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‘Nature Via Nurture’

What if DNA isn’t a set blueprint, but instead a genetic recipe subject to individual experience?
/ Source: TODAY

Fifty years ago, scientists Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA. The double helix became wildly accepted as the blueprint of our genetic makeup. But what if DNA isn’t a set blueprint, but instead a genetic recipe subject to individual experience? Science journalist Matt Ridley discusses his new book, “Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human.” Here's an excerpt:


Is man no more than this? Consider him well: Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume: — Ha! here’s three of us are sophisticated! — Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. King Lear

Similarity is the shadow of difference. Two things are similar by virtue of their difference from another; or different by virtue of one’s similarity to a third. So it is with individuals. A short man is different from a tall man, but two men seem similar if contrasted with a woman. So it is with species. A man and a woman may be very different, but by comparison with a chimpanzee, it is their similarities that strike the eye — the hairless skin, the upright stance, the prominent nose. A chimpanzee, in turn, is similar to a human being when contrasted with a dog: the face, the hands, the 32 teeth, and so on. And a dog is like a person to the extent that both are unlike a fish. Difference is the shadow of similarity.

Consider, then, the feelings of a naive young man, as he stepped ashore in Tierra del Fuego on 18 December 1832 for his first encounter with what we would now call hunter-gatherers, or what he would call “man in a state of nature.” Better still, let him tell us the story:

It was without exception the most curious & interesting spectacle I ever beheld. I would not have believed how entire the difference between savage & civilized man is. It is much greater than between a wild & domesticated animal, in as much as in man there is greater power of improvement ... [I] believe if the world was searched, no lower grade of man could be found. The effect on Charles Darwin was all the more shocking because these were not the first Fuegian natives he had seen. He had shared a ship with three who had been transported to Britain, dressed in frocks and coats, and taken to meet the king. To Darwin they were just as human as any other person. Yet here were their relatives, suddenly seeming so much less human. They reminded him of ... well, of animals. A month later, on finding the campsite of a single Fuegian limpet hunter in an even more remote spot, he wrote in his diary: “We found the place where he had slept — it positively afforded no more protection than the form of a hare. How very little are the habits of such a being superior to those of an animal.” Suddenly, Darwin is writing not just about difference (between civilized and savage man) but about similarity — the affinity between such a man and an animal. The Fuegian is so different from the Cambridge graduate that he begins to seem similar to an animal.

Six years after his encounter with the Fuegian natives, in the spring of 1838, Darwin visited London zoo and there for the first time saw a great ape. It was an orangutan named Jenny, and she was the second ape to be brought to the zoo. Her predecessor, Tommy, a chimpanzee, had been exhibited at the zoo for a few months in 1835 before he died of tuberculosis. Jenny was acquired by the zoo in 1837, and like Tommy she caused a small sensation in London society. She seemed such a human animal, or was it such a beastly person? Apes suggested uncomfortable questions about the distinction between people and animals, between reason and instinct. Jenny featured on the cover of the Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge; an editorial reassured readers that “extraordinary as the Orang may be compared with its fellows of the brute creation, still in nothing does it trench upon the moral or mental provinces of man.” Queen Victoria, who saw a different orangutan at the zoo in 1842, begged to differ. She described it as “frightful and painfully and disagreeably human.”

After his first encounter with Jenny in 1838, Darwin returned to the zoo twice more a few months later. He came armed with a mouth organ, some peppermint, and a sprig of verbena. Jenny seemed to appreciate all three. She seemed “astonished beyond measure” at her reflection in a mirror. He wrote in his notebook: “Let man visit Ouranoutang in domestication ... see its intelligence ... and then let him boast of his proud preeminence ... Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I believe true to consider him created from animals.” Darwin was applying to animals what he had been taught to apply to geology: the uniformitarian principle that the forces shaping the landscape today are the same as those that shaped the distant past. Later that September, while reading Malthus’s essay on population, he had his sudden insight into what we now know as natural selection.

Jenny had played her part. When she took the mouth organ from him and placed it to her lips, she had helped him realize how high above the brute some animals could rise, just as the Fuegians had made him realize how low beneath civilization some humans could sink. Was there a gap at all?

He was not the first person to think this way. Indeed, a Scottish judge, Lord Monboddo, had speculated in the 1790s that orangutans could speak — if educated. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was only one of several Enlightenment philosophers who wondered if apes were not continuous with “savages.” But it was Darwin who changed the way human beings think of their own nature. Within his lifetime, he saw educated opinion come to accept that human bodies were those of just another ape modified by descent from a common ancestor.

Excerpted from “Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human” by Matt Ridley. Copyright © 2003 by Matt Ridley. Pulbished by Penguin Putnam, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.