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The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture Paperback – July 6, 2004


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (July 6, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006000679X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060006792
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.2 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #296,198 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In the follow-up to his bestseller, Genome, Matt Ridley takes on a centuries-old question: is it nature or nurture that makes us who we are? Ridley asserts that the question itself is a "false dichotomy." Using copious examples from human and animal behavior, he presents the notion that our environment affects the way our genes express themselves.

Ridley writes that the switches controlling our 30,000 or so genes not only form the structures of our brains but do so in such a way as to cue off the outside environment in a tidy feedback loop of body and behavior. In fact, it seems clear that we have genetic "thermostats" that are turned up and down by environmental factors. He challenges both scientific and folk concepts, from assumptions of what's malleable in a person to sociobiological theories based solely on the "selfish gene."

Ridley's proof is in the pudding for such touchy subjects as monogamy, aggression, and parenting, which we now understand have some genetic controls. Nevertheless, "the more we understand both our genes and our instincts, the less inevitable they seem." A consummate popularizer of science, Ridley once again provides a perfect mix of history, genetics, and sociology for readers hungry to understand the implications of the human genome sequence. --Therese Littleton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

"Nature versus nurture" sums up in a nutshell one of the most contentious debates in science: Are people's qualities determined by their genes (nature) or by their environment (nurture)? The debate has only grown louder since the human genome has been found to comprise only 30,000 genes. Some scientists claim that we don't have enough genes to account for all the existing human variations. Ridley, author of the bestseller Genome, says that not only are nature and nurture not mutually exclusive, but that "genes are designed to take their cue from nurture." Genes are not unchanging little bits of DNA: their expression varies throughout a person's life, often in response to environmental stimuli. Babies are born with genes hard-wired for sight, but if they are also born with cataracts, the genes turn themselves off and the child will never acquire the ability to see properly. On the other hand, stuttering used to be ascribed solely to environmental factors. Then stuttering was found to be clearly linked to the Y chromosome, and evidence for genetic miswiring of areas in the brain that manage language was uncovered. But environment still plays a role: not everyone with the genetic disposition will grow up to be a stutterer. Ridley's survey of what is known about nature-nurture interactions is encyclopedic and conveyed with insight and style. This is not an easy read, but fans of his earlier book and readers looking for a challenging read will find this an engrossing study of what makes us who we are.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Matt Ridley's books have been shortlisted for six literary awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (for Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters). His most recent book, The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture, won the award for the best science book published in 2003 from the National Academies of Science. He has been a scientist, a journalist, and a national newspaper columnist, and is the chairman of the International Centre for Life, in Newcastle, England. Matt Ridley is also a visiting professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

Customer Reviews

Matt Ridley has penned some of the best books on evolutionary science ever written.
Tom Beakbane
Ridley provides new conceptual tools for creating a scientifically enriched rather than impoverished understanding of the human condition.
Ernest Rossi, author of "The Psychobiology of Gene Expression."
This makes clear that the genes execute what genetics dictates the same as they execute what nurture dictates.
A. Panda

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

210 of 219 people found the following review helpful By D. H. Dean on July 9, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I have really enjoyed each and every Matt Ridley book and "The Agile Gene" is no exception - but for the fact that it is an identical 'word-for-word' copy of his book titled "Nature Via Nurture". I'm not sure why a publisher would release the same book under a different title (there is one very small notice on the left front of the cover stating "Previously published as Nature Via Nurture"), but I'm more upset that it's not a new Matt Ridley book than by being out the money for the price of the book and the special two day delivery.
So...great book, just don't shell out any money if you already read "Nature Via Nurture".
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40 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Jeremy Colton on July 11, 2003
Format: Audio Cassette Verified Purchase
"Nature via Nurture"; the title sounds like a dead horse that doesn't need to be beaten any more. I decided to pick this one up because I love Ridley's work, and because it is read by the author. What a treat that is! With the author reading the book, you know that the nuances are correct, and that the abridgement isn't harming the message.
The discussions in this book are dramatically and importantly different from other discussions of "Nature/Nurture", and I can hardly recommend it strongly enough. What is different is the degree of specificity that Ridley brings to the conversation. He demonstrates from a dozen different points of view HOW causality flows both ways, from the genes to the environment and back. He also pokes holes in logical fallacies one hears all the time - for example, the assertion that a feature is not genetic because the specific genes have not (and in some cases may not ever) been identified. A well-constructed twin study positively identifies heritability of traits; tracking that heritability back to a spot on a chromosome is useful and interesting but not necessary.
There is also basic science here that the lay reader might not otherwise learn for years. For instance, until very recently it was thought that there was a one to one correlation between genes and their proteins. It was also unknown what, if any, purpose breaking genes apart into exons on the chromosome served. Now we have discovered that many - ninety five on one mouse gene - different versions of one exon can exist on the chromosome, allowing one gene to make many different versions of its protein. Different versions mediated by... environment, of course.
Much of the information here is counter-intuitive.
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61 of 68 people found the following review helpful By Todd I. Stark VINE VOICE on September 3, 2003
Format: Hardcover
With Nature_Via_Nurture, Matt Ridley affirms his place as one of the most valued and important science writers of our time. Well known for his award-winning _Genome_, Ridley is also the author of several other popularizations of biological science that are even better. In _The_Origins of Virtue_, Ridley demonstrated brilliantly how "economic" factors like division of labor and trade are actually keys to understanding human social behavior, in spite of the fact that we are also the products of a specific biological legacy. This is a deep insight that even many evolutionary biologists sometimes seem to stumble over.
As Ridley points out, the ideological question of whether human behavior is more the product of heredity or environment has distinguished not just scientists, but fascists and communists, just as surely as any of their political theories. During the well-known sociobiology debates, technical issues were rarely discussed much less resolved. Rather politics and the question of hidden agendas always raised its head.
While virtually all scientists and indeed anyone with a modicum of learning, observational skills, and common sense, have long known that heredity and environment were interacting factors in human nature, that answer truly satsifies almost no one. We still argue over the many implications of being either victims of our genes, victims of our environment, or somehow free of both. We still seek the answer to the technical question of *how* exactly biology and environment interact to produce living things, especially ourselves. And more abstractly, we still want to know what defines us as individuals, and what determines our fate.
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Tom Beakbane on May 19, 2003
Format: Hardcover
There has been a knowledge explosion in the biological sciences. So much has been discovered so quickly that it is hard to see how it all ties together. Matt Ridley manages to make sense of it. He has a storyteller's skill, throwing in just enough biographical details to bring the scientists to life, but not so much that it gets in the way of the science. He clearly knows his subject from both a scientific and a historical perspective. He does not over-simplify nor does he fall back on using jargon.
The thesis he puts forward, that nature and nurture are intextricably interwoven is undoubted. I believe he stops short of making the argument even more strongly. From a human standpoint, we can differentiate between "nature" and "nurture" but from the standpoint of the germ cell nature and nurture blend together. Is mitochondrial DNA nature or is it nurture? Surely we overstate the importance of the genetic "code" in the DNA. It can only be expressed because of all the other cellular components. So the distinction between code and non-code, and the individual and its environment is a lot blurrier than we suppose.
Matt Ridley has penned some of the best books on evolutionary science ever written. Nature via Nurture is at least as good, perhaps better than the best of his others, Genome and The Red Queen.
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