Better Living Through Darwinism

Can Darwin can help you lose weight, quit smoking, and get out of debt? Yes, says Terry Burnham, a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of Mean Genes, a guide to improving your life by acknowledging your hard-wired tendencies(click hereto buy it.)This week he discusses the book with Robert Wright, the author of Slate’s “Earthling” column, The Moral Animal, and Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.  


First of all, congratulations on Mean Genes. It’s crisp, funny, and full of odd facts about people and other animals—many of which I didn’t know, even though I try to keep up on such things. For example, I didn’t know that risk-prone people tend to like spicy food; or that you can increase your male cat’s lifespan by removing its testicles (or, better yet, have a vet do it); or that “in psychology experiments, women strongly prefer ugly men wearing Rolexes to handsome men wearing Burger King outfits.” (So that’s what I’ve been doing wrong.)

You and I have a largely common perspective, which I might as well spell out before getting to our differences. We both subscribe to the modern Darwinian view of human behavior (whose variants include evolutionary psychology and sociobiology), and we both think this view explains much of everyday human suffering.

For one thing, the modern world is different from the world humans evolved in, so our genes are operating in an environment they weren’t “designed”—by natural selection—to operate in. For example, as you and Jay Phelan note, overeating is a problem because humans were designed for a world featuring periodic food scarcities (so storing fat was good insurance), much daily exercise, and no Cinnabons; the “sweet tooth,” it would seem, was once “adaptive”—a tool our genes used to get us to eat nutritious fruits.

Similarly, habit-forming drugs, ranging from caffeine to heroin, work by short-circuiting the brain’s reward system. Originally, that system dished out chemical highs after we did something likely to benefit our genes—after impressing people and thus raising our social standing, say.

In addition to being fellow Darwinians, you and I have a common approach to the impulse-control problems that the modern world abets. As I sometimes put it, I try to make up for my lack of “micro-discipline” with “macro-discipline.” Consider my cure for channel-surfing syndrome. We now have two VCRs. One is hooked up to the cable but not the TV. The other is hooked up to the TV but not the cable. So I can watch any show I want, but only if I plan ahead—record the show via the one VCR and then watch it via the other. By the way, this setup has the major bonus of reducing the amount of garbage that enters my two children’s brains. (Mr. Rogers, like the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, tapes automatically.)

Next time my friends laugh at my Rube Goldberg approach to self-control, I’ll say, “Hey, you think I’m bad—you should see Terry Burnham.” Apparently you’ve found the Internet so addictive—greedily checking stock prices and the like—that you’ve sometimes taken the cable connecting your computer to cyberspace and FedExed it to yourself to get a day of freedom.

The general principle is that we can anticipate our animal impulses and, in our more reflective moments, build buffers against them. (You recommend eating before going to the supermarket, for example.) OK, fine. But one question is: Do we really need to know about evolution and genes—as your book suggests—to practice these strategies? Surely people have performed the eating-before-shopping trick without giving any thought to Darwin.

Let me stress that even if there were no great self-help payoff, I’d still consider the modern Darwinian worldview something anyone who wants to understand the human predicament should bone up on. Let me also stress that, in my own writing on evolutionary psychology, I’ve argued that there are specific benefits that can be had by knowing thyself. Still, I’ve felt some ambivalence in making the argument and have often included disclaimers, because a) some people will use this type of knowledge to excuse (to themselves or others) their bad behavior as “natural”; and b) there are lots of cases where self-knowledge doesn’t hurt, but doesn’t seem to help much.

Let me close with an example from your book. You argue—and I agree—that humiliation is naturally painful because in the intimate ancestral social environment, our blunders would be known by everyone in our social universe for a long time, and our social status might slip, reducing prospects for getting genes into the next generation. Then, later, you urge people to “take more chances” because “many scary choices have limited downsides (frequently just humiliation).”

Just humiliation? Humiliation hurts and can live on in the memory for years. And, in my experience, knowing that humiliation is in many modern contexts an absurd and dysfunctional vestige of evolution doesn’t, by itself, dramatically ease the pain.

In sum: I generally agree with your views on the roots of our suffering—on the “etiology,” as doctors say—and I think most of your proffered cures are worthwhile. But could you be more explicit about when exactly, and why exactly, the patient will benefit by knowing the etiology?