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on July 9, 2004
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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on July 11, 2003
"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. For instance, the more egalitarian a society is, the more the heritabilaty of traits becomes manifest. Potentially confusing, certainly mind-bending, and who better than Ridley to explain it?
If you are interested in biology, read this book.
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VINE VOICEon September 3, 2003
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. A lot seems to hinge on the answer, which is why asking the "question of nature and nurture" never fails to bring out strong opinions.
In the most common caricature, the hereditarians insist that we have a are products of our biological history and have a specific fixed nature rather than being blank slates formed by our environment. The environmentalists insist that what nature wires up is a flexible general purpose organism capable of above all learning and being shaped by their environment. In early political theory, the difference had serious implications because for example things like "social contract theory" revolved around what human beings were supposed to be like in a "state of nature" without society. Were we gentle, peaceful, noble savages; or brutish, win-at-all-costs warmongers competing over territory and mates?
In _Nature_Via_Nurture_, Ridley freely exhibits both his consummate writing skills and his ability to make important scientific points clear without oversimplifying them. His message is crystal clear. Genes are everything. Nothing about us, including our nurture, can be fully understood without appreciating the role that genes play both in constructing us and in providing ongoing biological functions.
But wait ... there's a catch. A big one. The hereditarians are right. Our biological legacy is all important. Yet the hereditarians typically understand or at least emphasize only part of the importance of genes. The environmentalists made the serious mistake of fearing the role of genes because they, along with the hereditarians, assumed that genes were little dictators that caused things to happen. "Genetic determinism" is supposedly something no one is silly enough to believe in, yet when the discussion gets heated, it seems to be the default position that nearly everyone takes. In arguing anachronistically about "free will" vs. "determinism," we instinctively place genes into the role of neccessity, regardless of which side we are on. But it turns out that genes didn't cooperate with that characterization as we studied their role more closely.
This was also part of the underlying framework of biological science. It was considered a classic mistake, so-called "Lamarckism," to have fallen for the claim that behavior and experience could possibly influence our genes. The influence was one-way, an assumption that was commonly assumed to apply in evolution, in development, and in behavior.
But there was an "underground" among biological theorists, long scattered and individually easily dismissed critiques which eventually have coalesced into a single powerful new interactionist framework. Genes are indeed everything, but their influence goes both ways. And this happens at all levels. Not only are the chemical effects of genes influenced by the environment, but development is chanelled in various ways by experience, and the evidence is growing that behavior even has an influence on what happens in evolution. Organisms actively modify, select, and construct their own niches, according to the preferences set largely by their genes, and this is an important factor in reproductive fitness, the selection criteria of biological fate.
And so the environmentalists are right also. Experience and behavior do matter in shaping us. Not just through learning and development but even through evolution. And they matter not in spite of our genes, but because of them. Still, this clearly doesn't make us blank slates. Genes respond but they are not infinitely flexible responders. The do set limits in some sense and they do establish reliable trajectories. Yet they are not blueprints for our final form, nor do they compel our behavior. Genes help build dynamic mechanisms capable of responding to the environment in particular ways to make it possible for living things to carve out their own way of life. Here the hereditarians are right as well, having more "instincts" can make us more flexible rather than less flexible. We needn't be a blank slate to be capable of flexible behavior or "free will," we need the capacity to choose and some basis for making and acting on choices.
Just as he did for social behavior in _Origins of Virtue_, Matt Ridley sets a sane, clear, modern scientific tone for the next round of the neverending "nature and nurture" debate, and provides a bridge from the anachronistic abstract question of free will and determinism to the modern science that has the potential to address real answers to real questions.
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on May 19, 2003
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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According to Matt Ridley we are approaching a profound but little understood revolution in our understanding of the nature-nuture controversy. We are making new discoveries about how humans can learn to turn their genes on and off to create a better brain and health throughout their lifetime. We are not puppets dancing to the tune of our genes as many popular but simple-minded theories would maintain. The opposite is the true situation. Genes active partners within every cell of our brain and body that respond in an adaptive manner to cues from our environment. Matt Ridley came to this new understanding by interviewing many of the researchers that made the original scientific discoveries about how genes and environment interact. I can do no better than quote his own words to express his new vision.
"The first and most general moral is that genes are enablers, not constrainers. They create new possibilities for the organism; they do not reduce its options. Oxytocin receptor genes allow pair bonding; without them the prairie vole would not have the option of forming a pair bond [finding a mate]. CREB genes allow memory; without these genes, it would be impossible to learn and recall. BDNF allows the calibration of binocular vision through experience; without it you could not so easily judge depth and see the world as three-dimensional. FOXP2 mysteriously allows human beings to acquire the language of their people; without it, you cannot learn to speak. And so on. These new possibilities are open to experience, not scripted in advance. Gene no more constrain human nature than the extra programs constrain a computer. A computer with Word, PowerPoint, Acrobat, Internet Explorer, Photoshop, and the like not only can do more that a computer without these programs but can also get more from the outside world. It can open more files, find more Websites, and accept more e-mail. . . . Genes, unlike gods, are conditional. They are exquisitely good at simple if-then logic: if in a certain environment, then develop in a certain way. . . I suspect that science has so far greatly underestimated the number of gene sets which act in this way - conditioning their output to external conditions. (p. 250). . . Genes themselves are implacable little determinists, churning out utterly predictable messages. But because of the way their promoters switch on and off in response to external instruction, genes are very far from being fixed in their actions. Instead, they are devices for extracting information from the environment. Every minute, every second, the pattern of genes being expressed in your brain changes, often in direct or indirect response to events outside the body. Genes are the mechanisms of experience." (p. 248, italics added)
Ridley reviews at least 7 major theories of genes and human nature in a manner that is accessible to the general reader as well as befuddled professionals and scientists. His book is an antidote to all who acknowledge their despair at the the corrosive effects of the currently popular but mindless determinism in genetics and the neurosciences in general in their reductionistic efforts to understand mind, behavior, and free will. Ridley provides new conceptual tools for creating a scientifically enriched rather than impoverished understanding of the human condition.
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on September 23, 2003
Matt Ridley does exactly that with Nature via Nurture. He shows how "nature vs. nurture" simply is not a scientifically tenable idea. Genetic tendencies, such as imprinting, cannot be manifested without specific environmental influences; environmental influences cannot have an effect without genetic material on which to work.

This book is not, contrary to one other reviewer, hard to follow for anybody with a basic, basic education in heredity or genetics. And it's chock-full of information that will open one's eyes about the field.

Take, for example, the fact that humans have about 30,000 genes. Nurturists, and even more, mind-body dualists (particularly religious ones), seized on this as proof that human nature is sui generis and not physically determined by such a relative paucity of genes.
Ridley shows the falsehood of this on several fronts. First, on the mathematics, 30,000 genes, with recombinant variants, would produce well more variants than human population numbers.

Second, he addresses this from a botany vs. zoology view, showing how plants have separate genes for manifestation of certain genetic information, rather than reduplication of genetic segments, as is the case with animals.

Third, Ridley tells how some genes have multiple exons, slightly variant, only one of which is selected during a particular protein translation after RNA transcription, and that each different exon can produce a different protein.

Testimony to the power of this book is shown on the dust jacket, which has blurbs from such strong naturists as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker.

I will agree with one reviewer below that it is amazing this book comes from the author of Genome, as just a couple of years ago I would have placed Ridley firmly in the camp of Dawkins and Pinker. Unfortunately, the book has no comments from Ridley as to how and why his views evolved.
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on December 15, 2005
I loved Genome, and so I thought I'd love this book, too. I was about half-right.

It was okay, but not great. I had already read Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate; this book is largely a rehash of that one. Pinker and Ridley agree on nearly every issue, so this book doesn't offer many new insights. There are only two areas where Ridley adds something new: first, there are some new examples that Ridley uses that are absent from The Blank Slate. (There are also a lot of recycled ones.) Second, the book adds the idea of gene regulation as an important part of "nature via nurture." The title is based on the idea that gene expression can change depending on the environment, making it more "agile" than the deterministic genes most people think about. Gene agility is a really cool idea, and one that Pinker hardly deals with, but it doesn't really deserve a whole popular science book. It would have been much better if Ridley had written an epilogue to Pinker's book instead of doing the whole thing himself.

Ridley is a good writer, but he doesn't add much here.
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There is a review from Richard Dawkins on the back of this book; it starts with, "I would never have expected a book about 'nature or nurture' to be even miidly interesting let alone a real page-turner." In a way, I was sort of with Dawkins on this one. I'm not sure how much gene/environment polarization there is within the science community. Still, I got the book for two reasons. First, I've read Ridley (Origins of Virture, Genome) before. Second, and as Ridley points out in his book, even if there is a lack of gene/environment extremism in science, the laity is still quite polarized when they should not be.
Ridley starts by envisiioning photograph of the twelve great men Ridley feels have influenced study on human behavior. They are Charles Darwin (evolution), Francis Galton (first heritability theories), William James (instincts as a part of psychology), DeVries and Mendel (shared discovery of genes), Ivan Pavlov (conditioning theorist), John Watson (behaviorism), Emile Kraeplin (personality as history), Freud (psychoanalysis), Emile Durkheim (founder of sociology), Franz Boaz (studied relations of cultures to one-another), Jean Piaget (studied how children learn) and Konrad Lorenz (discovered the phenomenon of 'imprinting' in instincts).
Each chapter loosely starts with discussion of one of these thinkers. Basically, Ridley thinks that within all of these thinkers, there is something like a correct answer. Of course, each thinker got as much wrong as they did right so through tasty anecdotes, statistics and modern research results, Ridley shows us what he thinks each got right and wrong.
The only problem I had with this book is that the chapters hop from one to another idea without adequately tying them together. Even the last chapter "a budget of paradoxical morals" extrapolates conclusions that didn't quite seem to represent what I'd read in the book. Each chapter by itself was interesting, but taken as a whole, the book is muddled. Still, not bad for Matt Ridley.
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on December 15, 2004
"Buy this book with Nature Via Nurture by Matt Ridley today!" says the Amazon.com page. THEY ARE THE SAME BOOK. I fell for this and bought this one.

The book itself is excellent, but no need to buy it twice!
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HALL OF FAMEon August 16, 2004
Many similes have been used to introduce us to our genome; our DNA. It's a plan. It's a recipe. It's a blueprint. It's a code. Ridley shows how these metaphors miss the point - they're all too fixed to compare with the dynamics of the fundamental molecule of life. He shows how our genome, indeed, the genome common to all life, uses the same elements to say many things. Instead of terms identifying fixed elements, he suggests the image of language. The genome has a limited lexicon of phrases with which to build bodies and personalities, yet manages an immense variation in the results. How like a chimpanzee are you?, he asks. Depending on how you make the comparison - very little or very much. If you count the entire number of "base pairs" making up chimpanzees and humans, the difference is minimal - perhaps 30 thousand out of 3 billion. If, instead, you visit the zoo [or, better, Gombe] the differences are striking.

In Ridley's view, the striking differences are due to "word order" contained in the genome. All the words are essentially the same, but different locations and different interactions produce different characteristics. Including behaviour. In the six or seven million years since the chimpanzee-human line diverged, lifestyles, diet, social structure and living environment have helped guide how the genome produces a body and how that body will likely act in a given situation. Environment and the genome, then, are in a constant interactive flux. They feed signals through the organism to determine whether the organism will survive and reproduce. Nature isn't in the driver's seat, and if we fail to learn or adapt to the vagaries of environment, we won't survive to have descendants. Nature, then, is achieved via nurture.

All this should seem self-evident in today's world, but Ridley shows we have yet to fully understand and accept our role in Nature. There are few writers as articulate and expressive in dealing with these issues as Ridley. His grasp of the science involved is firm, yet he maintains a conversational tone throughout the narrative. While you will encounter much that is new to you in this book, you may close it [the first time], confident that his explanations have neither overwhelmed you nor left you unsatisfied. Of course, as Ridley points out, there is much work remaining in understanding the genome's impact on life. With luck, this book may impel others to follow his lead and uncover more of life's mysteries. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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