Monkey Business


Washington -- Earlier this summer, Esquire published a delicious profile of Kary Mullis, the chemist who invented the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method of replicating DNA. Dr. Mullis won the Nobel Prize for this discovery in 1993. Since then, he's taken his prize money, quit science and now apparently spends his time in a California beach-front apartment attempting to use his fame to seduce women. Emily Yoffe, author of the profile, clearly regards Dr. Mullis as a strange case of male immaturity.

She should read my colleague Robert Wright's new book, "The Moral Animal," which promotes a Darwinian view of human nature. It's not a pleasant picture, especially when it comes to men. In this view, Dr. Mullis is no aberration. He is pathetic only because he is so transparently acting out male impulses that in fact are universal and gene-based: He seeks social status and then tries to convert it into sex. This sort of assertion typically provokes two reactions. The first is that it's obviously true -- so what else is new? The second is that it's outrageously false. Both of these charges can't be right.

The Darwinian doctrine of natural selection is obvious, of course, once you think of it. The genes that have survived millions of years of evolution are those that have been successful at getting copies of themselves into future generations.

Why do men spend so much more time than women pursuing sex with various partners? Because there is almost no limit to the number of offspring men can have, while women are limited to about one child a year. Once upon a time there might have been a man whose DNA told him to want sex with only one woman. Unfortunately, his genes were long ago swamped by the genes of the offspring of more promiscuous men. Why do men in every society seek social status? Because men with more social status have more sex. Social-climbers have a decisive evolutionary advantage.

Once you get this simple paradigm into your head it seems to explain everything. It explains brotherly love. (Our siblings share half our genes.) It can explain why men honestly tell women they love them and later leave. (Self-deception is the best deception, so men's genes fool them into thinking they're in love). It also explains Washington.

Take Sen. Bob Kerrey. In 1992, he ran for president calling for a national single-payer health plan. He lost to Bill Clinton. Ever since, he has been a thorn in President Clinton's side, holding out until the last minute on the budget vote, dropping the single-payer idea and denouncing Mr. Clinton's milder plan as excessively "centralized."

There is a plausible intellectual explanation for Senator Kerrey's erratic actions: He's now worried about government spending, etc. But there is also a simple Darwinian explanation. Senator Kerrey (like all male primates) is ambitious. In the Democratic primaries, it served his interest to promote a liberal health plan. Now it serves his interest to make life miserable for the man who beat him, and to attract attention (and power) by playing hard-to-get.

If you have to choose between relying on a politician's surface ideological motive and relying on his subterranean Darwinian motive, it is usually smart to put your money on the latter. When Republican Newt Gingrich sabotaged President Bush's first budget deal in 1990, was it out of concern for the deflationary effect of its tax increases, or was it because Mr. Gingrich's defection made him a bigger "player?" (Hint: the result was a second deal with more taxes.)

Mr. Gingrich now pushes bipartisan cooperation with the White House. But he will always have a Darwinian reason to sabotage President Clinton. Don't count on his "statesmanship" phase lasting.

In a review of Ward Just's novel "Jack Gance," Timothy Noah observed that Washington isn't at all the way Mr. Just depicts it -- a place "full of ambiguity [and] ambivalence about the quest for power." It's more like a chimpanzee colony, in which ambitious apes scheme to become the "alpha male." Which brings us back to sex. For a male chimp, reaching the top means monopolizing access to females. Sex is the payoff for being the alpha male. In Washington, Bill Clinton is the alpha male. Hmmmm.

If a high ranking politician were to try to convert his status into sex, Kary Mullis style, he'd only be following genetic orders. Is that an excuse? Not necessarily, Mr. Wright argues. What's natural isn't the same thing as what's right. We can choose to fight evolution. Evolution has even made it a fair fight, by programming the genes to be flexible -- that is, to adapt to the cultural environment they are born into.

We can decide that the institution of marriage is so threatened that we want a culture which strips status from males who cave in to their genes and convert high positions into promiscuous, extramarital sex. Many cultures (e.g., Victorian England) have discovered that the status drive is so powerful it can be turned against the sex drive. There are even cultures that turn it against itself, giving status to those who don't seek status.

Do we want a society that is promiscuous or monogamous? Stratified or egalitarian? Even for Darwinians, the answers are not in our genes.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written this week by Mickey Kaus.


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