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American DNA: Calling out Michael Medved, Peter Whybrow, and John Gartner

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I hereby hold Michael Medved accountable for his Townhall.com post on American DNA. Also hereby held accountable are the psychiatrists he cites, Peter Whybrow for his book American Mania: When More Is Not Enough and John Gartner for his book The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot of) Success in America. I have not read the books, but I have read Medved's article.

Gartner's thesis is that many historical American figures (he profiles nine of them) were "hypomanic." Apparently he is using this term apart from its usual meaning as a pathology of Bipolar II Disorder, redefining it as a personality trait that has lead to material success achieved by these men (yes, they are all men), who include Christopher Columbus, Andrew Carnegie, John Winthrop, Alexander Hamilton, David O. Selznick, and Craig Ventor. The reviewers indicate he has further defined this personality trait as uniquely American, which if correct, mars his book with a deplorable bit of nationalism. Analyzing the psyches of people long dead is always tricky business, even when one is not reinventing psychiatric terms and concepts.

Amazon.com was kind enough to let me view a page from the book, which describes Carnegie's passion for philanthropy (p. 164). You can't judge a book from a single page any more easily than by its cover, but it does seem a far reach to link philanthropy with mania. It would be interesting to see how Gartner justifies this thesis.

Whybrow's thesis troubles me more because, according to reviews, he generalizes it to the gene pool of the entire U.S. population. He links it to a particular allele in the dopamine reward system, which he asserts has a higher frequency in America than elsewhere due to self-selection. Specifically, he argues that individuals with this allele crave material rewards and are more inclined to seek them out actively than individuals without the allele. Since the immigrant ancestors of today's Americans presumably shared a desire to seek material success in the New World, Whybrow assumes they must have possessed this allele, which has been passed down to us. Further, he blames this allele for American materialism.

The speculation is interesting, and reminds me of Edward Hallowell's speculation that America's relatively high rate of ADHD is due to similar self-selection among immigrants. But leaping off this speculation and blaming America's cultural flaws on genetic heritage disturbs me. What about the materialism of Europe and Japan? I wonder if Whybrow has statistics as to the frequency of the allele in question in different world populations.

Curiously, Medved takes what Whybrow (judging from the reviews) considers a negative trait and recasts it as a positive one. It seems inevitable that racial politics would eventually come into a discussion like this, but I am surprised that it came from the usually-measured Medved himself. His same post also notes that African slaves did not have these (desirable, in his view) genes -- but tries to cover up this racist potshot by adding that there are a lot of African immigrants in America today, who presumably do share the gene. Nice try, Mr. Medved, but you can't make such an egregious statement "okay" by backpedaling.

Politicizing the issue even further, Medved's final argument is that a "welfare state" (right-wing-ese for a state with social programs to take care of its population) wouldn't work in America the way it does in Europe because Americans just don't have the genes for it. Now speculation has degenerated into virtual incoherence. Maybe Medved just has too much good old American hypomanic craziness to sound rational 100% of the time.

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meesterpaul said...
May 28, 2008 at 1:48 PM  

"Calling out" Medved for his DNA article;
what a crybaby we have in Bala Cynwyd. He makes an interesting observation, or do you hate all preliminary observations unless approved by you first? Why is it so common to hear about people coming to this country and doing well? Why not question and explore the subject? And your quick cry of racism is so crybaby-typical. Another one of those cries for everyone to shut up that challenges what you want. Too bad you were so quick to pull the racism blaqnket over the thought, maybe you can explain why most of the worst neighborhoods, worst schools, and worst standards of living in America are in Black neighborhoods. (I do say Black not African American because I know several African Americans who are not black and have little in coomon with black Americans living in the neighborhoods I refer to). Also, the immigrants I know who have come from Africa recently, including several who are Black people, are doing great here. They probably share characterisgtics with other suceeful immigrants. In the meantime, I will now go take a drive into Philadelphia to pick something up. I will drive through West Philly past neighborhoods rife with failure, surrounded by opportunity. The few Black people that show signs of sucess will probably be the ones driving the FEDEX truck(that he owns!) or the businessman starting out his lunch bus. Your cry of racism is cheap and stupid. Ihope you learn before you vote.

Paul Fraser said...
July 26, 2008 at 10:41 PM  
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