Yesterday's Genes

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ChantekChantek is a smart, lovable orangutan who lives at the Atlanta zoo. Trained in sign language, he has a vocabulary of more than 150 words, and he is considered a decent artist. … Growing up in this human setting, Chantek became REALLY FAT, weighing in at five hundred pounds, roughly three times his ideal size. Afraid that the massive bulk would collapse his lungs, scientists placed him on a strict diet. Formerly five hundred pounds of fun, he became four hundred pounds of anger. During the diet, his favorite sign language symbol became "candy." He refused to draw and instead ate the crayons given for his artistic use. While on his diet, Chantek even pulled off an escape. … He was eventually found sitting next to the up-ended food barrel, using all four limbs to stuff monkey chow into his mouth. Chantek is unique, not only for his human contact and his linguistic and artistic abilities but also for his weight. You see, there are no fat orangutans outside zoos and research centers. Wild orangutans, despite sharing Chantek’s genetic zest for a fine meal, maintain a svelte 160 pounds or so because food is relatively scarce and difficult to obtain in the jungles of Borneo. 1

Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins says the information on a species’ genome (its full DNA sequence) is information about how to survive and reproduce. More specifically, our genetic information is about how our ancestors survived and reproduced. Past genetic success, however, is no guarantee of present wellbeing…as Chantek discovered. As Dawkins says,

To the extent that present day conditions are different from ancestral conditions, the ancestral genetic advice will be wrong.2

From Food to Sex

High calorie food isn't the only thing that's excessively abundant in our lives. Just about every activity that gives our reward circuitry a buzz is big business - because it's easy, and lucrative, to market. Examples are easy credit (with greedy hidden terms), alcohol, video games, recreational drugs, gambling, and extreme sexual stimuli. (Read Mean Genes for a hilarious, informative discussion of this weak point in our design.)

Since this web site addresses intimate relationships, let's consider whether our ancestral genetic advice on how to handle our sex lives is still up to date. We certainly seem to have the genetic zest for sex that our ancestors must have had. Just as evolution selected for those who could efficiently store fat, it selected for easily triggered libidos. Enthusiastic lovers pass on more genes.

However, today we have sex addicts, porn addicts and a host of subtler problems (relationship deterioration, domestic violence, and high divorce rates) that do not serve us, yet may also be related to our genetic programming for high libido. (See, for example, "Why Does A Lover Pull Away after Sex?".)

As my husband says, "In one afternoon on the Internet, a man can see more naked women in erotic positions than our ancestors would have seen in a lifetime. It's effects numb our brains to normal pleasure, and are thus messing with our pair bonding instincts (which were imperfect to begin with). Consider this discussion by guys giving up Internet porn:

GUY 1) It’s amazing how porn has desensitized us. My extreme porn addiction started around 19. But between the ages of 14-19, I use to get erections nearly by all type of women, skinny, busty, average. Heck, once my teacher at school when I was 17 showed some cleavage and I had an erection for 2 hours and even old women sometimes turned me on. I have not been excited by a woman in real life since 19 and I am now 23. I hope I can get that feeling again, LINK
GUY 2) Same here. Its hilarious the things I used to get turned on by. Average looking 40 year old women with nipples showing through their shirt, for example.
Now, I could have my favorite type of girl butt-naked touching me and not get turned on. Its so absurd all you can do is laugh.
GUY 3) This. No porn does not lower standards, but the opposite way around. Watching (too much) porn increases your standard with as a results that no normal woman is good enough for you to make a move.
GUY 4) Before reboot, a woman can be hot but one imperfect feature will be enough for you to dismiss her as being "not hot". During reboot, I'm finding that a woman can have an imperfect feature but a nice ass/body/rack/smile/face/personality/etc. is enough to wipe the imperfection out.
It's definitely my favorite part of the reboot to go out and about and realize that the women are more attractive than before. Funny how not emptying your balls puts a layer of an unknown species of make up on a women's face that causes them glow.
GUY 5) Not watching porn brings you back to reality.
None of us are perfect and all of us have physical faults. Going without porn makes us more accepting of all those imperfections and more content as people rather than chasing perfection that does not exist in the real world.
GUY 6) So... it's been my experience that the longer I go without porn, the more I find myself noticing women I wouldn't have even considered before.
GUY 7) I think porn and even pics give unrealistic perceptions of women. They can get rid of the extra fat here and there and everywhere and the girl ends up looking like a bonafide model. Real women are so much better!

Humanity is conducting a novel worldwide experiment, and the results may not be all that good.

Is it possible that conditions in our sex lives have changed as a result of the mainstream media's focus, just as they have in the food arena? Are many of us, therefore, unwittingly creating an imbalance in our sex lives on a par with Chantek's unhealthy weight gain?

Certainly sexual conditions (in our culture) have changed. We just don’t notice their relevance to our genetic programming because - from an evolutionary perspective - the changes have occurred with the speed of DSL. Also, the secondary repercussions are only beginning to catch up with us in the form of STD epidemics, toxic pollution from reckless over-population, and so forth.

Today, we are as flooded with unfamiliar levels of sexual stimulation as Chantek was with food. The two problems are closely related because the reward circuit of the brain governs both sex and eating. Sexual over-stimulation, like bingeing, can affect the reward circuit of the brain in such a way as to set up an addictive cycle. We can’t sense when to refrain. Like Chantek, we only know that we feel better (in the short-term) when we sate our appetites…even if we are actually threatening our wellbeing overall.

Despite the evidence, few scientists are yet looking at the implications of this cycle where sex is concerned. However, they have begun to study food. Ann Kelley of the University of Wisconsin advises that, "long-term over-ingestion of foods that are highly preferred could have a druglike effect on the brain." Sexual over-stimulation does too.3 sexy ad

Sexually, it’s one big, colorful binge out there these days. Our ancestors had no magazine ads (showing airbrushed bodies with the proportions ideal for tripping the switches in the brain’s reward circuitry), titillating movies / television, adult bookstores, private, anonymous, ever available and escalating internet pornography with the privacy of home computers, or phone sex services. (Nor did they have Ronald MacDonald holding out a bin of attractively packaged monkey chow at every intersection.)

Constant enticement isn’t the only critical change in recent decades. We can act on our desires more easily. Fewer taboos about sex and widely available birth control have made sex partners more willing and available. There are also more couples without kids who can indulge in lengthy stretches of leisure time for sexual activity. (Could this be why chronic fatigue was associated with yuppies?)

Like Chantek, we just assume that if it feels good, we should do it, are (perhaps) divinely decreed to do it, and will be happier people if we are doing it. As the authors of Mean Genes point out, this assumption is frequently, and tragically, wrong. Why?

When we drive a car or operate a microwave, our orders are carried out exactly as we command. The machine doesn’t talk back or have an agenda of its own—at least not yet. On the other hand, if we tell our brain, as part of a New Year’s resolution, to cut down on fatty foods, it most likely will let out a hearty laugh and continue to set off bells and whistles of approval when the dessert cart rolls around.

According to the Viagra website, 60 million men have heard the same bells and whistles in response to skillful marketing by a big pharmaceutical company. (And don't forget the new sexual enhancement drugs.) With their characteristic wit and clarity, Burnham and Phelan explain what’s going on:

In a creepy campfire legend, a babysitter alone in a house receives increasingly menacing phone calls. Terrified, she contacts the police, who put a tap on her phone. After the boogeyman calls again, the cops frantically phone her, screaming, "We’ve traced the call. It’s coming from inside the house! Get out!" Similarly, the source of our self-control problems lies within us, in our genes. But we can’t get out or leave them behind. Manipulative media, greedy businesses, and even our friends and family play roles in nurturing our demons. Still, most of our self-control problems stem from our impulses to do things that are bad for us or for those whom we love.

Our genes control us through satisfaction, pain, and pleasure. And when it comes to food and sex, we were not designed for the current glut. Our ancestors’ enthusiasm for sex was balanced by their demanding lifestyles and limited opportunities…just as Chantek’s relatives in the forest never had to worry about dieting.

Outwitting Biology

The solution? Use our (also) genetically given capacity to balance ourselves to make it far easier to ignore the instinctual signals that do not serve us. Otherwise, the future will continue to show us just how ill suited our inherited genetic make-up is to modern conditions. rat experiment with grid

But how? Fighting one’s survival programming is tough - and harder in the case of sex than food. Experiments on rats demonstrate why. Rats will cross an electrically charged metal plate to get to a lever that stimulates their reward circuitry, when they will not cross it to get food…even if they starve to death.

An orgasm is a lot closer to an electrical jolt directly to the reward circuit than is eating, due to the respective amounts of dopamine accompanying orgasm and eating. No wonder the threat of burning at the stake, didn’t stop adultery in the Middle Ages. We are designed to value the passing on of our genes more highly than our own continued existence.

In other words, a sexual control program is doomed if it relies on mere force of will, peer pressure, or threats of an uncomfortably warm afterlife. Those who wish to outwit biology in the bedroom may want to consider another strategy. Its merits are, again, suggested by an experiment involving food. Scientists studying binge eating in rats found that rats become addicted to sugar within 10 days of bingeing on it; if they don’t get their fix, their teeth chatter and they shake. However, researchers note that the dips in dopamine behind the addiction cycle don’t occur when "meals are moderate and regularly scheduled." sculpture of couple hugging

Similarly, the Chinese Daoists recommended frequent lovemaking, without orgasm. "Dual cultivation," as the Taoists call it, leads to decreased cravings, better health, and greater harmony in intimate relationships. This result makes sense, since at a neurochemical level a sugar high has much in common with a passion bout. This approach may also be a good way to soothe our nervous systems, which in turns makes intimacy feel safer.

Perhaps "moderate lovemaking, regularly scheduled" is the key to coping with our ancient design in a modern world.

  • 1. Mean Genes: from Sex to Money to Food - Taming Our Primal Instincts by Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan, New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.(2000)
  • 2. A Devil’s Chaplain by Richard Dawkins, Houghton Mifflin (2003), p. 103.
  • 3. "Highly palatable foods and highly potent sexual stimuli are the only stimuli capable of activating the dopamine system with anywhere near the potency of addictive drugs." Bart Hoebel, a psychologist at Princeton University in 'Fast food may be addictive.'