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A very effective format for Matt Ridley
on 3 March 2005
Matt Ridley proves here once again that he is a terrific writer. He has the easy style of a confident journalist and the wide knowledge of an accomplished scholar. He is learned without being stuffy. He proves too that he is a master of analogy and metaphor, understanding that we learn through comparison. I have the sense that he spent a fair amount of his free time looking for apt comparisons to illuminate the ideas of genetics for the general reader. Some examples:
On page 276 he describes the idea that there is a living thing with no DNA as "about as welcome in biology as Luther's principles in Rome."
Or on page 241 talking about apoptosis, in which our cells are programmed to commit suicide: "the body is a totalitarian place."
He even asserts on page 174 that we cannot hope to understand the process of embryotic development without "the handrail of analogy."
My favorite is this from pages 247-248 where he is talking about gene therapy and an engineered retrovirus that doesn't work: "it lands at random...and often fails to get switched on; and the body's immune system, primed by the crack troops of infectious disease, does not miss a clumsy, home-made retrovirus."
Add a sharp wit and an infectious enthusiasm for understanding human behavior and one can see the reasons for his success as an interpreter of the biological sciences. In Genome, Ridley has found a structure and an approach that allows him to wax speculative and philosophical about matters of particular interest to him and to most people. The result is that the reader is treated to a lively mind at work trying to understand ourselves and this world we live in. He uses the 23 chapters, each emphasizing one aspect or our genetic makeup and each dedicated to one of our 23 pairs of chromosomes, to explore such matters as intelligence, instinct, the nature of disease, the effect of stress, the development of personality, memory, death and immortality, etc., and of course sex and--always an important question for Ridley--free will.
The chapter on stress includes two startling assertions: One, that low status in the pecking order (instead of high cholesterol), lowers our resistence to microbes in our systems, and is the prime mover in making some of us more susceptible to heart attacks (p. 155); and two, that aggression is not caused by high testosterone levels but the other way around (p. 157). On page 171 he makes a similar assertion, namely that serotonin levels (as found in monkeys) are the result of dominate behavior, not the other way around, as has always been thought. These are exciting ideas since they suggest that we can improve our condition through our behavior (akin to "method acting," I suppose). Ridley's arguments strike me as convincing, but see for yourself.
In Chapter 21, he gives us a brief history of eugenics, noting, by the way, that during its heyday the name "Eugene" became popular in England. He spares eugenics practitioners and true believers not at all. He rips them up in true (and uncharacteristic) PC style, and then gets to his point. He likes eugenics but not the way it was practiced with the state coercing the individual. Instead Ridley would like (quoting James Watson on page 299) "to see genetic decisions put in the hands of users" instead of governments. He calls this "genetic screening" and cites the virtual elimination of cystic fibrosis from the Jewish population in the United States as a positive employment of screening from the private sector.
In Chapter 22 he tackles free will, beginning with a joke about there being a gene for free will. Clearly Ridley is in favor of free will, but reading between the lines one see that he knows he is on shaky scientific ground. He quotes the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy on (David) "Hume's Fork: Either our actions are determined, in which case we are not responsible for them, or they are the result of random events, in which case we are not responsible for them." Ridley believes it is better to imagine the we are guided in our actions by our genes than by our conditioning. He sees nurture as being a more tyrannical dictator, if dictators we have, than our genes. This is not surprising since politically speaking Ridley hates the collective. He would love to have proof of the existence of free will since that is where his heart lies, but I hope that someday he will be comfortable with the understanding that whether we have free will or not (or whether "free will" is even a meaningful concept), one thing is clear: we have the ILLUSION of free will, and that illusion is all compelling. Also, as Ridley notes, society must treat its members as having the ability to make free choices or the whole system of law collapses.
Perhaps the most amazing feat of our genome is the one Ridley writes about in Chapter 12, that of "Self-Assembly." To me that is the really stupefying trick of our genes, to assemble themselves from the code. The twists and turns of such an enormously complex undertaking is, to me, as remote from our understanding and experience as the many dimensions of super string theory.
Other popular writers on science looking for the secret of Matt Ridley's success should note that he gives the reader value both in terms of knowledge and entertainment. He works hard at meaningful communication. He wants the reader above all to understand what he is saying.
Even though I sometimes disagree with him, I always learn something new and interesting from reading his books.