Has nature ganged up with nurture?

In February 2001, it was announced that the genome contains not
100,000 genes as originally expected but only 30,000. Some
scientists concluded that there aren’t enough genes to account for
the different ways that human beings behave – so childhood and the
way we’re raised, nurture, must count for more than nature.

In a new book by Matt Ridley a far more fluid process is described
– with a potentially huge impact on social policy.1
Ridley argues that genes too are “nurtured”. They absorb formative
experiences and react to social cues – but they can also be
quirkily impervious to influences. This poses a tough ethical
dilemma for those in the field of social care.

Last year, a study of 442 boys of similar backgrounds included 8
per cent who had been severely maltreated between the ages of 11
and 28, and 28 per cent who were more mildly maltreated. Many of
the maltreated got into trouble, displaying violent and antisocial

The researchers tested the children for one particular gene called
monoamine oxidase A or MAOA and then compared it with

The boys with high activity MAOA, even if they had been maltreated,
mainly stayed out of trouble. Those with low active genes, if they
had also been treated badly, committed four times the rate of
rapes, robberies and assaults.

In short, nature and nurture have made an unholy alliance (other
reasons for such behaviour may emerge, since this is a pioneering
area). As Ridley hypothesises, what if you’re a boy from an abusive
family, rescued by social services, then a diagnostic test reveals
you have low MAOA implying, according to this research, that you
are highly likely to be “programmed” to be antisocial and possibly
criminal. What does the social worker do then? Will they authorise
a chemical cosh? A drug to alter monoamine oxidise activity? What
if it fails? What if there are side-effects? Is it more moral,
Ridley asks, to insist that all vulnerable people take a test, or

The truly scary thought is that to do nothing and pretend the
dilemma doesn’t exist is far from morally neutral. It sentences
future victims and withholds the chance of preventive help.

Welcome to the future.

1 Matt Ridley, Nature via Nurture
, Experience and What Makes Us Human, Fourth,
Estate, 2003, £18 99

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