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Nature via Nuture – Matt Ridley ****

For pretty well as long as people have pondered just what a human being is, the debate has raged over the relative contributions of biological content versus how we’re brought up. At its most trivial, as the advert puts it, “maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s Maybelline.”
Throughout history the pendulum has swung side to side on preference from nature to nurture and back again. In this exploration of a crucial human conundrum Ridley points out, for example, how the study of twins has over the years been trumpeted as a wonderful breakthrough in understanding while at other times attempts to discredit the approach have been so venomous that it would seem the researchers had made some vast politically incorrect faux pas.
In covering the subject, Ridley manages to combine industrial strength research with a superb style that seems effortless, yet works superbly. The only reason the book doesn’t win the accolade of five stars is that, in the end, fascinating though the debate is, the conclusion is almost inevitably, “well, it’s a bit of both,” or “with everything else equal it’s mostly genetics, but miss out on nurture in a big way and the whole thing falls apart.” (That’s a little over-simplified – it’s probably best summed up when Ridley says “you need nature to absorb nurture.” At some levels this is a truism. You need nature’s contribution of a digestive system to literally absorb nurture. But it also sums up the thesis.)
Because of this repeated conclusion, by about half way through it’s easy to get a little fed up of the repeated cry of “it’s not one thing or the other.” It might well be true, but like all middle-of-the-roadness it lacks danger and excitement.
One other warning. If you are averse to animal experimentation, this is a book you might find unsettling. Even an unbiased observer can’t help but feel a bit queasy at a statement like this: “[scientists] discovered how to stain these columns [in the brain] different colours by injecting dyed amino acids into one eye. They were then able to see what happens when one eye is sewn shut.” More might have been made of the cost/benefit balance in the experiments that are constantly reported throughout the book.
However, that apart, and given the limitations of reality that make “it’s not one thing or the other” an almost inevitable conclusion (which Ridley can hardly be blamed for – I guess we ought to take it up with Ridley’s concept of the “Genome Organizing Device” (GOD for short)) the book does a great job. Only other very slight niggle is the use of numbered notes, which isn’t necessary for a popular science book, simply breaking up the eyeline without adding any benefit. It’s often done elsewhere to try to demonstrate spurious academic gravitas, something Ridley has no need for.
Altogether a superb addition to any popular science library, and you don’t need to have any real interest in biology to get a lot of out. After all – there’s one topic that we’re all interested in, and that’s ourselves.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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