How to prepare an egg

Design for a Life
April 14, 2000

DESIGN FOR A LIFE: How Behaviour Develops. By Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin. Cape, 280pp, Pounds 16.99. - ISBN 0 224 05064 8.

This book should be on everyone's "to read" list. First, because it is such a delight to read. Second, because it deals with the science of behavioural development - the biological and psychological processes that build a unique adult from a fertilised egg (and who is not fascinated by that?). But most important, because, in a refreshingly lucid and accessible manner, the authors step delicately and successfully through the minefield of the nature-versus-nurture debate that has pitted biologists against social scientists for centuries. Nothing is left out or ducked: sibling rivalry; beauty, sex and incest; parental and offspring conflicts; altruistic and selfish behaviour; the "terrible twos" and teenage angst. All human life is touched on and the underlying science described. Where the scientific understanding is based on weak or contested data, this is described and judiciously summarised. The touch is light and witty, and the inflated claims and prose too often found in books covering these topics are refreshingly absent. Where relevant, controversies in criminology, social and family policy and in education are touched on, and the reasons for the controversy are illuminated. Most of the parties to those controversies will have something to learn from the discussion and the tone adopted and might well feel a little humbled. The sheer complexity of human development is beautifully described, and the foolishness of oversimplified and hasty extrapolation from a small number of observations or experiments, especially those on animals, is rightly underlined.

The book treats human development chronologically but always emphasises that, as Boris Pasternak wrote in Doctor Zhivago: "Man is born to live, not to prepare for life." No organism can have a future unless it makes a success of surviving in its immediate environment. The tensions between present challenges and possible developmental futures - as illustrated, for example, in the survival strategies of the "street children" of primarily third-world cities, or the relationship between foetal nutrition and disease in middle age - are always kept in focus. Here, as elsewhere throughout the book, the discoveries and theories of social scientists and biologists are glossed by well-chosen quotations from poets and writers so that the one illuminates the other. Sadly, such attempts to integrate humanistic and scientific evidence often fail and end up by doing justice to neither viewpoint, but here there is a real marriage that makes this book a delight to read. Shakespeare is quoted almost as often as Darwin, and Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Room at the Top and Just William are just a few of the non-scientific references that add real depth and point to the discussion.

After stressing that life starts at conception and that we have only just begun to realise how important the first nine months of foetal life are in defining what C. H. Waddington called the "epigenetic landscape", the Shakespearean seven acts of human life are then treated seriatim.

Running through the book is a nicely judged analogy with "cooking" in a "developmental kitchen" where nature provides the ingredients and nurture the recipes. As with all analogies this can be pushed only so far, but it is used to illustrate the all-important point that the same ingredients with different recipes can produce quite different outcomes and vice versa - something that is too often forgotten in the heat of many nature/nurture controversies.

There is a particularly well-judged use of the cooking analogy to show the futility of trying to express the relative contributions of genes and/or the environment to a developmental process by a single number that should be required reading for all those keen to jump from the natural to the social sciences without pausing for thought in mid-flight.

Although the book is written for a general audience and is certainly not an academic monograph, it is extensively referenced to the primary literature, so it should prove very useful for introductory courses in the social sciences and biology with its comprehensive index. Publishers' catalogues seem to be filling up with books addressed, like this one, to lay audiences on evolutionary psychology and/or sociobiology and related areas. No doubt this is partly a response to the imminent end of the first phase of the Human Genome Project and partly a follow-up to the extraordinary success that books in these areas by authors such as Matt Ridley and Richard Dawkins have had recently. These books will have to be very good indeed to provide a better introduction to these fraught areas than Design for a Life . Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin have done us all a great service in providing a much-needed, calm, clear and lucid text that should certainly be in every school library as well as given to every student - preferably before they become parents.

John Ashworth is chairman of the board, British Library, and former director, London School of Economics.

Design for a Life: How Behaviour Develops

Author - Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin
ISBN - 0 224 05064 8
Publisher - Cape
Price - £16.99
Pages - 280

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