Dr. Peter Whybrow's American Mania: When More Is Not Enough
Reviewed by Dr. David Gregory
As a cultural anthropologist, I spent decades studying the problems and opportunities of international labor migration. Later, I left academia and immersed myself in the world of international commerce and finance. My experience has left me hard to impress. I am impressed with Dr. Peter Whybrow's book, American Mania: When More is Not Enough. I found it insightful, challenging and ultimately empowering.
Dr. Whybrow invites us to look at where we have arrived after three incredible centuries, to contemplate the paradoxes of our unique prosperity and its current effects on our physical health, our state of mind, the quality of our social relations, and the future direction of our nation. He does so from a unique perspective derived from his expertise in medicine, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. His deep concern is that the "fabulous" turbo-paced, technologically driven society we Americans have built is outpacing our physiological abilities to adjust and may therefore be unsustainable. Presenting facts and provocative case studies, he offers a convincing argument that, "In our compulsive drive for more, we are making ourselves sick."
As a people we are suffering from obesity, the burdens of debt, and shallow social relations fractured by unbridled self-interest. As a result, we are taking an increasing amount of drugs in a desperate attempt to treat stress-related diseases, depression, and high blood pressure. "We are sleeping less, working longer, spending less time with our families in the manic rush to earn more money to buy more goods that leave us wanting more."
At least one critic has implied that Dr. Whybrow is a Luddite, clinging to the past and disdaining technology and technological progress, in fact, Dr. Whybrow is a staunch advocate of the benefits technology and has used it to address a variety of medical illnesses. He has played a prominent role in the development of modern technologies to better understand how the brain works and has pioneered innovative treatments for some of the more malignant forms of manic-depressive illness. He has dedicated his book to his brother, John Whybrow, a leader of technologically driven enterprises. If you look on the web, you will see that John Whybrow was the Executive Vice President of Royal Philips Electronics in Holland. He is currently the Chairman of the Board of Blue Tooth, wireless technologies.
The author of American Mania knows what he is talking about as a result of his academic background and medical expertise. He also knows what he is talking about as a result of his own personal experience in striving and achieving within the force fields presented by American institutions. He is the Director of one of the world's most prominent Institutes of Neuroscience and Human behavior with a yearly budget of 250 million dollars and a faculty and staff of 3,800 people dedicated to research, teaching and care-giving. Combating the comment of one critic, I would suggest that is hardly a stress free job in a "rarified habitat."
Nor is his a condescending voice that touts the superiority of the "Old Europe" and longs for its traditions. On the contrary, Dr. Whybrow himself is among those ambitious, hard working, curiosity-driven, risk taking, competitive migrants whom he sees as having had an incredible impact on the formation of the American temperament. He is one of the 2% of the world population that chose to move further than 50 miles from where he was born.
Dr. Whybrow migrated from London in the mid-sixties and became a US citizen in the early seventies. As such, he is among those Americans whom he describes as, "a self-selected group of hard-working opportunists with an insatiable hunger for self-improvement." In an interesting argument, he attributes the insatiable hunger to our genetic heritage. Whybrow proposes that immigrants actually have a "higher frequency of the exploratory and novelty seeking D4-7 allele in the dopamine reward system of the brain."
As a cultural anthropologist, my strong bias is to steer away from too close a linkage between genes and behavior. However, YC Ding and others in the Department of Biological Chemistry, College of Medicine, at the University of California have conducted some intriguing research that indicates that this allele, associated with "attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and the personality trait of novelty seeking," originated as a rare mutation that "increased to high frequency in human populations by positive selection."
Although Whybrow believes that the "American Experiment" is genetic as well as social, his book is not another simplistic approach to genetic determinism handcuffed to socio-biology. As a practicing doctor, trained in endocrinology and neuropsychiatry, he knows that genes, though a contributing factor, are not the blame, as some other reviewers presuppose. In fact, he is not placing blame; he is attempting to help us understand and urging each of us as individuals to take back control of our lives from the merchants and an economic system whose goal is not to make us healthy and happy but to sell us more.
What he does so well throughout the book is try to help us unravel and question how our insatiable drives for security, betterment, material affluence and positive affirmation- fueled by the reward system of our uniquely affluent society-have reached a level that is making us perpetually anxious and fearsome as individuals and confused as a nation. An interesting review by Peder Zane thinks that the book, "speaks to an unease with American Life that can be heard on the left and the right."
This is not a happy book. The author presents some hard facts that some might find a bitter pill to swallow. We Americans tend to have pretty thin skins when it comes to serious social commentary and criticism. The label anti-American pops up too easily. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949), which questioned how the American Dream played out for the legion of failed battlers like Willy Loman, got him in a lot of trouble with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. We seem to be more open to searching criticism if it is delivered by humorists like: Mark Twain, Art Buchwald, Bill Maher or Homer Simpson who says, "Good things don't end in eum, they end in mania or teria."
I believe that if we are going to keep the "American Experiment" on track we need to listen to thinkers like Peter Whybrow, Jared Diamond and Robert D. Kaplan. They demonstrate how the group can provoke individuals within it to behave in ways that are ultimately self destructive. Peer pressures, cultural norms and expectations generate maladaptive behavior that becomes self-perpetuating. Even those afflicted don't realize that there might be a problem. Dr. Whybrow does an enormous service in making us more aware of the problems and in so doing gives us a chance to find individually appropriate solutions.
In the last chapter he clearly states that we as individuals are equally responsible for the decisions we make and the society we construct. Contrary to the criticism levied by one another reviewer, he is not calling for new government programs and social engineering. He argues that each one of us can do something about "too much fat, too little sleep, too much dept, too little time with our families" and that small changes in our own behavior can make a big difference.
I know that this may seem naive and futile to some. But, I am reminded of an early winter morning jogging on the beach in Del Mar, California. A freak tide had left tens of thousands of small fish stranded and gasping for air on the sand. I saw a man stop, stoop over, pick up a fish and throw it back into the Pacific. I stopped and watched him do this over and over again. Finally, I walked up to him, smiled knowingly, and said, "You know that really doesn't make any difference." He stooped over, picked up a fish and as he threw it into the water, and said, "It does to this one."