What’s Not in Your Genes

Writing in The New York Review, biologist H. Allen Orr has a lengthy review of Matt Ridley’s Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human.

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…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.