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A Companion to GenethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Cooperative SpeciesA Mind So RareA Natural History of RapeAcquiring GenomesAdapting MindsAgeing, Health and CareAlas, Poor DarwinAn Introduction to Evolutionary EthicsAncient Bodies, Modern LivesAnimal ArchitectsAping MankindAre We Hardwired?Bang!BehavingBeyond EvolutionBeyond GeneticsBlood MattersBody BazaarBoneBrain Evolution and CognitionBrain StormBrave New BrainBrave New WorldsChoosing ChildrenCloneCloningConceptual Issues in Evolutionary BiologyConsciousness EvolvingContemporary Debates in Philosophy of BiologyControlling Our DestiniesCooperation and Its EvolutionCreatures of AccidentDarwin Loves YouDarwin's Brave New WorldDarwin's Gift to Science and ReligionDarwin's UniverseDarwin's WormsDarwinian ConservatismDarwinian PsychiatryDarwinism and its DiscontentsDarwinism as ReligionDebating DesignDecoding DarknessDefenders of the TruthDo We Still Need Doctors?Doubting Darwin?Early WarningEngineering the Human GermlineEnhancing EvolutionEnoughEntwined LivesEthical Issues in Human CloningEthical Issues in the New GeneticsEvil GenesEvolutionEvolutionEvolution and Human BehaviorEvolution and Human BehaviorEvolution and Human Sexual BehaviorEvolution and LearningEvolution and ReligionEvolution and the Human MindEvolution in MindEvolution, Gender, and RapeEvolution: The Modern SynthesisEvolutionary Ethics and Contemporary BiologyEvolutionary Origins of MoralityEvolutionary PsychiatryEvolutionary PsychologyEvolutionary Psychology and ViolenceEvolutionary Psychology as Maladapted PsychologyExploding the Gene MythFaces of Huntington'sFlesh of My FleshFrom Chance to ChoiceFrom Darwin to HitlerGenesGenes in ConflictGenes on the CouchGenes, Environment, and PsychopathologyGenes, Environment, and PsychopathologyGenes, Women, EqualityGenetic Nature/CultureGenetic PoliticsGenetic ProspectsGenetic ProspectsGenetic SecretsGenetics of Criminal and Antisocial BehaviourGenetics of Mental DisordersGenetics of Original SinGenetics of Original SinGenomeGenomeGenome: Updated EditionGenomes and What to Make of ThemGlowing GenesHow Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So StoriesHuman CloningHuman Evolution, Reproduction, and MoralityImproving Nature?In Our Own ImageIn Pursuit of the GeneIn the Name of GodIngenious GenesInheritanceInside the Human GenomeInside the O'BriensIntegrating Evolution and DevelopmentIntelligence, Race, and GeneticsIs Human Nature Obsolete?Language OriginsLess Than HumanLiberal EugenicsLiving with Our GenesMaking Genes, Making WavesMaking Sense of EvolutionMan As The PrayerMean GenesMenMood GenesMoral OriginsMothers and OthersNature Via NurtureNever Let Me GoNot By Genes AloneOf Flies, Mice, and MenOn the Origin of StoriesOrigin of MindOrigins of Human NatureOrigins of PsychopathologyOur Posthuman FuturePhilosophy of BiologyPlaying God?Playing God?Portraits of Huntington'sPrimates and PhilosophersPromiscuityPsychiatric Genetics and GenomicsPsychologyQuality of Life and Human DifferenceRe-creating MedicineRedesigning HumansResearch Advances in Genetics and GenomicsResponsible GeneticsResponsible GeneticsScience, Seeds and CyborgsSex and WarSociological Perspectives on the New GeneticsStrange BedfellowsStrange BehaviorSubjects of the WorldSubordination and DefeatThe Age of EmpathyThe Agile GeneThe Ape and the Sushi MasterThe Biotech CenturyThe Blank SlateThe Book of LifeThe Bridge to HumanityThe Case Against PerfectionThe Case for PerfectionThe Case of the Female OrgasmThe Century of the GeneThe Common ThreadThe Concept of the Gene in Development and EvolutionThe Debated MindThe Double-Edged HelixThe Epidemiology of SchizophreniaThe Ethics of Human CloningThe Evolution of CooperationThe Evolution of MindThe Evolution of MindThe Evolved ApprenticeThe Evolving WorldThe Fact of EvolutionThe Folly of FoolsThe Future of Human NatureThe God GeneThe Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Impact of the GeneThe Innate MindThe Innate MindThe Innate Mind: Volume 3The Limits and Lies of Human Genetic ResearchThe Lives of the BrainThe Maladapted MindThe Meme MachineThe Misunderstood GeneThe Moral, Social, and Commercial Imperatives of Genetic Testing and ScreeningThe Most Dangerous AnimalThe New Genetic MedicineThe Nurture AssumptionThe Origin and Evolution of CulturesThe Origins of FairnessThe Paradoxical PrimateThe Perfect BabyThe Robot's RebellionThe Shape of ThoughtThe Shattered SelfThe Stem Cell ControversyThe Story WithinThe Stuff of LifeThe Talking ApeThe Temperamental ThreadThe Terrible GiftThe Theory of OptionsThe Top 10 Myths About EvolutionThe Triple HelixThe Triumph of SociobiologyThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaTwinsUnderstanding CloningUnderstanding the GenomeUnnatural SelectionUnto OthersUp From DragonsWar Against the WeakWhat Genes Can't DoWhat It Means to Be 98 Percent ChimpanzeeWho Owns YouWhose View of Life?Why Evolution Is TrueWhy Think? WondergenesWrestling with Behavioral GeneticsYour Genetic Destiny
In The Agile Gene Matt Ridley develops
several interrelated themes. The dominant one, which gives the book its title,
is that genes are not static elements in the processes of life. Many thinkers
think of the genome as a static "blueprint" for living entities. They
are wrong. Ridley, through many examples, shows that the genome is an amazingly
dynamic structure, responding sensitively to the environmental circumstances (both
internal and external) of the living forms of which it is a part.
An important secondary theme is the absurdity of
the "nature vs nurture" debate. Of course, all of life is a product
of both nature and nurture. All of life's processes involve an interaction between
a genome and an environment. Everyone realizes and admits this; and yet, it is
typical that as soon as this realization is admitted, many thinkers promptly
develop arguments where one or the other of these two themes is given
prominence. Ridley clearly, and in detail, shows both the futility and
destructiveness of such approaches.
The final and most subtle theme that Ridley
develops is a critique of the idea of linear chains of cause and effect. In
general, cause and effect is a circular and very complex process. This applies
even in sciences like physics and chemistry, but it is especially true in
biology. Yet, it is very common (especially in the Nature vs. Nurture
opposition) to assume that each effect has only one cause. Ridley lays such
approaches to rest as both inadequate and misleading.
In the course of laying out his argument Ridley
also reveals the astonishing capabilities of contemporary biological science.
He describes for instance how nerve cells grow through the brain, from a
starting point (for instance, the olfactory bulb in a mouse) to the place where
those nerves interact with other nerves so that a smell is meaningful (to the
mouse). This is amazing stuff, showing that the propagating nerve itself is
exquisitely sensitive to its immediate environment as it grows, first detecting
which way to go, and then detecting the other nerves in the brain (among
trillions of others) that is its target. This whole process is mediated by the
genes in the nerve, that are turned on and off by cues from its environment,
and that cause it therefore to do different things.
Other studies, of twins, elucidate the intricate
interaction of both nature (ie an individual's genetic heritage) and nurture
(i.e. the way they are raised and educated, and the individual's life
experiences) in the creation of an adult. One interesting conclusion: one's
childhood companions have more influence on one than do one's parents. But, as
always, the processes are all very circular and complex. One's reactions to
one's companions have a very large genetic component. The genes that are
effective at any one time are greatly influenced by one's social circumstances.
A person's parents have a large influence on both that person's genetic
structure and on their companions. This is very complex stuff that is not well
understood when one takes intellectual shortcuts.
Ridley is a very erudite, clear, and witty
writer. The Agile Gene is a pleasure to read. I hope that many readers
will share the pleasure, and the knowledge, that he provides.
© 2005 Martin Hunt
Hunt is an artist living and working in Vancouver, Canada. His work is inspired by math and science. Lately he's
been indulging an interest in evolutionary theory and its relation to
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