As the human genome is mapped in more detail and sociological studies focus on more diverse arrays of human experience, the argument gets more heated. Are we the product of our genetics, preordained machines with built in biological instructions? Or are we blank slates, programmed by the changeable pressures of our post-natal environment? If a gene is linked to body weight, people will insist that weight gain or loss is all preordained. Let an abusive environment be linked to autoimmune disorders, and it begins to look as though even the most physical of conditions are nothing but environmental flukes. Some might feel that both sides of the debate are giving the total of life a short shift, but voices of moderation make poor media copy. And so the public debate goes on: Nature or Nurture?
Enter Matt Ridley, boldly asserting that the answer is both. Nature, he says, does not have an inevitable fatalistic grip on behavior or physiology. Neither does nurture have the power to completely redesign a personís essential self. Instead, they work together, each triggering the other. This isnít a mere assertion; Ridley goes on to prove his point with painstaking research and heavily supported experimental data.
The examples Ridley uses are intriguing, and he manages to always place them just where a discussion of hardcore genetic science might become boring for the average reader. His use of analogies is inspired and connects the sometimes abstract language of the hard sciences to the soft and often uncertain world of human experience. His best and most repeated statement is that human genetics are not an architectural blueprint, but a recipe; that our nature provides the ingredients, but those are shaped by the preparation of our experiences. Itís a conclusion so intuitively obvious that it would be easy to overlook the deep implications this has for genetic and social science, for everything from medicine to playground dynamics. Through example and discussion, Ridley keeps the readers aware of those ramifications. That consciousness of potential makes The Agile Gene feel like a far more expansive book than its 280 pages (plus bibliography) would suggest.
That wide-eyed scope sets the book apart from too many other works on the subject. In examining the interaction between our bodies and our world, Ridley is discussing the big questions that have dogged human philosophers and social ethics throughout history; and, sadly unusual for a scientist, he seems to know it. Throughout The Agile Gene is the sense of wonder that should accompany such discovery. When explaining the biological basis of cultural taboos or examining the short-lived wonders of childhood linguistic development, Ridley breaks complex experimental data into a digestible narrative, but without diminishing that sense of complexity. It makes the occasional slide into the dry land of counting genetic markers an interesting backstory to the compelling tales of social experiment and prenatal dramas.
But The Agile Gene is much more than a collection of interesting anecdotes. Through straightforward examples and strikingly effective analogies, it presents a clearer way to understand the genetic debate, and our own very human nature.