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 Terry,

You ended your last posting by inviting me to “expand upon the specifics of how we can be moral animals and construct nonzero societies.” First of all, thanks for covertly slipping the titles of my two most recent books into a single sentence. We need more Americans like you. In reply, I can only say: Mean genes, mean genes, and, finally, mean genes.

It’s funny that you should mention Edward O. Wilson’s interest in stoicism. I recall him telling me many years ago that one of his favorite books was Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations on stoicism. (And I remember thinking: Yeah, it’s easy to accept your lot in life stoically when you’re the emperor of Rome.)

At the time I didn’t make the connection between a Darwinian worldview and the austere indifference to pleasure and pain recommended by the stoics. But by the time I wrote The Moral Animal, I had gotten the picture: Pleasure and pain are the carrot and stick our genes use to keep us in the thrall of their warped values system. So, if you want to launch a full-scale war of liberation, the first step is to insulate yourself from that incentive structure. And full-scale war is arguably in order, given how persistently our genes can disturb our tranquility, how forcefully they can discourage truly moral behavior, how subtly they can warp our very perceptions of right and wrong, even of true and false.

It isn’t just the stoics who said that escaping the coercive power of pleasure and pain was the path to clear vision. The Bhagavad-Gita says that people who pursue “enjoyment and power” are “robbed of insight” and live in a “jungle of delusion.” In Ecclesiastes it is written, “Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of desire.” And, of course, Buddhism is founded on the idea of finding enlightenment by abandoning the quest for pleasure. The Buddha said that “the best of virtues [is] passionlessness; the best of men he who has eyes to see.”

This is what I was trying to get at in my earlier postings: Some worthwhile goals—ranging from lifelong monogamous commitment to general benevolence to sheer peace of mind—are rendered so difficult by human nature that Darwinian self-knowledge by itself may not be nearly enough; this self-knowledge may need to be integrated into a larger worldview that I’m afraid I can’t help calling “spiritual,” at least in a loose, secular sense of the word.

I don’t purport to have developed such a worldview. In The Moral Animal, I just did some half-baked sermonizing and noted how various hallowed spiritual doctrines implicitly recognize human nature. That includes the ecumenical list above, and also such concepts as demonic temptation (a concept that, I argued, is well-suited to controlling insidiously addictive behaviors—behaviors that, as you put it in Mean Genes, “it’s easier never to start than to quit.”)

The irony is that Darwinism, while validating the therapeutic content of many religions, has in some cases eroded belief in their foundational doctrines. That is why formulating a modern spiritual worldview grounded in Darwinian self-understanding will be such a challenge—one of the great intellectual challenges, I think, of the next few decades.

What exactly do I mean by “spiritual”? My thoughts on that are a little too hazy to lay out concisely. Besides, this posting is starting to show disturbing signs of seriousness. Slate’s proprietary gravitas-detecting software is no doubt sounding an alarm in Redmond right now. So, let me close on some lighter, more upbeat notes.

First, though it’s true that our genes are in many ways despicable—often inspiring blind selfishness or frustrating our search for enduring happiness—it’s also true that we have a lot to thank them for. Take existence, for example. Or sentience. Or the capacity for love and friendly affection—even if, as your book notes, our genes can subvert the pure expression of these things. I’d say that, all told, these blessings call for a measure of gratitude (one of many feelings whose underlying Darwinian logic has only become clear in the last few decades).

The other antidote to a morose Darwinian worldview is a sense of humor, and this is one thing you and Jay Phelan have provided in Mean Genes. If I’ve seemed to be trying to pull you in the direction of somber moral reflection, you’d be wise to resist; one virtue of your book is that it doesn’t take the human predicament too seriously.

So far I’ve been closing each posting with a heavy-duty scientific/philosophical question, but now I’ll shift gears. I notice from your book jacket that you were a tank driver in the Marines. What I want to know is: 1) Why did you join the Marines? 2) How, if at all, did your experience in the Marines put you on a path that led to this book? 3) Could you name one or two parts of human nature that the Marine Corps does a good job of taking into account (the more surprising the better)?

I’ve really enjoyed this “Dialogue.” In signing off, I’ll just say what confirmed Darwinians always say to each other at such moments: Semper Fi