Skip to main content

Nature via Nuture – Matt Ridley ****

For pretty well as long as people have pondered just what a human being is, the debate has raged over the relative contributions of biological content versus how we’re brought up. At its most trivial, as the advert puts it, “maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s Maybelline.”
Throughout history the pendulum has swung side to side on preference from nature to nurture and back again. In this exploration of a crucial human conundrum Ridley points out, for example, how the study of twins has over the years been trumpeted as a wonderful breakthrough in understanding while at other times attempts to discredit the approach have been so venomous that it would seem the researchers had made some vast politically incorrect faux pas.
In covering the subject, Ridley manages to combine industrial strength research with a superb style that seems effortless, yet works superbly. The only reason the book doesn’t win the accolade of five stars is that, in the end, fascinating though the debate is, the conclusion is almost inevitably, “well, it’s a bit of both,” or “with everything else equal it’s mostly genetics, but miss out on nurture in a big way and the whole thing falls apart.” (That’s a little over-simplified – it’s probably best summed up when Ridley says “you need nature to absorb nurture.” At some levels this is a truism. You need nature’s contribution of a digestive system to literally absorb nurture. But it also sums up the thesis.)
Because of this repeated conclusion, by about half way through it’s easy to get a little fed up of the repeated cry of “it’s not one thing or the other.” It might well be true, but like all middle-of-the-roadness it lacks danger and excitement.
One other warning. If you are averse to animal experimentation, this is a book you might find unsettling. Even an unbiased observer can’t help but feel a bit queasy at a statement like this: “[scientists] discovered how to stain these columns [in the brain] different colours by injecting dyed amino acids into one eye. They were then able to see what happens when one eye is sewn shut.” More might have been made of the cost/benefit balance in the experiments that are constantly reported throughout the book.
However, that apart, and given the limitations of reality that make “it’s not one thing or the other” an almost inevitable conclusion (which Ridley can hardly be blamed for – I guess we ought to take it up with Ridley’s concept of the “Genome Organizing Device” (GOD for short)) the book does a great job. Only other very slight niggle is the use of numbered notes, which isn’t necessary for a popular science book, simply breaking up the eyeline without adding any benefit. It’s often done elsewhere to try to demonstrate spurious academic gravitas, something Ridley has no need for.
Altogether a superb addition to any popular science library, and you don’t need to have any real interest in biology to get a lot of out. After all – there’s one topic that we’re all interested in, and that’s ourselves.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…