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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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on July 9, 2006
Another Ridley home run! He's batting a thousand. Not bad for a popularizer of science.

Don't let the book's title fool you. If Ridley merely resolved the nurture/nature debate, which most of us already know, the book might be a bust. However, Ridley's means of resolution is an unsuspected, yet dramatic, one. The book's strengths lie in applying the resolution of this dilemma to other dilemmas. Not that this approach "answers" these dilemmas; indeed, maybe the reverse, it seems to complicate them. Therein lies the book's brilliance and novelty, while being entirely scientific.

For example, 18th C. philosopher David Hume raised doubts about humans' causal inferences, i.e., "cause-and-effect." E.g. The light goes out (effect). Caused by what: the filament, the glass, the wiring, the switch, the panel, or maybe something else? Many people, including scientists, dismissed Hume's skepticism as extreme and anti-scientific. Ridley's Fourth Chapter vindicates Hume, more dramatically than Hume himself (or Popper in 1944). The subject for discussion is "schizophrenia." The perennial nature/nurture debate and the theories its drawn are investigated, and given Ridley's insight and science's "evidence," the putative "cause(s)" of schizophrenia are all found wanting. How wanting? Incredibly wanting. But ironically, it's not all wrong. Mostly wrong. And it's revealed in, through, and by the prism of nature/nurture dispute, seen through the topic of schizophrenia. (The subject of causality in human behavior makes an important reappearance later.)

[N.B. A cautionary note. Chap. 3 seemed uncharacteristically long-winded and redundant. It passes and never recurs.]

Ridley's encyclopedic knowledge (what field of knowledge does he not know?) is breathtaking. His ability to coordinate all this diverse, even disparate, knowledge in defense of this thesis is extraordinary. To keep all the scientific jargon on an accessible level is masterful. To use an artful device with elegant prose adds creativity and imagination. The implications of these insights are even more stunning. Science does not get better than this!
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on August 13, 2013
I found the book a bit disjointed, yet I learned a lot from it. The "Rational Optimist" I think was written more fluidly then the "Agile Gene", and probably an easier read. That being said, the Agile Gene takes another view of the nature v nurture debate that has been going on for over a century and Ridley makes the case that nature does in certain cases affect the development of an organism and that certain genes may be turned on in certain circumstances by the outside world. The one area he does not touch is race/genetics either because Ridley is afraid of the same treatment that Murray and Herrnstein received with the release of the Bell Curve or because Ridley does not think that there are racial differences. He does refer to the Bell Curve as "notorious", which is telling.
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The fourth dimension being time. Genes are turned on and off, sometimes multiple times, over the course of one's lifetime. A given gene may do different things at different developmental times, as well as different things to different parts of a developing body. This, explains Ridley, explains why a parsimonious 30,000 genes can manage the creation of an organism as complex as a human being.

To support his argument that we are equally products of "nature and nurture," and that therefore Galton's century-old dichotomy is a false one, Ridley has to stretch a bit on the "nurture" side. He lumps under "nurture" everything that is not strictly genetic. To wit, the reaction in a mother's body to her third or fourth pregnancy with a boy. These younger brothers are slightly more likely to be born weighing less, and to be homosexual, than their older brothers. The mother's body has more experience fighting with a male foetus for who gets to decide on the placental blood chemistry. This isn't exactly in the genes, but on the other hand it is not the kind of nurture over which anybody has conscious control.

The bottom line is that culture and genetics seem to coevolve, and there is a tremendous amount of variation among individual people and considerable systematic variation among human groups. It makes sense to talk of genes affecting a predisposition to certain kinds of behavior... alcoholism, aggresiveness and whatever. However it is only very rare that a single gene can be associated with a single trait, physical or behavioral, and environment plays a major role in the traits of any individual.
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on May 26, 2014
A very complex well researched text that once you get through it you need to go back and read the first chapter again to clarify what you just finished. Mr. Ridley is a first rate scholar and author!
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on August 14, 2016
Great book, walks the line between social studies and science like a master, and does not simply come to the conclusion that "both nature and nurture matter." Refreshing reading to a much mis-understood subject.
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In this lucid, intelligent exploration of the role of genetics in human behavior, author Matt Ridley lays out his thesis that the role of genetics is not as cut-and-dried as people have traditionally believed. He convincingly argues that genes and the effect of the environment are so closely linked that they cannot be reliably separated from each other, thus rendering the age-old debate of nature versus nurture obsolete. Genes are expressed and repressed according to factors beyond that of a closed system; yet, environment alone cannot be expected to change the genetic nature of a person. This sliding scale of influence makes so much sense that one had to wonder why people bothered to take sides, especially since Ridley is able to turn experiments thought to prove one side into a good case for a combination of the two.

Ridley does an excellent job of writing coherently for the lay reader without dumbing down the science. His use of analogies, while not always helpful, aim to assist the non-scientist in understanding the biological mechanisms and effects even at the molecular level. This book is most fascinating for its summary of studies involving the behavior of organisms and how they relate to the seemingly much more complex set of human behaviors. How worms and fruit flies learn becomes a cornerstone to understanding how we might. The way monkeys pass on fears and nonchalance help us to understand why the "basic" human fears are not feared by all humans. Genes that predispose a certain rodent species to care for the young enlighten the power of love in humans. In every case, the author explains what we know, and what we can surmise, and how we might be wrong in what we've come to accept.

By discussing experiments in molecular biology, animal behavior, evolution, psychology, and medicine, Ridley gives a broad picture of how genes (nature) are influenced by the environment (nurture). While professionals working any of those fields might feel that the author did not go into enough depth, the average reader with an interest in animal/human behavior and genetics will be fascinated by what Ridley has to say. The section on schizophrenia and its elusive causes alone is worth reading this book.
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on February 15, 2016
What a brain-bender! Matt Ridley makes you think so hard about what he's writing that it helps to put down the book every now and again just to clear your head. HUGELY entertaining, completely accessible and chock-full of the latest research.
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on August 1, 2006
Note: This book was originally published as "Nature via Nurture."

Ridley is a journalist with an impeccable and broad understanding of "sociobiology." He is capable of distilling a broad array of sociobiological phenomena so that the layman can grasp what science is doing behind those polysyllabic and arcane words. This is yet another of his home runs.

Another Ridley home run! He's batting a thousand. Not bad for a popularizer of science.

Don't let the book's title fool you. If Ridley merely resolved the nurture/nature debate, which most of us already know, the book might be a bust. However, Ridley's means of resolution is an unsuspected, yet dramatic, one. The book's strengths lie in applying the resolution of this dilemma to other dilemmas. Not that this approach "answers" these dilemmas; indeed, maybe the reverse, it seems to complicate them. Therein lies the book's brilliance and novelty, while being entirely scientific.

For example, 18th C. philosopher David Hume raised doubts about humans' causal inferences, i.e., "cause-and-effect." E.g. The light goes out (effect). Caused by what: the filament, the glass, the wiring, the switch, the panel, or maybe something else? Many people, including scientists, dismissed Hume's skepticism as extreme and anti-scientific. Ridley's Fourth Chapter vindicates Hume, more dramatically than Hume himself (or Popper in 1944). The subject for discussion is "schizophrenia." The perennial nature/nurture debate and the theories its drawn are investigated, and given Ridley's insight and science's "evidence," the putative "cause(s)" of schizophrenia are all found wanting. How wanting? Incredibly wanting. But ironically, it's not all wrong. Mostly wrong. And it's revealed in, through, and by the prism of nature/nurture dispute, seen through the topic of schizophrenia. (The subject of causality in human behavior makes an important reappearance later.)

[N.B. A cautionary note. Chap. 3 seemed uncharacteristically long-winded and redundant. It passes and never recurs.]

Ridley's encyclopedic knowledge (what field of knowledge does he not know?) is breathtaking. His ability to coordinate all this diverse, even disparate, knowledge in defense of this thesis is extraordinary. To keep all the scientific jargon on an accessible level is masterful. To use an artful device with elegant prose adds creativity and imagination. The implications of these insights are even more stunning. Science does not get better than this!
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on October 1, 2012
I picked up this book at the public library out of the blue & could not put it down! I had to purchase it! You like biology? Are you interested in the nature v. nurture debate? If you like to learn about how are bodies & minds are orchestrated by our own DNA then read this book. I am not huge on science and all the terms but dictionaries do exist to help out. This book opened my mind, thank you Mr. Ridley! I am now reading his book The Rational Optimist & he doesn't fail to enlighten me!
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