Neither Nature Nor Nurture


From an interesting review of Matt Ridley's Nature Via Nurture in the Prospect:

There are several reasons for taking a more radical step beyond nature/nurture. The first is that the two terms are so ill-defined. For Galton, ?nature? was the contribution of heredity to our personality, intelligence, achievements and a variety of physical and mental characteristics. A century or so later, heredity has boiled down to the roles of genes. But this has not resulted in clarification. Above the level of molecular biology, the notion of a ?gene? has become increasingly complex. The chapter in which Ridley addresses the ambiguities of this slippery word is an expository tour de force. He considers seven possible meanings of gene as used in different contexts: a unit of heredity; an interchangeable part of evolution; a recipe for a metabolic product; a disease averter or health giver; a development switch; a unit of selection; and a unit of instinct. These different ways of seeing a gene are neither mutually exclusive nor precisely mappable on to one another. There is another problem: genes have been invoked not only to account for the differences between human beings but also (by sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists) to explain human nature in general. This has created new muddles between genetic variation as the determinant of individual personality and the human genome as a constraint on human nature in general. Those who believe that there are genes that make human males violent are often unclear whether such genes are part of a common male inheritance designed to assist life in the wild or are present in only a subset of very bloodthirsty males.

The reviewer, Raymond Tallis, takes an unfair swipe at Steven Pinker, who has similarly complicated the nature/nurture split. Reason interviewed Pinker last year; the text is online here.

[Link via Arts & Letters Daily]