What makes us human

Matt Ridley’s new book moves humanists beyond the nature vs. nurture debate

Luke Disney | December 2003 issue

Ed.boeken.lang.62

Why we are the way we are is a question that has entered all of our minds at one point or another. For years most of us have been content with the standard answers (‘He’s his father’s son,’ or ‘No wonder, look where she grew up’) without ever pausing to consider their origins. Matt Ridley’s new book ‘Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes us Human’ brings to light new developments in the field of behavioural genetics that are about to condemn these old adages to history’s dustbin.

In Nature via Nurture, Ridley delves decisively into the academic discussions surrounding the source of our humanity. For years the debate surrounding one of the most fundamental questions facing mankind has been polarised. On one side, ‘naturalists’, such as Francis Galton, espouse that our characters are genetically determined. On the other, ‘nurturists’, such as Jean Piaget, contend that it is largely our environment that makes us who we are. Between the two ‘truths’ several wishy-washy perspectives proclaiming the equal importance of both factors have also arisen. In Nature via Nurture, Ridley uses recent advances in our understanding of genetics to neatly synthesise the arguments and thus put all sides out of their intellectual misery. ‘Genes are the means by which nurture expresses itself, just as surely as they are the means by which nature expresses itself,’ says Ridley. ‘They are both cause and consequence of our actions.’ In other words, our genetic nature causes us to seek out certain types of nurturing activities, which in turn stimulate and alter our genetic make-up.

On a more practical level, Ridley’s work sheds much needed light on the darker aspects of the debate on genetic engineering. By demonstrating the impact of environmental factors on genetic traits he effectively rubbishes the notion that we can identify genes responsible for general character traits such as intelligence or violence. The positive but non-linear correlation between socioeconomic conditions and hereditability of IQ illustrates this point nicely. People with hereditary high IQ levels, but coming from low-income living conditions score lower on IQ tests. People from higher income background ‘inherit’ more of the high IQ, scoring higher on tests. However, once a certain level income has been reached the increase in hereditability levels off with further increases in incomes having little or no effect on the IQ scores. These revelations cast the ongoing debate over the future possibility to manipulate our genetic makeup in a new context, essentially taking much of the sting out of arguments surrounding the (un)desirability of ‘designer babies’.

Nature via nurture definitely has something to offer to those who would normally shy away from academic subjects. Don’t worry if you happened to miss some or all of this fascinating debate. Each of the book’s ten chapters begins with a review of the theories of one or more of the most influential participants including Charles Darwin, Ivan Pavlov, Sigmund Freud and Emile Durkheim. Nor do you have to hold a Ph.D. in genetics or sociology to understand the arguments. Ridley has a gifted pen, which allows him to render complex ideas in a clear and easy-to-read prose.

As we enter the age of genetic engineering and new social norms it’s high time that we took another look at the nature of our being. A new generation of academics is just beginning to sink its teeth into the new revelations. Nature via Nurture provides us an opportunity to get in on the discussion at the bottom floor, before it again disappears into the lofty heights of the ivory towers of academia.

Matt Ridley: ‘Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes us Human’ (HarperCollins, 2003, ISBN: 0060006781)

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What makes us human

Matt Ridley’s new book moves humanists beyond the nature vs. nurture debate

Luke Disney | December 2003 issue

Ed.boeken.lang.62

Why we are the way we are is a question that has entered all of our minds at one point or another. For years most of us have been content with the standard answers (‘He’s his father’s son,’ or ‘No wonder, look where she grew up’) without ever pausing to consider their origins. Matt Ridley’s new book ‘Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes us Human’ brings to light new developments in the field of behavioural genetics that are about to condemn these old adages to history’s dustbin.

In Nature via Nurture, Ridley delves decisively into the academic discussions surrounding the source of our humanity. For years the debate surrounding one of the most fundamental questions facing mankind has been polarised. On one side, ‘naturalists’, such as Francis Galton, espouse that our characters are genetically determined. On the other, ‘nurturists’, such as Jean Piaget, contend that it is largely our environment that makes us who we are. Between the two ‘truths’ several wishy-washy perspectives proclaiming the equal importance of both factors have also arisen. In Nature via Nurture, Ridley uses recent advances in our understanding of genetics to neatly synthesise the arguments and thus put all sides out of their intellectual misery. ‘Genes are the means by which nurture expresses itself, just as surely as they are the means by which nature expresses itself,’ says Ridley. ‘They are both cause and consequence of our actions.’ In other words, our genetic nature causes us to seek out certain types of nurturing activities, which in turn stimulate and alter our genetic make-up.

On a more practical level, Ridley’s work sheds much needed light on the darker aspects of the debate on genetic engineering. By demonstrating the impact of environmental factors on genetic traits he effectively rubbishes the notion that we can identify genes responsible for general character traits such as intelligence or violence. The positive but non-linear correlation between socioeconomic conditions and hereditability of IQ illustrates this point nicely. People with hereditary high IQ levels, but coming from low-income living conditions score lower on IQ tests. People from higher income background ‘inherit’ more of the high IQ, scoring higher on tests. However, once a certain level income has been reached the increase in hereditability levels off with further increases in incomes having little or no effect on the IQ scores. These revelations cast the ongoing debate over the future possibility to manipulate our genetic makeup in a new context, essentially taking much of the sting out of arguments surrounding the (un)desirability of ‘designer babies’.

Nature via nurture definitely has something to offer to those who would normally shy away from academic subjects. Don’t worry if you happened to miss some or all of this fascinating debate. Each of the book’s ten chapters begins with a review of the theories of one or more of the most influential participants including Charles Darwin, Ivan Pavlov, Sigmund Freud and Emile Durkheim. Nor do you have to hold a Ph.D. in genetics or sociology to understand the arguments. Ridley has a gifted pen, which allows him to render complex ideas in a clear and easy-to-read prose.

As we enter the age of genetic engineering and new social norms it’s high time that we took another look at the nature of our being. A new generation of academics is just beginning to sink its teeth into the new revelations. Nature via Nurture provides us an opportunity to get in on the discussion at the bottom floor, before it again disappears into the lofty heights of the ivory towers of academia.

Matt Ridley: ‘Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes us Human’ (HarperCollins, 2003, ISBN: 0060006781)

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