Being intrigued by the title, I picked up this book to learn finally once and for all which side was right – Are humans a product of biology of genes or social environment? Spoiler Alert: Its both.
As a society we have witnessed a longstanding feud between two camps – one set of people believes that genes and nature determines our destiny while their opponents insist that socialization and nurture is our sole determinant.
Like the title suggests and as Ridley states almost immediately, it is both nature and nurture that affects human development. The two sides may have valid contributions to understanding human development, but neither side gets it completely right because of sectarian/institutional thinking.
The problem is that we are all victim of a media that thrives on reporting the controversial and extremist positions of the Naturists and Nurturist camps. That debate has been an ivory tower battle that has spilled over into Pop-psychology books that teach parents how to parent, how to find a partner, etc. This book proves the level of inanity that academics can resort to.
Ridley demonstrate how neither side got it right and how humans are both genes and social mores wrapped together in a finely mixed and ever-evolving concoction. Nature Via Nurture’s purpose is to bury both sides and provide a fresh perspective on the issue. The question remains does he succeed? Partly.
This book is not so much about striking new ground, but about getting rid of tired, expired ideas. And Ridely being an enthusiastic writer, is able to delver knock-out punches against the extremists of both camps. His powerful grasp of vocabulary and making the complex as simple and entertaining as possible, helps convince you of the validity of his position.
But what does this fundamentally teach us about ourselves? Not a whole lot. Most people know intuitively that human development is a combination of both nature and nurture. They might not communicate this in as sophisticated a fashion as most scientists do but they know that there are times when family support is critical and times when no matter what support is offered, a family member will do what they do because they are driven by a deeper, biological drive.
Being an anti-ideologue who also finds socialism particularly misguided, I found this book hammering a nail in the coffin of socialist thinking. Ridley uses the example of a group of young boys who are all given the same access to food and exercise, thereby ensuring that nurture is equally distributed. Yet what we find is that one boy happens to grows extra tall and becomes so well coordinated he becomes a star basketball player while another boy given access to the same nurturing plays basketball poorly due to a combination of genetic disposition and personal aptitude.
It is genetics that demonstrates how well the nurturing translates into successful functioning of the organism. It is in everybody’s nature to respond different to the environment’s nurturing, proving just how out of touch with basic biology Socialist thinking is. Socialism ends up confusing input with outcomes and forgets that giving everybody the same amount of support will just highlight the natural abilities of some over others. Socialists would be wiser to advocate for more equitable access to opportunities for everyone instead of fixating on equal outcomes. Ironically, in doing so, they would cease being socialists and instead become liberals.
Ridley’s enthusiasm makes this book an enjoyable read, but it does not make it an essential read. At times Ridley’s quips feels a little bit too much like inside jokes, but it is easily forgiven in light of his passion. The tone is light though it does take a stretch of cognitive understanding to appreciate some of his examples, particularly the technical-genetic based ones.
This book is an example of the parts being greater than the whole. Where he gets it right in spots, he gets it really right, but the overall effort is not as inspiring. I came away with a healthy appreciation for some of his findings, but overall was disappointed he did not provide a cohesive alternative to the two extremes of Naturism and Nurturism.
(3 stars out of 5 – possesses some unique identity and modestly experiments with the genre formula)