What’s Not in Your Genes

Matt Ridley
Matt Ridley; drawing by David Levine


If, by magic, I could make a single interminable debate disappear, I’d probably pick “nature versus nurture.” The argument over the relative roles of genes and environment in human nature has been ceaselessly politicized, shows little sign of resolution, and has, in general, grown tiresome. This is perhaps most obvious in the bloodiest battle of the nature–nurture war, the debate over IQ: How much of the variation that we see in intelligence (at least as measured by standardized tests) is due to heredity and not upbringing? From Francis Galton’s Hereditary Genius (1869) through Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (1981) to Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994), the battle has raged one way and the other, with no clear victor emerging.

It’s good to learn, I suppose, that I’m not the only one who finds the argument annoyingly long-lived. The dust jacket of Matt Ridley’s new book, Nature via Nurture, features statements from a number of scientists and science writers admitting that they had thought it impossible to produce an interesting new book on the subject. In such a climate, if you’re going to attempt yet another work on nature– nurture, you’d better have something truly new, something really big, to say. Matt Ridley does.

Ridley, a science journalist whose previous books include The Red Queen (1993) and the best-selling Genome (1999), has produced a volume that ranges over a vast number of topics, from the genetics of mental illness to the mystery of free will. But at its core are Ridley’s ideas on how to break free of the conflict between nature and nurture. His way out is vaguely Wittgensteinian. We have, he suggests, been asking a meaningless question, making a meaningless distinction. For the question of nature versus nurture makes sense only if the two can be clearly separated. Ridley thinks they cannot. His reason is simple. Despite all the talk about the opposition between genes and environment, it is now clear that learning, intelligence, behavior, and culture—all the ingredients of nurture—involve genes.

At first it might seem that Ridley is making the banal claim that there’s no learning without brains and no brains without genes. All culture is therefore genetic but in the trivial sense that gray matter requires genetic matter. Though Ridley does slip into such platitudes now and then (“you need nature to be able to absorb nurture”), his real point is bigger and more sophisticated. It is this: study of the human genome has revealed that genes respond to experience.

Ridley’s claim depends on several facts from genetics. All of your cells, with rare exceptions, contain the same genes. These genes are made of DNA. It is this DNA, of course, that gets passed from one generation to the next, making children resemble their parents. But DNA’s main job is to make proteins: each of your genes directs the construction of…

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