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4.6 out of 5 stars29
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VINE VOICEon 12 July 2004
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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on 13 October 2004
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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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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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. After historical, ideological and biological "testimony" is presented as individual views, Ridley concludes with a updated explanation for each. Perhaps all the factors cited have impact in some way. When brought together in an unfortunate individual, schizophrenia in one of its many forms is the result.
Ridley's aim is to end a war - a conflict he finds both misconceived and misdirected. Peacemaking is not his aim. Rather he wishes to integrate the two sides and initiate a fresh approach to a contrived problem. Are genes or environment more important in driving how we behave? Ridley eschews either and both in isolation. His descriptions of gene interaction, using something he terms promoters, are shown to be both innate and relying on external signals. He shows how researchers investigating genetic roots of behaviour are confronted with new examples of how genes perform their feats under direction from nature, and vice versa. Ridley finds the combatants in the "nature versus nurture" wars are merely troops of the species Homo stramineous - "straw men". It's to their mutual benefit to enter into a treaty written in his reasonable tone, based on updated knowledgeable and relying on his exhaustive portrayal of what's going on in our bodies. As he states in conclusion, "even the fiercest warriors in this battle" have stumbled on the ideas he presents. They have failed to reach a settlement, for which this book provides an unshakeable foundation. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 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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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 8 December 2009
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. It's, indeed, nature via (not versus) nurture. Genes are both cause and consequence (agents) of our actions by switching on and off.

CHARLES DARWIN explained natural, but also sexual, selection: survival and reproduction of the fittest.
HUGO DE VRIES discovered that heredity is based on interchangeable particles, units of selection (genes).
WILLIAM JAMES asserted that human beings have more (not less) instincts than animals.
Reason cannot inhibit an impulse, only neutralize it by an impulse the other way.
Innate behavioral differences pre-date experience.
FRANCIS GALTON examined the role of heredity. He showed that the `mind' is not a blank sheet of paper on which experience writes its script.
In modern words, we are not victims of our environment (the society we live in). F. Galton `kept the flame of liberty against environmental despotism.'
EMIL KRAEPELIN was a psychiatrist who stressed that his guild should abandon anatomy and be agnostic about causes, effects and symptoms (e.g., schizophrenia).
JEAN PIAGET discovered the 4th dimension of human nature: time.
In modern words, genes work in team and build instincts through a flexible process of development.
KONRAD LORENZ discovered imprinting during a narrow time window after birth.
IVAN PAVLOV was the first to identify the mechanism of conditioning (association).
In modern language, evolution transmits information from the past to the present `mind' via genes and natural selection (e.g., fear of snakes).
FRANZ BOAS is the father of cultural anthropology. He showed that culture sets people free from nature. Culture is acquired by accumulating inventions and ideas generation by generation.
It is also possible that language was originally transmitted by gesture, not speech.

This mightily interesting book has some important messages, for psychoanalysis (good diagnosis, terrible therapy), for politicians (raising the safety net of the poorest does more to equalize opportunity than reducing inequality in the middle classes) and for determinists (nature in the shape of genes is no threat to free will).

This book is a must read for all those who want to understand who we, human beings, really are.
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on 14 June 2015
A well researched and well written book in a style that keeps the reader awake! Light and lively prose with good metaphor usage makes this a very accessible read without dumbing down the content. Always a delicate topic with plenty of potential pitfalls especially those of an un- politically kind and Ridley does a good job of not being dogmatic on any issue most of the time.
Key to proving a lot for Ridley in the nature / nurture debate is the stats on identical twins and separation at birth. This does provide a lot of information and evidence that genetics have a massive influence on not just matters physical but also psychological. However, looking the other way, if there is only 50-60% correlations the question screaming out is why the 40-50% non correlation when the genes are identical? Almost an equal influence from the environment obviously. And one has to question the reliability of correlation figures in vague areas such as character mapping etc. The insistence that criminality is predominantly genetic is hard to believe. And of course, with most American prisons being filled with black inmates, that makes for a very definite genetic type casting.
Overall a good book covering a lot of information, well presented but occasionally the authors efforts to present a case for both nature and nurture as major players in our development fails and he, like many before him, pins his colours to a particular master.
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on 21 April 2003
Firstly, if you have enjoyed Matt Ridely before, this is for you. As good as his best.
However, if you are new, this is a fascinating discourse by an excellent writer on the current state of the art on genetics and/or behaviour. Matt Ridely is definitely up to the very minute on research in the subject. And he makes a very compelling case that nature and nurture are as black and white on the chessboard - contrasting, but all part of the whole. He is not without his bias (which, fortunately, matches mine), but he is very, very frank about it. If you want material to stretch your mind, this is it.
Having said that, if you don't know Ridley, try "The Red Queen's Race" first. Both are well written and accessible, but the race slightly more to the popular taste. You'll be back here soon enough.
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on 6 February 2015
Brilliant, like the rest of Matt Ridley's books and well worth reading even if the nature/nurture debate is something you are not familiar with. The author thoroughly researches all the arguments and elegantly shows that both are equally important.
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on 29 December 2013
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 and absorb. Well worth the purchase.
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