Nature Via Nurture : Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human

Review: “Nature Via Nurture” by Matt Ridley


Thumbs up for Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience & What Makes Us Human by Matt Ridley. Science.

The beginning of this book fascinated me. Unfortunately, Ridley makes his point too well, too early (that the realization of genes is influenced by environment, and that “nature” is not mutually exclusive from “nurture”) and by the second half I’d already felt I’d gotten what I was going to get out of it. Nevertheless, interesting and easy to read.

“The ghost hovering overhead is Charles Darwin, dead for 11 years by the time of the photograph, and with the longest beard of all. Darwin’s idea is to seek the character of man in the behavior of the ape and to demonstrate that there are universal features of human behavior, like smiling. The elderly gent sitting bolt upright on the far left is Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, 81 years old but going strong; Galton’s whiskers hang down the sides of his face like white mice. Galton is the fervent champion of heredity. Next to him sits the American William James, 61, with a square, untidy beard. He is a champion of instinct and maintains that human beings have more impulses than other animals, not fewer. On Galton’s right is a botanist, out of place in a group concerned with human nature, and frowning unhappily behind his straggly beard. He is Hugo De Vries, 55, the Dutchman who discovered the laws of heredity only to realize that he had been beaten to them more than 30 years before by a Moravian monk named Gregor Mendel. Beside De Vries is a Russian, Ivan Pavlov, 54, his beard full and gray. He is a champion of empiricism, believing that the key to the human mind lies in the conditioned reflex. At his feet, uniquely clean-shaven, sits John Broadus Watson, who will turn Pavlov’s ideas into ‘behaviorism’ and famously claim to be able to alter personality at will merely by training. To Pavlov’s right stand the plump, bespectacled. mustachioed  German Emil Kraepelin and the neatly bearded Viennese, Sigmund Freud, both 47 and both in the throes of influencing generations of psychiatrists away from ‘biological’ explanations and toward two very different notions of personal history. Beside Freud is the pioneer of sociology, the Frenchman Emile Durkheim, 45 and especially bushy in beard, insisting on the reality of social facts as more than the sum of their parts. His soul mate in this regard is standing next to him: a German-American (he emigrated in 1885), the dashing Franz Boas, 45, with drooping mustaches and a dueling scar; Boas is increasingly inclined to insist that culture shapes human nature, not the other way around. The little boy in the front is the Swiss Jean Piaget, whose theories of imitation and learning will come to fruition, beardless, in mid-century. The baby in the carriage is the Austrian Konrad Lorenz, who in the l930s will revive the study of instinct and describe thc vital concept of imprinting, while growing a fine white goatee.”

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