How do genes relate to who we are?

Notes on a talk by Dr Matt Ridley - author of Genome

9th June 2001, The Newcastle University Convocation Public Lecture.

Craig Venter, head of Ventromics, on the eve of the publishing of the human genome said that 30,000 genes were too few to explain human behaviour, and that therefore we are free after all.

Dr. Ridley says that there are two weaknesses in this argument,

  1. is the assumption that more genes is equal to more complexity and more control.

  2. is the assumption that control by the environment is freedom. e.g. if my upbringing predisposes me to depression, I can no less change than if it were "written" in my genes.

The whole problem with this approach is the assumption that DNA is a blueprint. This is perhaps the wrong model or analogy. Perhaps we should consider that our genes are a recipe for a human being. (A blueprint for a cake requires that I determine where each current and raisin will be in the final product, a recipe only  requires that I add a certain approximate amount to the mixture.)

There genes that code for differences and similarities.


There are some genes that do not vary, and therefore code for similarities between human beings.

Nature is not the opposite of nurture

Nature and nurture complement one another. A baby ape is not afraid of snakes. When  it sees another ape showing fear, it learns very quickly. But you cannot teach the baby ape similarly to be afraid of flowers. There may therefore be good genetic preparation for certain kinds of learning.

The genetic predisposition may make it easier to do certain kinds of things, but what controls our learning and development is our appetite for certain things.

William James said, human beings have more instincts not fewer.

Language for human beings is an instinct. It is unique to the realm of living things except for perhaps the bottle nosed dolphin which possibly also has a language.

Human nature is like a cake baked to a genetic recipe by experience.

The Paradox of Fate

Genes are cogs not Gods

Hume's fork & Spinoza's stone

Hume's fork - he suggested that all are actions are either determined or random, in which case we are not in control, and there is no free will.

Spinoza's stone - a human being is like a stone rolling down a hill, the only difference is that the stone doesn't have the illusion that it is in control.

Genes are consequences as well as causes.

Learning Mutants:

A question and answer session followed.

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This page had minor updates 13th October 2003.