Matt Ridley's attempts to surmount futile nature/nurture arguments do not go far enough.by Raymond Tallis / September 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
If I were leafing through Prospect wondering where to begin, I would probably pass over this article. Given its theme??nature or nurture??I would expect to be bored. And for several reasons: for the confused arguments that are mobilised by those who want to prove either that our character (behaviour, personality) is entirely, or mostly, genetically determined or entirely, or mostly, environmentally determined; for the straw men each party conscripts to represent the views of its opponents; for the banality of middle positions which remind us that both nature and nurture contribute to our being the kind of creatures we are; and, most of all, because the warring parties tend to walk straight past the places where the really interesting questions about human nature are to be found.
Much of the excitement of the nature versus nurture debate comes from the nastiness that it brings out in the participants. The spectacle of charismatic communicators at each others? throats almost compensates for the tedium of a muddled debate. In his recent onslaught (The Blank Slate), Steven Pinker accused those who minimise the role of genes in the shaping of the human mind, in explaining differences between individuals or determining their attainments in IQ tests, life and everything else, of being in thrall to an ?anti-life, anti-human? abstraction.? The genophobes can be just as rude. When EO Wilson launched ?sociobiology??whose central notion is that behaviour and society are ?the extensions of genes that exist because of their superior adaptive value??he was accused, in a letter in the New York Review of Books from Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin and others, of reviving ideas that provided the basis for ?the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.?
Yet often the similarities between the two sides are more important than their differences. The progressive environmentalists, who emphasise nurture, are as determinist as the reactionary hereditarians, who emphasise nature. And both parties tend to overlook most of what it is to be human. Matt Ridley?s book Nature via Nurture admirably defuses this simplistic antithesis. Though Ridley does not take the obvious next step and reject the terms of the ?nature versus nurture? debate altogether, he does provide ammunition for those of us who feel that neither naturians nor nurturists properly engage with?to echo his subtitle??what makes us human.?
The book is a wonderful achievement: rigorously argued, steeped in the…