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The Agile GeneReview - The Agile Gene
How Nature Turns on Nurture
by Matt Ridley
HarperPerennial, 2003
Review by Martin Hunt
Feb 23rd 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 8)

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

 

Martin 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 consciousness.


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