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Nature Versus Nurture Is Dead!
June 05, 2003
Trevor Butterworth
At least to Time Magazine editors

"It is clear that genes build proteins," writes the philosopher Jerry Fodor in the May 16 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, "but God only knows what happens next, or how this vastly tangled situation bears on the distinction between nature and nurture." Such candor about the limits of human understanding is refreshing in light of the renewed attempts by scientists and science writers to settle the question of how we are the way we are thanks to the mapping of the human genome.

Take this latest example in Time Magazine, an article by zoologist and science writer Matt Ridley tied into the release of his book Nature Via Nurture.

Ridley's unique selling point is to argue that we need to abandon the false antagonism of nature versus nurture and to think of the human condition as resulting from nature via nurture.

 "In this new view, genes allow the human mind to learn, remember, imitate, imprint language, absorb culture and express instincts. Genes are not puppet masters or blueprints, nor are they just the carriers of heredity. They are active during life; they switch one another on and off; they respond to the environment. They may direct the construction of the body and brain in the womb, but then almost at once, in response to experience, they set about dismantling and rebuilding what they have made. They are both the cause and the consequence of our actions."

Fodor writes in a review of the Ridley book:

"The nature/nurture argument has been going on for a very long time, with a lot of intelligent people on either side. Mistakes have been made, no doubt; but not for want of serious thinking. So you might suppose that before declaring victory ("Nature versus nurture is dead. Long live nature via nurture"), one might ask oneself what, exactly, the argument has been about. Ridley, though he is hell bent on telling you what he takes to be the answer, never does say what he takes to be the question."

As a result, Ridley's argument is undercut by a failure to distinguish between the idea of innate instincts and the "traditional" nativist concern for explaining the apparent innateness of ideas (such as the truths of geometry.)

It's a pity this essay isn't available online, as Fodor's detailed examination of what lies behind the question of nature versus nurture is a powerful reminder of how much we (and not just science writers and Time editors) don't know about "the relation between what's 'in the genes' and what's innate in the mind.



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