Sunday, August 31, 2008

Reading Journal: "Mean Genes"

Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan, Mean Genes. From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2000. 252 pp.

Writing in the Winter 2008 issue of the conservative magazine The New Atlantis, Yuval Levin ("Science and the Left") attempts to answer the charge that conservatives are waging a war against science by turning the argument on its head and portraying the left as anti-science. Equating science with technological progress, Levin paints environmentalists as Luddites out of step with the modern world:
[W]rit large, the environmental movement aims to repeal the modern way of life. At its most ambitious, it seeks to curb industrialism and consumerism, to make the human experience less artificial and more “authentic” (or, to employ the favored buzzword of the day, “organic”), to emphasize the simple and the local, to reduce the scale of human ambition. This describes a brand of conservatism too conservative even for the American right, and one that is deeply at odds with the ethic of rationalization and scientific improvement and progress.
Bill McKibben's book Deep Economy is a good example of this brand of environmentalism, with its emphasis on fostering local economies and replacing the economics of growth with the economics of satisfaction. In McKibben's world, for example, farmers would reject the "scientific improvements" that brought them genetically modified seeds and petroleum-based fertilizers, and return to traditional knowledge. His model is his home state of Vermont, with its town meetings and small organic producers.

One of the potential problems with McKibben's vision of the world is that it seems to be at odds with human nature. Human beings, as we learn from Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan in Mean Genes, are not genetically programmed for moderation. Because the human species evolved in conditions of frequent scarcity and in the absence of technologies for preserving food, our genes tell us to consume everything in sight. Our hunter-gatherer genes tell us that the fatter we are and the more stuff we have and the more we push ourselves, the better chance we have of passing along our genetic material. In the modern world, our genes are in clover.

Our genes evolved under conditions very different from those in the modern industrialized world. Zoo animals, without the need to compete for scarce resources, regularly become overweight. Modern humans in wealthy societies like America, Burnham and Phelan argue, are like animals in a zoo. Our genes evolved in the wild, not in the well-stocked cage of the modern world.

In the 1960s, the !Kung San tribe in Saharan Africa were still living as hunter-gathers, much as our common ancestors did thousands of years ago. They lived in relative peace with each other and in balance with nature. Then well-intentioned Westerners bored wells for the !Kung San, for whom scarcity of water had been a perennial problem. The nomadic tribe settled down around the wells, and soon their hunters had depleted all of the local game, their village filled up with waste, and disease and social tension increased.

Western industrial society is the !Kung San writ large. We've created a situation of artificial abundance for our overreaching genes, and with that abundance we've created a host of environmental and social problems. As Burnham and Phelan put it, "our love of possessions, food, and generally easy living has moved us far from our natural setting, creating a plague of troubles in the process."

But, as the authors acknowledge, progress and innovation, too, are in our genes, and it's human to look for technological fixes for our current problems. We reach for diet pills and ethanol in the belief that we can continue to consume as we have always done. On the other hand, our genes evolved in the context of small, local communities, in an environment in which cycles of scarcity put the breaks on overconsumption. The movement toward simplicity and localism, which Yuval Levin characterizes as an attempt to "repeal the modern way of life," is also in our nature.

Although our genes drive us to relentless consumption—to obesity, greed, and sexual promiscuity—we humans are also uniquely capable of self-control, and the values of moderation are built into Western culture. The Greeks counseled avoiding extremes and keeping to the middle path of proportion and moderation. That love of proportion is innate in humans as well. Burnham and Phelan discuss studies which show that beauty in human faces and bodies is, across cultures, associated with symmetry and proportionality. The Greeks realized this, and applied that love of the Golden Mean to ethics as well as aesthetics. Our genes rush toward extremes, but we are also able to rein in those primal instincts.

Burnham and Phelan's book shows the evolutionary basis for some of our worst behaviors, including overeating, addiction, greed, infidelity, and domestic violence. All are rooted in the survival of the fittest, in the relentless drive of our genes to perpetuate themselves. The book is full of fascinating illustrations from natural science and anthropology, from gender-switching fish, to obese orangutans, to the male thorny-headed worm who secretes cement to seal his mate's vagina after intercourse. The book also avoids the thickets of scientific jargon that obscured William Loomis's fine book Life As It Is. Burnham and Phelan write in a breezy, popularizing style that's sometimes a little silly, but always gets its point across.

Further reading: David Villano, "A Future of Less," Miller-McCune September 2008. Villano talks to Mean Genes co-author Jay Phelan, among others, about our culture of overconsumption.

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