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Nature Via NurtureReview - Nature Via Nurture
Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human
by Matt Ridley
HarperCollins, 2003
Review by Eccy de Jonge
Jul 3rd 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 27)

In the ten chapters that make-up Nature via Nurture Matt Ridley sets out to show how our genes (nature) influence our behavior the more they work through nurture.

Although Ridley goes on to criticize any philosopher who has ever had a 'theory of human nature' his starting point is Descartes who he attacks for asserting that animals lack reason (11). Following Darwin, he examines the life of various apes and chimps, in an attempt to convince us (if we need convincing) that we are part of nature -- nature being defined – in this instance only, as 'the non-human world'. He debates social behavior in animals in some detail and seems particularly enthralled with the size of gorilla testicles. After this he concludes that 'every species is unique' (23).

Ridley supports the innateness of human instincts, to which he includes emotions such as jealousy and love: but leaves an explanation of these loaded concepts out of account. Love, he equates with sexuality (rather than with care or empathy), which leads him to conclude that love is an inheritable factor that gives rise to changes in the brain when we fall in love. Ridley explains 'habitability', as a 'variation ... in a particular sample' that does not refer to any individuals genetic code. (76). Those who doubt the law of averages as having any relation to individuality may, at this point, raise a skeptical eyebrow -- for if we cannot know, tell or say anything at all about the genetic determinism of any individual, that age old question, 'who am I' would seemingly have no genetic content. Yet Ridley seems to believe it does. Given a range of school children, some who do well and others badly in exams, Ridley asserts, 'it is inevitable that the difference between the high-scoring and the low-scoring pupils must be down to their genes, for that is just about all that is left to vary' (77). Emotional stability, individual experience, parenting, care, and socio-economic factors are not discussed, though Ridley suddenly decides to warn us against believing too much in genetic determinism. 'When the British twin-researcher Thalia Eley ... suggested a strong genetic influence on whether an individual child would become a school bully' we are told that a reporter mistakenly and wrongly reported his claim as 'bullying behavior may be genetic' (82). As Ridley explains, Eley's comment means only that 'variations in bullying behavior may be genetic...' so gene variability tells us very little. Then Ridley has a change of mind, for he informs us that 'having a certain set of genes predisposes a person to experience a certain environment' (92). We may wonder what sort of environment Ridley means, birth trauma? rape? torture? Ridley chooses, sport.

In exploring those aspects of our behavior that are instinctual as distinct from those which are dependent on external forces, Ridley takes us through experiments on worms and fruit flies, into the kitchen where the analogy of genes and the environment is assimilated to 'baking a cake' (131). Whether we accept that behavior lies in our genes depends on what we actually mean by 'behavior,' which remains obscure. We learn the important fact (for any girl/gay man on a date) that a lack of smell is proven to relate to having a small penis (138). From this Ridley concludes that 'the man with low libido... remains sexually indifferent to women even after puberty' (139) thus proving 'a pathway from a gene to a behavior' (139). So now you know.

Never far from a sexual analogy, Ridley examines the experience of early childhood on human behavior but digresses to the relationship between the size of the male ring figure, the size of male genitalia and health (157). This is followed by a discussion on incest that broadly follows the sociologists Edward Westermarck's research on marriage between brother and sister. Though the highest incident of incestual relationships is that between fathers and children, Ridley fails to mention this at all. Instead, we are told the alarming story of Albert B, an orphan who in the 1920's became the subject of behavior experiments carried out by the psychologists John B. Watson and his wife Rosalie Rayner (184). From this we learn there are potential human abilities that the right kind of social conditioning helps to evolve or bring to fruition.

Early on in the book Ridley makes the error of confusing the human 'mind' with 'brain function' (74), a misnomer that continues throughout, e.g., 'human minds are never isolated' (204, 208). Though it is clear that Ridley has no knowledge of the philosophy of mind and fails to understand the many arguments concerning mind / body dualism he makes a rather gratuitous attempt to rubbish philosophers. To take one example. Ridley argues that the strive for reproduction 'immediately explains something that Aristotle, Descartes, Rousseau and Hume had not even realized needed explaining: why people are nice to their children..." (237). 'People are instinctively nice to their children because their genes make them that way, and their genes make them that way because genes that do so survive -- through the children -- at the expense of genes that do not' (242). This leads to some rather gratuitous claims, such as the verdict that the gene SRY 'sets in motion the sequence of events that (usually) leads to men sitting on couches drinking beer and watching football while women shop and gossip'(247). At this point it is hard to disagree with Mary Midgley's comment, which Ridley quotes and then quickly dismisses, that 'genes ... are just protein recipes; "they cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological"' (237).

The main problem with this book lies in its mish-mash of controversial scientific data, its need to both accept and dismiss genetic determinism, its failure to fully explain 'nurture' (which says nothing about perception, affects, reason or intuition) its confusion of mind with brain and its lull of perpetual contradictions, through which, it is clear, Ridley remains unsure of his own position. Though Ridley turns, in his last chapter, to a discussion of 'freedom of will' the absence of any philosophical literature (which is vast) is all too apparent. It is therefore difficult to determine to whom this book will appeal. Its mix of pop-psychology and pop science is no doubt aimed at this market but its place in the nature/nurture genre remains shallow. This is summed up in the last sentence, 'Nature versus nurture is dead. Long live nature via nurture' (280).


2003 Eccy de Jonge


Eccy de Jonge is lecturer in philosophy at Middlesex University, UK and the author of Spinoza and Deep Ecology: challenging traditional approaches to environmentalism (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003).


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