extraordinary new discoveries about our genes, Ridley turns his attention to the nature versus nurture debate to bring the first popular account of the roots of human behaviour.

What makes us who we are?

In February 2001 it was announced that the genome contains not 100,000 genes as originally expected 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.

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 new 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.
Acclaimed author Matt Ridley's thrilling follow-up to his bestseller Genome. Armed with the extraordinary new discoveries about our genes, Ridley turns his attention to the nature versus nurture debate to bring the first popular account of the roots of human behaviour.

What makes us who we are?

In February 2001 it was announced that the genome contains not 100,000 genes as originally expected 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.

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 new 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.

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Evolutionary Psychology
human-nature.com/ep – 2003. 1: 188-191
 ——————————————  
Book Review 
Long live nature via nurture!
 Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes us Human
 by Matt Ridley. Fourth Estate, 2003; ISBN 1-84115-745-7 hbk 
 
Iver Mysterud, Department of Biology, University of Oslo, PO Box 1050 Blindern, NO-0316 Oslo, Norway. Email: mysterud@bio.uio.no.
The nature-nurture debate is one of the most heated and exciting minefields of all academic discourse. In the tradition wanting to contribute consilient (Wilson 1998) or vertically/conceptually integrated (Barkow 1989; Cosmides, Tooby, and Barkow 1992) approaches to link scientific results from different fields, Matt Ridley has presented
 Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes us  Human
. He is a superb writer, well-prepared to the task, after having presented three acclaimed and excellent books on evolutionary approaches to animal and human behavior (Ridley 1993; Ridley 1996) and genetics (Ridley 1999) in the last decade. The main thesis of
 Nature via Nurture
 is that nature versus nurture is a false dichotomy. Even though all seem to acknowledge this and that humans are a  product of an interaction between the two, the debate still continues. Let’s stop this futile debate, get rid of the strawmen and move forward! Ridley’s point is that the discovery of how genes actually influence human behavior, and how human  behavior influences genes, is about to recast the debate entirely. No longer is it nature-versus-nature, but nature-via-nurture: Genes are designed to take their cues from nurture. The more we lift the lid on the genome, the more vulnerable to experience genes appear to be. Ridley explains easily that genes are not puppet masters pulling the strings of our behavior (a common misunderstanding), but are  puppets at the mercy of our behavior. Instinct is
not 
 the opposite of learning, and environmental influences are sometimes less reversible than genetic ones. In ten chapters, Ridley presents twelve pioneers who put together the chief theories of human nature that came to dominate the twentieth century: Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, William James, Hugo De Vries, Ivan Pavlov, John Broadus Watson, Emil Kraepelin, Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, Franz Boas, Jean Piaget, and Konrad Lorenz. Ridley’s claim is that all 12 men were right in
 
 Long live nature via nurture!
the sense that they all contributed an original idea with a germ of the truth in it. In other words, they all placed a brick in the wall. Ridley writes (p. 6): Human nature is indeed a combination of Darwin’s universals, Galton’s heredity, James’s instincts, De Vries’s genes, Pavlov’s reflexes, Watson’s associations, Kraepelin’s history, Freud’s formative experience, Boas’s culture, Durkheim’s division of labour, Piaget’s development and Lorenz’s imprinting. You can find all these things going on in the human mind. No account of human nature would be complete without them all. But nearly all went too far in trumpeting their own ideas and criticising each other’s. And one or two of them deliberately or unintentionally gave birth to grotesque perversions of ”scientific” policy that will haunt their reputations forever. Ridley’s main point is that to understand each of these topics, one needs to understand genes (p. 6): It is genes that allow the human mind to learn, to remember, to imitate, to imprint, to absorb culture and to express instincts. Genes are not puppet masters, nor blueprints. Nor are they just the carriers of heredity. They are active during life; they switch each other on and off; they respond to the environment. They may direct the construction of the body and brain in the womb, but then they set about dismantling and rebuilding what they have made almost at once – in response to experience. They are both cause and consequence of our actions. Somehow the adherents of the ’nurture’ side of the argument have scared themselves silly at the  power and inevitability of genes, and missed the greatest lesson of all: the genes are on their side.
 Nature via Nurture
 is written by a scientist and science writer (Ridley is both) in the genre for the educated part of the lay audience in addition to scientists of all stripes – in the tradition of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. Even technical topics in genetics and neuroscience are presented so it is easy and fun to follow Ridley on his intellectual journey. The ten chapters each start with one or two pioneers, an evaluation of their ideas and a discussion of what science has achieved to add improved insight or – in some cases - to solve certain problems and paradoxes. This is public education at its best! Writing as a synthesising generalist has its price: Most experts will claim that certain nuances or pet theories are left out. For example, Ridley makes an argument that ”supports the conclusion that the progressive evolution of culture
Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 1474-7049 – Volume 1. 2003.
189
 
 Long live nature via nurture!
since the Upper Paleolithic revolution happened without altering the human mind.” (p. 228) without mentioning that another leading hypothesis claims that the opposite is most probable (Mithen 1996). I, for one, missed more about nutrition in an otherwise excellent presentation of various approaches to a very serious behavior disorder, schizophrenia. Although Ridley mentions that essential fatty acids seem to be important in explaining and treating this disease, he does not mention niacin (vitamin B
3
). There are ample clinical experience (and success) in treating schizophrenia with large doses of niacin (Osmond and Smythies 1952; Hoffer, Osmond, Callbeck, and Kahan 1957; Hoffer 1998), even though this fact is ignored or neglected by many mainstream psychiatrists. Such a treatment approach has interesting implications for several other phenomena he discusses. These remarks aside, I learned a lot from Ridley’s great synthesis and superb  presentation. Our culture desperately needs persons like Ridley who uses a  brilliant pen and a clear mind to make sense out of scientific contributions in many different fields. I hope all of us can agree on his conclusion (the book’s last two sentences): ”Nature versus nurture is dead. Long live nature via nurture.” But to fully grasp the implications of these statements, you simply have to read
 Nature via Nurture
 yourself.
References
Barkow, J. H. (1989).
 Darwin, Sex, and Status: Biological Approaches to Mind and Culture.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Cosmides, L., Tooby, J. and Barkow, J. H. (1992). Introduction: Evolutionary  psychology and conceptual integration. in Barkow, J. H., Cosmides, L., and Tooby, J. (Eds.),
The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture.
(pp. 3-15). New York: Oxford University Press. Hoffer, A. (1998).
Vitamin B-3. Schizophrenia. Discovery, Recovery, Controversy.
Kingston, Ontario, Canada: Quarry Press. Hoffer, A., Osmond, H., Callbeck, M. J. and Kahan, I. (1957). Treatment of schizophrenia with nicotinic acid and nicotinamide.
 Journal of Clinical and Experimental Psychopathology, 18
:131-158. Mithen, S. (1996).
The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Science and Religion.
London & New York: Thames & Hudson. Osmond, H. and Smythies, J. (1952). Schizophrenia: a new approach.
 Journal of  Mental Science, 98
:309-315. Ridley, M. (1993).
The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature.
Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books. Ridley, M. (1996).
The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation.
 New York: Viking.
Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 1474-7049 – Volume 1. 2003.
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