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If Only Genes Could Whisper : EXILES FROM EDEN: Psychotherapy From an Evolutionary Perspective by Kalman Glantz and John K. Pearce (W. W. Norton: $32.95; 308 pp.)

September 24, 1989|Bettyann Kevles | Kevles is a free-lance writer

It is common knowledge that some animals behave in ways remarkably similar to human beings. Evolutionary biologists agree that males and females of the same species often have separate reproductive agendas because, as individuals, each tries to end up with healthy offspring while investing as little time and energy as possible in the process.

What has this got to do with psychotherapy? Not as much as Kalman Glantz and John K. Pearce would have us believe in their curious combination of treatise and casebook, "Exiles From Eden." Practicing therapists in Boston, they wandered into the mined fields of evolutionary biology at Harvard and--eureka!--emerged, so they would have us believe, with a way to reconcile Freud's shortcomings with evolutionary theory and at the same time provide an interventionist therapy for their troubled clients.

The Eden in the title of this provocative but ultimately infuriating book is as mythical as the one in the Old Testament. The authors accept the world of the !Kung (hunter-gatherers who live in the Kalahari desert) as a model for early humans.

These peaceful nomads live today in small bands and acquire few material goods as they raise children. (The authors fail to mention that they also associate with agricultural peoples, as well as with visitors from outside, including hordes of anthropologists). But the authors accept the !Kung as a remnant of something pure, a kind of living fossil of early humankind.

This is how human society was meant to be, the authors would have us believe. At the least, this is the life for which our genes are programmed. Specifically, they tell us, we evolved into a new kind of ape by developing a taste for--and the ability to chew and digest as well as hunt--meat. The hunt triggered the need to share, and that encouraged the evolution of reciprocity, and so the social contracts we humans make with each other came into being.

But we also have holdover genetic predilections from more remote ancestors. Anthropologists have long pondered the degree to which the aggressive tendencies we share with our primate cousins are genetic. It would be wonderful to know how the first humans differed from their primate ancestors.

Alas, our ancestors left no records, only tempting clues. Human females are unique in having concealed ovulation and large breasts; human infants alone are born with their skulls still growing in order to accommodate a brain that will continue to expand. From these distinctive traits, different anthropologists have created scenarios of why and how we were meant to be. There is no compelling reason to accept the authors' scenario that today's hunter-gatherers are the same way as early humans. Thirty thousand years may be a blink in evolutionary time, but it is time enough for some genetic changes to have occurred. We do not know if our genes have changed in terms of cultural determinants, or if the changes in society are simply historic.

This is not to argue that early humans did not live in small nomadic bands; they probably did. But it takes a huge leap of faith to accept this myth of a society at a particular moment in time as the model for what human beings are genetically designed for. Although the authors insist that they are not saying that people have to behave the way evolution designed humans to behave, but "only that people will profit by understanding what drives them to behave that way," they do claim to know the design.

The design, as they read it, is powerful. The authors reject the women's movement as contrary to our genetic program. To a feminist's suggestion that men "learn new behavior" (vis-a-vis women), they respond, "good advice, but often easier said than done, when a behavior has biological roots."

Let us accept, for a moment, their version of the past. Humans evolved to live as simple hunter-gatherers. This allows the authors-therapists to explain that many of their clients are not sick but are simply out of sync; they belong in the forest instead of in the modern urban jungle. Once they have been led to understand the biological roots of their condition, learned to listen to "the whispering" of their genes, they will be able to come to terms with their lives. They will see that "in the natural environment, survival and reproduction are coupled," that human behavior, like that of other animals, is based on reproductive strategies, the male seeking to inseminate many females, the female determined to keep her male around to support her children. They ignore the reality that there have always been single mothers bringing up children without the help of supportive male, probably even back in "Eden."

Female clients should be cautioned. They will be encouraged to listen to the message of their genes, to understand, for instance, that it is fruitless to compete with men because men are genetically averse to competing with them.

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