Sunday, September 20,1998
The Sunday Times : Page 5

Men behave like sperm

Hens And Roosters

However, the human brain is not just driven by impulses. There is also a 'higher' organising centre which can act to restrain those impulses

AMERICAN President Calvin Coolidge and the First Lady were inspecting a government farm.

While the President was taken to another part of the farm, Mrs Coolidge observed a rooster mating with a hen in the chicken coop.

"How often does he do that?" she asked her guide.

"Dozens of times," he said.

"Please mention this fact to the President," Mrs Coolidge said to him.

Later, when the President came to the chicken coop, the guide told him about the rooster's prowess.

"Always with the same hen?" he asked.

"Oh no, a different one each time," said the guide.

The President said: "Please tell that to Mrs Coolidge."

Whether apocryphal or not, this anecdote has become part of the evolutionary biologist's text. Called the Coolidge effect, it is used to illustrate the fundamental difference between men and women in their approach to sex.

As Dr Dean Hamer, the American molecular geneticist who identified specific genes linked to anxiety, thrill-seeking and homosexuality, puts it so simply in his book, Living With Our Genes (1998):

"...Men behave like sperm, which are cheap and abundant; their best strategy when dealing with an egg is to find it, fertilise it, and forget about it.

"Women behave like eggs, which are rare and valuable and which, once fertilised, require a substantial investment of time and resources in child care; their best strategy is to be picky, to find sperm from a man who will help with the child, and to ignore other potential mates."

The latest research in genetics, molecular biology and neuroscience has shown that men are hardwired like the rooster -- they show interest in a variety of sexual partners. This applies across cultures, and is also true in other species.

But this does not mean that a married man should go out and commit adultery, citing the Coolidge effect.

The human brain is not just made up of the more primitive limbic system, where impulses and drives are generated. There is also a "higher" organising centre, the more recently evolved cerebral cortex, which can mediate most messages, and can act to restrain those impulses, or to defer gratification.

The functions of the limbic system and the cortex are intertwined, not neatly compartmentalised. But we can divide our personality into temperament, whose messages are generated mainly in the limbic system, and character, whose messages are sent out from the cortex.

Temperament is a set of core personality traits unique to each of us -- such as shyness, melancholy, thrill-seeking -- which follows us from cradle to grave.

But we do live and learn, and that part of our personality that manages our more primitive impulses -- restraining and reining them in when they are inappropriate -- is what makes up our character.

The Bill Clinton episode with Monica Lewinsky suggests to us that the American president is less a sexual predator than he is a thrill-seeker who finds pleasure in novelty.

Dr Hamel and his team at the National Cancer Institute's Laboratory of Biochemistry have identified a gene that is linked to the novelty-seeking behaviour trait. Obviously, this trait has been selected, or else the potential for it would not have been coded in a gene.

In the times of the hunter-gatherer, which make up much of our evolutionary history, the novelty seeker was more likely than the one who was content with a familiar environment to take risks, and to be rewarded with finds of meat or a new mate.

Of course, he was more likely too to end up in the jaws of a lion or a crocodile, which explains why the opposite trait, of avoiding novelty and thrill, has also been selected.

President Clinton may just not have ended up in the White House if he were not a thrill seeker, taking the chances that he did in his political career. That he was also driven by high ideals we need not dispute.

There is a continuum between the two extreme behaviours, of seeking novelty ceaselessly on the one hand, and avoiding them at all costs on the other.

Most of us probably occupy a place somewhere along the middle of this continuum, although we may vary substantially in our score for novelty-seeking in different areas of life, such as food, for instance.

That Mr Clinton had succumbed to the novelty of sexual games with the pesky intern in his office, when he obviously knew the high cost of doing so, tells us something about the strength of his character, or the lack of it.

Strength of character was once an exalted virtue in the West. In the last 30 years, a therapeutic sensibility has made weakness of character a virtue instead. Impulsiveness is celebrated as spontaneity, and restraint is equated with repression, which supposedly makes one neurotic.

The late Princess Diana, weak-willed and unwilling to bear the burden of her duty, was celebrated as a victim. Thankfully, the English are still a sensible people. Only a few hundred people showed up at the ceremony to mark the first anniversary of her death recently, compared to the thousands who mourned openly last year.

Lost too in America is the sense of shame. Witness Lewinsky's mother holding out for the highest bidder for her daughter's sordid, semen-stained story. BUT to come back to character and temperament.

Strength of character remains very much a virtue here. Yet, to have it does not then mean that you can remake your natural-born temperament, or to rewite the blueprint of your natural predispositions.

You cannot.

You cannot be anything you want to be, although Hollywood movies tell you otherwise. It is possible, however, to be all that you can be.

What and who you are is largely determined by your genetic makeup. As Dr Hamel says: "We come in large part ready-made from the factory".

Researchers have also proposed that each individual brain has a set point for happiness, just as the body has a set point for weight.

If you are more likely to be sad than happy much of the time, then your set point for happiness is lower than average.

Likewise, your set point for weight may be higher than average if you tend to be fat. You can exercise or go on a diet, but the moment you stop, you find that you will regain the weight you have lost very quickly.

We cannot help being the way we are. But the good news is that we can move above and below our natural level, by conscious effort.

Character can moderate temperament, to allow us to take advantage of the useful part of temperament and downplay the less desirous biological tendencies or instincts.

So if your set point for weight is higher than average, you can still maintain your weight below that level by regular exercise and eating less. But you cannot hope to look like Kate Moss, unless you want to be a surgically-altered cyborg like Oprah Winfrey.

For the melancholy folks (and I am one of their number), psychologist David Lykken has a good piece of advice: "Be an experiential epicure. A steady diet of simple pleasures will keep you above the set point.

"Find the small things that you know give you a little high -- a good meal, working in the garden, time with friends -- and sprinkle your life with them.

"In the long run, that will leave you happier than some grand achievement that gives you a big lift for a while."

Dr Hamel maintains that understanding the genetic roots of your personality will help you "find yourself" and relate better to others.

Also, he says: "Those who accomplish the most -- measured in money, intelligence, skill, happiness, or love -- are the ones who make the most of their genetic inheritance".

Archive 1

21/11/99 Hit me with the Blues

31/10/99 No chaise longue, just chaise daybed

17/10/99 Tell your tale and watch it take off

03/10/99 Goodness, its been 25 years now

19/09/99 To have a productive day off

27/08/99 Conduct yourself well

08/08/99 Liberalisation and the small man

27/06/99 An ATM at home that knows me

30/05/99 Why fleshy hips and jiggly thighs

16/05/99 A dressing-down for the interns

02/05/99 I've the best seat in the house

04/04/99 I may take China, drop my 'mistress'

21/03/99 When the lens harden

07/03/99 Among dreamers and risk-takers

07/03/99 Lives will be transformed

17/01/99 Look for me at the movies

03/01/99 Hardy, hungry, but a cause for worry?

15/11/98 Goodnight Irin, while I think of New Orleans

01/11/98 'Sexy' and 'Cool' is what sells today

04/10/98 Letter from melancholic anonymous

20/09/98 Men behave like sperm

01/08/98 Global is good, but local matters too

26/07/98 4 books I can't renounce

28/06/98 49 and the genes are calling

14/06/98 Beep beep for every kid

31/05/98 Soft goods, soft power rule

10/05/98 Be still--and be open to constant change

05/04/98 Fight heat at home, then soar the skies

15/03/98 Bond Breakers and my brother and sister

15/02/98 If you love her, set her free

18/01/98 Romancing Cambodia