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Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human [Hardcover]

Matt Ridley
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)

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Book Description

7 April 2003

Acclaimed author Matt Ridley's thrilling follow-up to his bestseller Genome. Armed with the extraordinary new discoveries about our genes, Ridley turns his attention to the nature versus nurture debate to bring the first popular account of the roots of human behaviour.

What makes us who we are?

In February 2001 it was announced that the genome contains not 100,000 genes as originally expected but only 30,000. This startling revision led some scientists to conclude that there are simply not enough human genes to account for all the different ways people behave: we must be made by nurture, not nature. Yet again biology was to be stretched on the Procrustean bed of the nature-nurture debate.

Acclaimed science writer Matt Ridley argues that the emerging truth is far more interesting than this myth. Nurture depends on genes, too, and genes need nurture. Genes not only predetermine the broad structure of the brain; they also absorb formative experiences, react to social cues and even run memory. They are consequences as well as causes of the will.

Published fifty years after the discovery of the double helix of DNA, Nature via Nurture chronicles a new revolution in our understanding of genes. Ridley recounts the hundred years' war between the partisans of nature and nurture to explain how this paradoxical creature, the human being, can be simultaneously free-willed and motivated by instinct and culture. Nature via Nurture is an enthralling, up-to-the-minute account of how genes build brains to absorb experience.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate; First Edition edition (7 April 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1841157457
  • ISBN-13: 978-1841157450
  • Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 16.3 x 3.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 88,042 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Matt Ridley received his BA and D. Phil at Oxford researching the evolution of behaviour. He has been science editor, Washington correspondent and American editor of The Economist. He is the author of bestselling titles The Red Queen (1993), The Origins of Virtue (1996), Genome (1999) and Nature via Nurture (2003). His books have sold over half a million copies, been translated into 25 languages and been shortlisted for six literary prizes. In 2004 he won the National Academies Book Award from the US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine for Nature via Nurture. In 2007 Matt won the Davis Prize from the US History of Science Society for Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code. He is married to the neuroscientist Professor Anya Hurlbert.

Product Description

Amazon Review

Nature Via Nurture follows on from Matt Ridley's bestselling Genome. He 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 of human and animal behaviour, 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 behaviour. 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 populariser 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,


'Nature via Nurture sets the modern terms for an ancient debate, and at the same time delivers a superb tutorial on contemporary genetics; the feedback loop that embraces genes and environment is generally not well understood. And yet this plasticity, this elegant mutuality, seems crucial if our new understanding of human nature is to inform public policy. These times need a book like this.' Ian McEwan

'Lucidly explains the most recent discoveries on what makes us what we are, and how we should think about these discoveries as we ponder who we want to be…A treat, written with insight, wisdom, and style.' Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate

'Bracingly intelligent, lucid, balanced – witty, too. Nature via Nurture is a scrupulous and charming look at our modern understanding of genes and experience.' Oliver Sacks

'A real page-turner. What a superb writer he is, and he seems to get better and better.'
Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene

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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
4.8 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
42 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Another excellent work from Ridley 12 July 2004
By Keith Appleyard VINE VOICE
Following on from Genome (which I've reviewed), I find Matt Ridley very easy to read.
Here he selects 12 'Hairy Scientists', some famous (eg Freud, Pavlov, Darwin), some not so famous, and weaves a wonderful story as he takes us through the highs and lows of their research & that of their contemporaries, bringing us right up to date with the Genome. With interesting anecdotes he brings each individual to life.
The 7 moral conclusions at the end were particularly useful, especially No. 2 'being a good parent still matters.'
Given I'm now in the process of reading a similar book with some very poor illustrations, it was only afterwards looking back, that I see that I was entertained & educated without the need for any sketches or diagrams, and yet didn't feel cheated, deprived or confused.
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103 of 106 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nature via Nurture by another name 13 Oct 2004
By A Customer
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Having bought this along with Nature via Nurture (a wonderful book) I was surprised to discover that it's the *same* book, it just has a different name.
Perhaps this is obvious from the available information, but since I managed to miss it, I thought it was worth warning others. I love Matt Ridley's books (hence the 5), but not enough to want two copies...
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39 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Twisting linguistics [biologically] 4 Jan 2005
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
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.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cogs, GOD and individuality 4 Jan 2004
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Ridley opens this superb summation of the impact of genetics and environment with a literary allusion. How can J.D. Salinger and Charles Dickens ever be compared? Easily - they both write in the same language. A few terms used today won't appear in Dickens' work, just as words common in the Victorian era have been abandoned. The root language remains the same, but is in constant flux. Ridley uses this metaphor to disabuse us of the ideas that either genes or environment are the sole drivers of our development. Rather than separating those two elements, Ridley wants to integrate them. From the literary metaphor, he moves on to a vivid overview of the latest finds in genetics and how environment can impact their operation.
Ridley's incomparable command of language is applied in explaining arcane concepts. Ridley relates hard science with a touch of humour. In avoiding jargon, he introduces catchphrases aiding explanation. Instead of weaving scientific terminology into his descriptions, he provides unforgettable little terms to guide the reader. Genes, he notes, are merely "cogs" in a complicated machine - the organism. In explaining how these cogs interact to produce bodies and minds, he conceives the Genome Organizational Device [work out the acronym]. All these tools of Ridley's trade turn puzzling mechanisms into easily comprehended biological functions.
Of the many facets introduced by this book, Ridley's summation of the causes and impact of schizophrenia is the most informative. Not long ago, he notes, "the gene" causing this disturbing affliction seemed to have been isolated. Ridley wants to "throw the whole concept of 'cause' into confusion". He devises a schema to present a string of "witnesses", each presenting a "position" on schizophrenia.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent stuff 15 May 2005
This book will get you thinking, guaranteed. The accesible writing style combined with the analogies, stories, and up to date views on the origins of so much of what makes us human is fascinating and it is barely an exagerration to say there is a revelation on every page for the reader new to the subject. Doing Pavlov, Skinner, and others for A Level Biology, the book provides an interesting view of the big names of behavioural science from a perspective outside a textbook. Deconstructing both science and accepted folk wisdom on the origins of personality, psychosis and homosexuality among so many other topics, 'Nature via Nurture' presents the cutting edge of its topic in an endlessly intriguing style.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Happy!
Brilliant and interesting read! Very very helpful for my sociology essay - wouldn't have been without it. Will be keeping this for future reference
Published 7 months ago by Roxie
5.0 out of 5 stars Angel
Another excellent book for Social work students or anyone studying human growth and development. Although it is an academic book it is written in a way which is easy to uinderstand... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Angela Akrill
5.0 out of 5 stars myth exploding read.
This book should be read by all. The simplistic politicisation of nature v nurture is reformulated into nature via nurture
Published 10 months ago by Jack Owen
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Interesting
Nice and easy to understand. Great interesting facts explained well.
Would definetly recommend this book for those interested in biology/anatomy etc
Published 15 months ago by neevm
5.0 out of 5 stars Warning: this book is identical to his "Nature via Nurture"
Superb as all his books are, this is "Nature via Nurture" re-named! I'm in the process of returning mine as this wasn't clear. Read more
Published on 19 Sep 2011 by Orrery
5.0 out of 5 stars Mostly nature
I ordered this book on the day I finished reading Genome. Ridley is an excellent writer, and presents a good overview of the nature versus nurture debate. Read more
Published on 10 Jan 2011 by Dave C
5.0 out of 5 stars Genes are cogs in the machine
Through the ideas of 12 more or less well known researchers, Matt Ridley shows forcefully that genes influence human behavior, but also that human behavior influences genes. Read more
Published on 8 Dec 2009 by Luc REYNAERT
5.0 out of 5 stars fantastic
This book is amazing. A fantastic read about the concept and argument surrounding nature and nurture, genetics vs environment. On a par with his other book.
Published on 2 May 2006 by wellard
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best books I've read
I have a strong interest in this field. For me Ridley puts flesh on the bones of human evolution (Why we evolved like we did), as well as defining what we are. Read more
Published on 19 Jan 2006 by David A Edwards
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