Nature via Nurture

by Matt Ridley

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Free Will versus Determinism

As Ridley examines the ways in which genetics interact with socialization to determine various life outcomes, he explores the question of the extent to which our life outcomes are predetermined for us when we are born—as opposed to the extent to which we can carve out our own paths. Ultimately, Ridley argues for a strong genetic basis to life outcomes, which is modified somewhat by circumstances and by various individual characteristics that can't be reduced to either. While this kind of middle-of-the-road answer that leans towards genetics makes sense in evaluating certain kinds of outcomes (IQ, likelihood of developing certain diseases, etc.) it provides less clarity when examining questions that do not reduce as easily to statistics. While certain base characteristics may be determined by genes, Ridley's explanations are substantially less convincing and less grounded in data when he attempts to explain gender, politics, and other complex sociocultural phenomena.

The Question of What Is "Natural"

Ridley gives a nuanced discussion to the question of what it means to name something as natural. While he argues that gender, war, inequality, and other such phenomena are natural, he does not frame them as necessarily right or good. Rather, he simply notes that there are genetic traits that lead to them. He holds open the possibility that cultural factors could lead society in other directions. However, he notes that human genetics mean that we are not working with a blank slate and that trying to achieve certain kinds of social relationships may mean facing resistance from human genetic tendencies.

Humans' Differences from Other Primates

Throughout the book, Ridley makes frequent comparisons between humans and other primates, noting that between ninety-five and ninety-nine percent of our DNA is held in common. In these comparisons, he notes that the physical differences between us and various primates matter but are a relatively simple affair genetically of species adapting to specific environments and ways of life. Rather, he sees the major distinction between us and other primates as lying in our ability to generate and pass down complex ideas and cultures from generation to generation. Ridley sees this as fundamentally having a genetic basis—but a genetic basis that only activates through nurture. A human raised in isolation would theoretically have this genetic capability but no context for it to activate; they would likely lack many of the characteristics we understand as fundamentally human.

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