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Book Review: Nature vs Nurture
Posted by on Sunday July 20, @04:55PM
from the dept.
The New York Times brings us a book review of Matt Ridley's new book, "Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human". The reviewer says that that Ridley is a "skilled science writer, and able to lighten the heaviest discussions with clever analogies and interesting nuggets of anecdote" and apparently found several of his discussions interesting and enlightening. It's surprising that the review ends with the comment "for me the book never really excites".

So that you don't have to deal with the free registration, the entire book review is below. Just remember that it's from the New York Times.

'Nature via Nurture': It's Genetic, Sometimes

Biology may not have the status of physics and chemistry, but it sure is a lot more fun. Did you know that, controlling for body size, the testicles of the chimpanzee are 16 times as large as those of the gorilla? That the chimp has sex 100 times as often as the gorilla? And that the bonobo, the pygmy chimp, has 10 times as much sex as its larger cousin and hence 1,000 times as much as the gorilla?

The basic gorilla-chimpanzee difference is a function of the chimpanzee's preference for life in the trees. Male gorillas (those that can) form harems of females, and to this end are much bigger than the females. They need to ward off their rivals. Male chimpanzees cannot afford to grow too much bigger -- that would be bad for climbing. Hence, since chimps are not so readily able to form harems, their strategy is to out-copulate competitors. In the bonobos, for various reasons, the females rule the roost, and the males know that fighting simply will not work. In such a situation, being a superstud -- the Errol Flynn of the primate world -- is the best way forward.

Which conclusion certainly gives male chauvinists food for thought. If Andrea Dworkin becomes president, will there be more sex down in the ranks? Or does any of this really pertain to humans? In ''Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human,'' the British science writer Matt Ridley rather suggests it does. Body weight for body weight, our testicles come in at five times the size of gorillas' even if we attain only one-third the size of chimpanzees'. ''This is compatible with a monogamous species showing a degree of female infidelity. The difference between species is the shadow of the similarity within the species.''

Of course, as everybody knows, these are fighting words. Stephen Jay Gould, a Harvard professor, went to his grave objecting to all attempts to link human behavior to our biology like that. They were guilty of what he called the grave sin of ''genetic determinism.'' No sensible person thinks that the size of what a man has between his legs controls human culture in this way. On the other hand, Steven Pinker, an M.I.T. professor, in his recent book, ''The Blank Slate,'' laughs to scorn all those who dare think that biology -- the biology conferred on us by our evolutionary past -- is not a major (if not the major) factor in everything we humans do and think.

Yet, other than those breathing the rarefied air around the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass., I wonder if many today would really disagree with Ridley's basic claim in ''Nature via Nurture'' that essentially the nature-versus-nurture, biology-versus-culture, genes-versus-environment dichotomy has broken down and truly is less than useful to invoke. Organisms, and this applies especially to human organisms, are complex systems produced by genes, but very much molded by the experiences they encounter and situations to which they have to respond. ''Genes are the mechanisms of experience,'' in the author's words.

This is not to detract from this book's many virtues. Ridley is a skilled science writer, and able to lighten the heaviest discussions with clever analogies and interesting nuggets of anecdote. He is sensible and understanding of issues beyond the narrow field of fact and theory -- for instance, toward the end of the book he has some worthwhile things to say about freedom and the will. What I do appreciate is that, when Ridley gets his teeth into a topic, he does not let go until he has extracted far more -- far more of great interest -- from it than you might think possible.

One chapter is devoted to schizophrenia and its putative causes. Ridley gives us some background on the disease and when it was first identified, and then runs through a large number of suggested factors for its existence. These include the genes on their own, viruses, biochemistry, development before and after birth, diet -- not enough fish oil -- and more. When Ridley is finished, negatively he, and his reader, are full of disdain for the psychoanalysts who put it all down to mother, and positively confident that, whatever the full story, schizophrenia and many other like ailments are the results of complex interactions between heredity and environment. Teasing factors apart is very important, but the factors will be from all ends of the nature-nurture spectrum.

Another excellent discussion focuses on imprinting, the phenomenon made famous by the Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz. Ridley takes us through the animal work, and then on to humans, showing how the idea might (and might not) apply. There is an excellent discussion about language acquisition and about how difficult it can be to learn a new language after a certain age. The wonder perhaps is not that this is true, but how long it took educators to realize this. I am sure I am not the only person who did not begin foreign languages until I was 11 or 12, just about at the point when the door is firmly shut! One good thing is that educators have finally learned this fact, at least in some parts of the world. My children at school in Canada started to learn French at 4 years of age.

One nugget that Ridley does give us is about the connections between Lorenz and the National Socialist movement. Although Lorenz successfully concealed much of this and died covered in glory as a Nobel laureate, in fact his sympathy for the Nazis ran deep and involved writing articles linking his science to the aims of the movement. I wish that, having brought this up, Ridley had dug a little more thoroughly into the connection between science and ideology. Is the claim simply that Lorenz was a phony self-server? This seems to have been Lorenz's own line -- he did not believe the Nazi message, but went along with it out of expediency. The Catholics would not support him, so he turned to the Nazis instead. Or is the claim that the connections were deeper and more genuine, and that in some sense we should suspect ethology generally?

My own belief is that the latter is not true. Lorenz's student Niko Tinbergen, a leading ethologist and Nobel Prize winner in his own right, was imprisoned by the Nazis on suspicion of resistance activities, so it would be hard to say that his work was ideologically suspect. But, having raised the issue of Lorenz and the Nazis -- and it is surely legitimate to do so (it comes at the end of the chapter, and I was wondering why it had not been mentioned) -- Ridley owes us a more detailed and analytic discussion.

I have terrific admiration for professional science writers like Matt Ridley and Robert Wright and Roger Lewin. They write very well and they bring to us fascinating and important information from the world of science, a world of which few of us have firsthand experience or detailed knowledge, despite its importance to us in everything we now do. Unlike a professor, such as myself, who gets supplied with a new batch of students every year, science writers have to go out and find their own topics, research them, write them up and sell their wares.

Unfortunately, this can backfire or become a little stale at times. Every year or two you need to find a new subject. Sometimes there is something good just waiting to be treated. Ridley's last book, ''Genome,'' took on the Human Genome Project, as he cleverly discussed a gene from each of the 23 human chromosome pairs. Yet sometimes you just seem to be stuck with a topic that does not truly catch fire. I have a bit of a feeling this way about ''Nature via Nurture.'' The parts are really good. Not only are there the discussions of schizophrenia and imprinting, but others about child development and the controversy over the relative effects of parents and peers on adult attitudes, about identical twins and the difficulties (and triumphs) of breaking apart home influences and the twins' shared biology, about the effects on adults of the wartime starvation of their mothers when pregnant, and much more.

But somehow, as a whole, for me the book never really excites. During the controversies about human sociobiology and the importance of human genetics 20 or 30 years ago, ''Nature via Nurture'' could have been just what one wanted. Perhaps if one moves to Cambridge, Mass., it will still seem vital and needed. My feeling is that, fine though the parts may be, the message of the whole is now a bit old hat. Read it if you want a good overview, but let us hope that next time around Ridley comes up with a more vibrant topic.

Michael Ruse is a professor of philosophy at Florida State University. His latest book is ''Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose?''

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