Brief Book Review of...

The Agile Gene - How Nature Turns On Nurture by Matt Ridley

"Right now, somewhere in your head, a gene is switching on, so that a series of proteins can go to work altering the synapses between brain cells so that you will, perhaps, forever associate reading this paragraph with the smell of coffee seeping in from the kitchen...

"I cannot emphasize the next sentence strongly enough. These genes are at the mercy of our behavior, not the other way around."

This is the type of thought-provoking, clingy thought that sticks to your brain after Matt Ridley presents it before your willing eyeballs. This book is a history lesson on the nature Versus nurture debate, and Ridley deftly turns the debate on its side, and has nature chumming around with its pal nurture at every turn. The dichotomy is a false one. Most people realize this in their daily lives. It's immensely silly to think of peoples' (or pets', or vegetable gardens') lives and attributes as being soley because of their genetic heritage, or because of the environment.

To elucidate on the vegetable garden analogy, you would be hard pressed to find a gardener or farmer who says that the environment (amount of heat, rainfall, nutrients, and so on) doesn't matter. And you would also be hard-pressed to find a farmer who doesn't favour particular strains of seed, for their genetic superiority (larger crop, pleasant taste, abundant seeds) over others.

This is something lay-people like myself are very comfortable with. Where Ridley takes us next is deep into the territory of how genes function, and how our very behaviour is switching some on like mad, and affecting our brains, which in turn allows us to affect our environment. Ridley clearly marvels in in the sophisticated level which geneticists have achieved, and is eager for more. (The part about the genetically-modified fruit flies who are paralyzed when the temperature goes above 30C and fine again when it dips below 20C is astonishing, and Ridley expresses this wonder also).

If I have one quibble with Ridley's book, it is his description of an as-yet unidentified mechanism that allows our genome to express itself as clearly as it does. Since much of the exploration of genes is still being uncovered, Ridley dubs this mechanism the "Genome Organising Device" (GOD) in a tongue-in-cheek way. You can find clever puns and jokes in Ridley's writings from time to time, and at first this was funny. As the book went on though, I had to keep repeating in my head what "GOD" stood for so as not to lose sight of what he was saying. The clever name was carried too far.

As someone who speaks American Sign Language, I thought the discussions about gestures as related to ape grooming were totally fascinating. A lot of light is shed on how the genes express in the brain, the mind and in culture. More than once I was amazed at how lucky my wife is that she is a linguistics & psych major.

Over the last few days of finishing this book, I have found myself questioning my own thought processes differently, and it has been kind of quietly entertaining. When I am telling my wife an interesting story, how much of it is to impress, like a peacock's tail? The compulsion to share stories about my day, is that free will? Or is the compulsion to share stories determined by the minor genetic strengths that I focussed on as a youth, and sought to hone in my environment? Is the free will to be found not in the compulsion to speak, but in what I am going to say?

Matt Ridley shares with us an intellectual bounty.

May 16th 2007