Sex, food and money

All the primal urges are genetically programmed, but a new book says we can overcome biology and act the way we know we should.

By David Bowman
September 14, 2000 11:30PM (UTC)
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Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan (both Harvard Ph.D.s -- Burnham in business economics and Phelan in biology) believe that every impulse we have regarding eating, screwing, getting soused or stoned and spending money are ancestral genetic impulses from ancient hunter/gatherer societies -- that is, we're all prisoners of Fred and Wilma Flintstone.

Regarding sex, straight men are doomed to crave women with hourglass figures and a symmetrical face and women burn for hunks with symmetrical faces and big, big ... wallets.


Burnham and Phelan verify that most clichis about human sexuality are, in fact, true. Unfortunately, this accomplishment is marred by references to things other than human genetics. For example, they begin the sex section by stating the truism that women are regulators of men's insatiable sex drives. They then amplify the idea by describing crickets.

Yes. Crickets. Apparently, a male cricket ejaculates a quarter of his body weight. If a man shot as much, his hunk of burnin' love would equal 50 pounds. After two pages of cricket love, a reader asks, "What does this have to do with a man's genetic structure?" Apparently, if a guy ejaculated 50 pounds of semen, he'd be less inclined to have sex at the drop of a hat. Hmmm. Sure about that? After talking with Phelan, he elaborated that a 50-pound ejaculation is the metaphorical equivalent of being pregnant for nine months.

Women, can a guy be so wrong? Write me if I'm mistaken, but the only thing equivalent to being pregnant is being pregnant. If men were the ones who got pregnant only then would they be less inclined to jump into the sack like rabbits. And in regard to God's other creatures -- if animal life must be mentioned, the male sea horse (who is the one who carries the egg to gestation) is a more appropriate comparison than Jiminy Cricket. But referring to insects or fish in a self-help book about human genes confuses more than it clarifies. "Mean Genes" is more Ripley's "Believe It or Not," than Ann Landers with a Ph.D. This is a failed self-help book.


Are you smarter than Terry [Burnham]?

Unfortunately, I'm not.

Whose idea was the book?

We lived in the same building as graduate students at Harvard and all of our conversations were about this subject. It seemed like the obvious thing: "Of course we should be writing a book about it."


Are you married?

Yes. I just had my 11th anniversary.

Do you cheat on your wife?

No. I'm very happy about that. That's one of the odd things that pushed me into writing this book in the first place. I was teaching all these non-science majors at Harvard and they said, "You're teaching us that humans are not the best at monogamy and yet you choose to be married. What's going on there?" One of the great things I've learned over the process of writing this book is when people are weak and when they are likely to break down and cheat. It allows me to see where the potholes are. Even if I'm attracted to another woman, I understand that I'm not a bad person or weak. This just means that I'm human. And then the subtitle of the book is "Taming our Primal Instincts." All of us have this big cerebral cortex that allows us to say, "This is where my genes are pushing me." I say, "Hey, I want to be monogamous anyway." And with a little bit of effort and a great wife, it turns out to be not that hard for me.


What about your partner?

Terry is single.

So he can cheat.

Terry is actually very proud of the fact that he's never cheated on a girlfriend.

Do you give book readings?

We do.

So when a woman comes up to you, and says how much she likes your book, and her eyes are dilated, you immediately catch that, right? [This, according to some researchers, is a sure sign that a woman wants to sleep with a man, and straight guys always respond consciously or, more often, subconsciously.]


It makes me very happy.

But don't you want to hold up a cross to ward her off like some vampire?

No, no. One of the things we say right at the end of the book, "It's not about squelching all of your passions. You can enjoy them." There's nothing wrong with someone finding you attractive. If a woman were coming right out and saying, "I'm really attracted to you because this book is so great," that would be great. I wouldn't have to have sex with her.


But genetically why not have sex with her? According to "Mean Genes," your wife would be more upset if you co-wrote a book with another woman than if you had sex with her once.

That's very perceptive. Yeah, it's the long-term emotional relationship with someone that would be worse. We're talking about two bad things. I'm not forced to do either. My wife would be devastated if I cheated on her. That would be so sad. I think you're right, there are certain things; in the book we talk about how women are more threatened by long-term emotional attachments to other people, but, boy, you can imagine women are very unhappy if their husbands are cheating as well.

So, I'm no longer a young stud in my 20s. To be genetically attractive to women, I should make a point of always dressing very well, no?

It definitely helps. A very attractive feature to women is status -- the likelihood of resources, the likelihood that you're going to show some commitment. Anything to indicate those is going to help.


I'm a writer so of course I have no status.

Ah-ha-ha. Anything that we say is genetic. You're stuck with the genes that you have. I am not getting dealt another hand of genes. So you start wherever you are. But you can improve things. I'm a college professor, which isn't particularly high status when it comes to those sorts of things, but nevertheless I can be a college professor who wears the same torn tweed jacket every day of my life or I can try to rustle up something a little bit nicer. You have that option when you go into the office -- you can wear the grubby T-shirt or put on a nice shirt.

Speaking of T-shirts, your book cites the study where women smell a pile of men's sweaty T-shirts and can tell which of the wearers have symmetrical faces. Does that mean symmetry has a specific odor?

That's what it looks like. You've got these subtle, almost subconscious cues that are wafting from your underarms that there are women out there, and they don't even know why they're so strongly attracted to you because, among other things, you are tremendously symmetric.


Wouldn't it make sense, if you had an askew mug like me, you'd develop the fake smell of symmetry?

You can't do it unless you are symmetrical. The smell itself comes from having a high-genetic quality. It's sort of like saying, "I'm not a high-status male. Wouldn't it be better for me to at least get rid of my low-status Volkswagen and get a Jaguar?" The answer is yes. But then, if you could drive a Jaguar, you would already be a high-status male.

Sure. But you mentioned fireflies, who are eaten by predators who lure the bugs to their doom by faking a firefly's belly lamp. This deception evolved naturally. Why couldn't ugly guys like me evolve a fake symmetrical odor to catch women?

There are a lot of examples like that. You can fake a signal. In a lot of cases you can't do it. It's not clear why.


So "Mean Genes" is a self-help book?

To some extent, yes. Here's a book unlike any other science book that's ever come out that is at heart about science and understanding all these genetic drives that we have. That's the thing that we do that's different. We go out on a limb. We give some advice: "Here we got this information. How can you use it?" Yes, it is a self-help book. What we're hoping is as you read and understand these things that are going on, you can almost generate your own advice as well.

What is the relation between sociology and genetics? What if our culture changed in such a way that the only guys who got laid were the ones who told good jokes? Wouldn't good humor become a dominant genetic trait?

The short answer is no. The things that are good don't become genetic. To the extent that there are genetic differences between people that lead some of them to become better at telling jokes -- if there already was some underlining gene for that ... [Pause]. It's kind of a stretch.

But genetic qualities have to start somewhere. Have we stopped evolving?

Absolutely not. Features that make one person more evolutionarily successful than another change over time as the environment changes. Evolution is always occurring. Good question. You say, "Where do these things come from in the first place?" And people don't really understand it. There is a huge amount of genetic variation for all sorts of traits. You see hair color and eye color and skin color and there is every variation out there. Because mutations are occurring all the time, various genetic traits are arising all the time. When something that arises that actually confers a little advantage to you, for instance, it makes you more symmetric, that gene does increase in the population.

Can you transcend your genetics?

Absolutely. I wouldn't have even written this book -- I would have sat in my room and been depressed -- if we couldn't.

But our genes are still trying to steer the boat -- we can only block the signals.

Exactly. Transcend them. Yes, they're still there, but you can win the battle.

You mention that test where kids are given marshmallows and told they can eat them if they want, but if they can hold out for 15 minutes, they'll be given a second marshmallow. I was thinking about that. Maybe it's spiritually better to eat a single marshmallow right away rather than giving in to long-term greed and suffering as you hold out for that second marshmallow.

I totally agree with you. I would have been one of the kids who ate the marshmallow immediately. We say throughout the book, "Willpower alone just doesn't work." Or as you're saying, "Maybe willpower is not worth it." You're walking a fine line. You don't want to squelch every one of your passions. You think about people who are super models of willpower. I see that and think that's boring. They have no passion in their life whatsoever. That's not our goal -- to turn people into boring control freaks. I often think that the friends that I like best are all those people who have these powerful passions.

Maybe life will be better for you if at the next conference that you give, when the woman comes up to you with her dilated eyes, you just say, "To hell with my marriage" and go for it.

People weigh that every day. One of the things that I know as a human, unlike most animals, my likelihood of dying in the next year or two is very, very low.

Knock on wood.

Yeah. Knock on wood. But it's relatively low. We're very good at weighing the payoffs between pleasure now and pleasure later. Given that I know I have a long life ahead of me -- that's one of the cost-benefit analyses I do all the time. Hanging out with Lisa for years and years is to me huge, because I have lots of information about her, and I know that I am happiest when I'm with her and so you're right in this instance that I have to dampen this passion. I feel attracted to people all the time. But to trade that off for something in which I know that I have decades of happiness ahead of me, that would be a bad decision.

I was reading an article about a Mafia turncoat hiding out with the Feds, and he said that he'd lived a wild life of fast cars, fast women and gambling, and if he died at any point he would have died happy. There is that Dionysian impulse -- living your life like you're not going to have 10 years ...

For a Mafia turncoat I'd say his likelihood of being alive tomorrow ...

... is much worse than yours.

I'm always thinking that I want every day to be happy as if I were going to die. But I think that way gets you into trouble. I think some of the greatest happiness comes from long-term things. I know having an 11-year marriage has been so much better than having 11 one-year relationships. There are things that you can't get otherwise.

Like what?

[Long pause.] I feel like there are these issues that my wife and I talk about and it is like this long conversation that has gone on for years and years, and evolves.

Being the devil's advocate, don't you think monogamy got hardwired into our systems for the sake of successfully raising children? My wife and I are not ever going to procreate. That's the prime directive for every human. Aren't we're negating God's plan?

We'll say you're negating Darwin's plan.

My genetic structure, the way your book describes it, seems like some alien "X-Files" thing inside me.

I think it's the other way around. I think our environment is alien. We're not going to have kids. But we're still having sex. So we invented birth control. So our genes want us to have sex because that will end up with us having babies, and now in this alien world we've made it possible to indulge in that passion without the consequences of children.

Why would we create an environment that goes against our genetic structure?

I'm not sure it does go against our genetic structure. What happens is our brains got bigger and bigger and bigger, and suddenly we became able to modify our environment at a much faster rate than our genes could keep up with. For at least 100,000 years we were hunter-gatherers. And then what happened? We invented agriculture.

If you read the book hoping that it's going to answer every single thing you have a genetic predisposition for -- we don't have all the specific answers. I think for all these general areas there are some insights that can help you. I feel like my life is so improved because of the little things in this book that I've learned.

How tall are you?


I'm 6 feet. Your book states that it's a genetic certainty that the taller you are, the more women you'll get. So if you are a short guy, you're screwed big time. The tide of feminine desire is eternally against you.

Height is a crucial feature. Tall is a very important feature.

So, you find yourself a short man. Genetically, you're fucked. What can you do?

You hit on something -- understand what these genetic preferences are can be really depressing. You've been dealt a bad hand -- what do you do? You can't change your genes. If you're a short guy, you have to get over it. Think about "What do I know that women value?" Take Michael J. Fox --

But he has Parkinson's disease. [Pause.] I keep coming back to "Why don't our genetics automatically make us symmetrical so women will love us?"

I think a variation on your question is: If symmetry and looks are so important, why aren't we all supermodels? Why hasn't genetics made us all really, really beautiful? I think the answer is, it has. Look around. We used to be chimps. I think we are all pretty good-looking. Look at these primates. They are just butt ugly. Now because we do have all these preferences, the variation that you see between Brad Pitt and me is really minor in the great scheme of things.

Whoa, hold it, buddy! You're treading troubled waters here. A primate probably looks at Brad Pitt and says, "What an ugly mug! But Cheetah, man, Cheetah. Wow! My heart melts for Cheetah."

That's true. But I think the point I'm trying to make is the variation between one person and another really is relatively small. You're saying, "Why don't our genes make us all smell symmetric?" and we really are pretty symmetric. The genes are good -- why they haven't perfected it so there are no variations at all? It's really not clear. But evolution really is working toward that.

So humanity is heading for a race of supermodels.

That's where we're heading.

Reason to push the button right now.

A reason to stick around and see humanity get there.

But it won't matter to you because you're going to stay faithful. [Pause.] What would your partner have answered to any of these questions?

I think he would say almost exactly what I say. People can no longer tell us apart. We talk about this all the time. That's one of the reasons we get along so well. So after thousands of hours of discussion, I think he would have given you the same answers.

Compared to other animals, if two chimps were as close as you two, you'd have sex occasionally, right?

If we were gelada baboons, that's probably safe to say.

David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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