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,

The subtitle of Mean Genes, is “From sex to money to food: Taming our primal instincts.” You ask whether we can truly tame our instincts if our only tools are genetic in nature.

Humans do have genes for rationality and genes for self-control, but do these systems contain Trojan horse elements that will sabotage our efforts to live moral lives? Let’s begin by acknowledging the power of genes.

In one study, 400 teachers were asked to evaluate a fifth-grade student. The teachers received the exact same written description and a photo of either an attractive or unattractive child. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the attractive child was rated as more sociable and more popular. More troubling was the result that the attractive child was rated as more intelligent. This in spite of having copious performance data.

In a second study, men were photographed wearing three kinds of clothing—high status, neutral, and a low-status condition where they wore Burger King uniforms. Women then rated the photographs for attractiveness. Ugly men—as determined in the neutral condition—wearing Rolexes received higher ratings than attractive men wearing Burger King uniforms.

The striking result is that the women were asked about attractiveness, not about perceived status or desirability as a mate. These two studies point to a non-conscious influence on our perceptions and consequently our behavior.

The question of how to be a moral animal has troubled people throughout the ages. It is at the heart of one of Plato’s most famous scenes—the allegory of the cave from The Republic. Plato asks us to imagine a cave where people “have been prisoners there since they were children, their legs and necks being so fastened that they can only look straight ahead of them and cannot turn their heads.”

The only thing the prisoners can see is a cave wall upon which appear shadows of models or statues of objects that are passed before a fire burning higher in the cave. Because they’ve lived their entire life in this state of ignorance, they believe the images are reality. One of the prisoners breaks free, emerges into the light, and sees the real world for the first time.

Like these cave dwellers, Plato contends we are constrained by our senses to begin life only dimly perceiving the truth. By using our rationality, however, we can attain true knowledge and lead lives of integrity. Plato writes:

[T]he idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right … and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.

If Plato had read Darwin, I think he would agree with your statement that genes influence “even our moral intuitions in subtle and often pernicious ways.” His allegory of the cave is optimistic, however, in stating that our rational side allows us to nonetheless lead a good life.

Let’s leave Plato’s cave and return to the Mean Genes cocktail party. You ask, can a person remain faithful when it is in their genetic interest to stray?

The Mean Genes view is that most passions are better outsmarted than resisted by willpower alone. While we hope that people will keep their promises of fidelity, we are aware of the power of genes to shape our perceptions.

You correctly note that attractiveness and youth play a bigger role in men’s evaluations of women than vice versa. It is also true that humans are the only great apes where males make significant investments in offspring. Therefore it is in men’s genetic interests to seek women with good qualities beyond fertility, and under certain conditions for both parties to remain faithful. Accordingly, we advocate that people construct situations that minimize the genetic payoff to infidelity. In that way, we can temper temptations and quiet the genetic whispers that encourage us to cheat and lie.

I was fortunate to have E.O. Wilson on my Ph.D. committee. During one meeting, I asked if he was depressed by the fact that underlying love, honor, and friendship, there are selfish genes. He answered, “Terry, that’s were stoicism comes in.”

Stoics teach us to be indifferent to pain and pleasure. Because we can leave the cave of ignorance and learn that pain and pleasure are genetic creations, we are free, at a moral level, to override their imperatives.

Bob, I suggest that in our remaining posts we accept that life is lived on a genetic stage, and that the game is rigged at a fundamental level. Nevertheless, I maintain we can best attain our goals by the purposeful construction of institutions with a full and realistic knowledge of human nature.

In that vein, I invite you to expand upon the specifics of how we can be moral animals and construct nonzero societies.