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.  

Dear Bob,

Thanks for your kind words about Mean Genes. Praise from an admired teacher is always the most gratifying. Let me begin with your line from The Moral Animal that, “Even Charles Darwin was an animal.”

A statement of fact, but still a controversial one even in 21st-century America. Why?

Freud described three great intellectual movements that have been hard for people to accept. The first was learning from Copernicus that the Earth is a planet of no particular importance in a vast universe. The second was Darwin saying that humans are animals evolving without the directed care of a god. The third, immodestly, was Freud’s own concept of a multi-agent mind and the implication that no person is even in total control of his own life.

The Copernican revolution is complete. However, the recent actions taken by the Kansas Board of Education demonstrate that the Darwinian battle continues today. Recently I spoke with a Mean Genes’ sales rep. After she spoke enthusiastically about our book, I asked her if she believed in evolution. She said, “Do I believe that my great-great-great … grandmother looked like a chimpanzee and nursed from a hairy breast? No.”

In Mean Genes, Jay Phelan and I continue in the tradition of The Selfish Gene, On Human Nature, and The Moral Animal in seeking to understand humans as evolved beings. We take a page from the Freudian view that humans have a brain that is at war with itself. Like Jimmy Carter, almost everyone feels lust in our hearts, stomachs, groins, and brains. Some of these lusts ought to be nurtured, while others will lead us to ruin if they are not controlled.

So, Mean Genes takes the bold and novel step of offering advice to help people tame their passions. Perhaps the most surprising (and certainly the most satisfying) outcome is not only that we offer advice, but that people take it!

Chris, a Ph.D. physicist from MIT, paused while reading Mean Genes and paid off his high-interest-charging student loans with cash from his low-interest-paying checking account. Mel, a reader from Illinois, wrote that within a week of reading Mean Genes he made three changes in his life. He began giving more gifts to his wife; he worked to set multiple, small goals; and he increased the deductions from his paycheck. Literally dozens of people have written us describing myriad ways they have changed their lives for the better.

What does all of this have to with genetic evolution? In theory, you don’t need Darwin to understand that you need to have a special television for taping and a different one for watching shows. Similarly, most of the tips in Mean Genes are not novel. In practice, however, it appears that embedding advice in the context of understanding “human as animal” has helped me, Jay, and many readers to improve our lives.

Without the underlying theory, readers must just blindly trust advice proferred in self-help books. With the theory and data, readers can move far beyond even the advice in the book. Mean Genes may be the only self-help book you’ll ever need because it teaches you the secret to generating real solutions.

You ask specifically about the Mean Genes advice to take more social risks. Let me respond by presenting the story of John O’Connor, who met a woman named Sandra. Almost immediately John was smitten and, rather than proceeding cautiously, he boldly asked Sandra out for more than a dozen dates. Fortunately everything worked out and they are still happily married. (She is now U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.)

Why can’t more of us be like John? As you point out, humiliation is painful, but we live in a big world with tremendously mobile populations. Jilted lovers and humiliated risk-takers find new circles of friends and colleagues. They needn’t spend the rest of their days paying for going out on a limb socially. Broken hearts mend, and we are free to start with clean slates. Yet still, in our brand-new, alien world, most people take fewer social risks than they’d like. Why?

In Mean Genes we posit that the answer lies in our ancestral social structure. Until the advent of agriculture, humans lived in relatively small, stable populations. If Pleistocene John offends Pleistocene Sandra, he has to see her every day until one of them dies.

So, by understanding where we came from, we can learn which instincts should be trusted and which should be resisted and outsmarted.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the great geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky was attempting to persuade ethologists to integrate their behavioral studies with evolutionary theory. Perhaps surprisingly, many scientists resisted and made statements like “I don’t need Darwin to help me observe and understand bird behavior.” In response, Dobzhansky wrote an article titled “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” where he said,

Seen in the light of evolution, biology is, perhaps, intellectually the most satisfying and inspiring science. Without that light it becomes a pile of sundry facts—some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole.

Similarly, attempts at self-improvement, without the light of evolution, are a pile of sundry tips. Some of them useful, but for many people not sufficient to enjoy passions without being controlled by them.

What do you think? What is the alternative to advice that is grounded in an accurate view of human nature?