Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Case For American Mania

On one morning when my wife and young son were to go on a trip, I woke up at 4:02 AM, having had almost 5 hours of good sleep. My son was right next to me, covers thrown off as usual, his feet digging under my shins. At 5:30, I tried to steal away downstairs to grab a laptop and work before taking them to the airport. Halfway down, a wooden stair creaked in the dark, and my beloved child sat bolt upright and demanded: "Who said that!??"

He is an American. That is to say, he shares behavioral features commonly described as distinctly American--he has a high degree of "get up and go," all curiosity packed intensely into a burning ball of energy. These qualities are blessings, to be sure, but ones not unalloyed on a personal level. If scaled upwards into larger organizations, they would be recognizable, pronounced, and always looking for trouble.

At this very moment, off the top of your head, you could certainly recite at least 5 ongoing whacked-out things about America. And why is this so? A far more homogenous nation, Japan for example, which I assure you is completely insane, is only so on a few dimensions. Ditto Germany. And England, oh, you're definitely a rival, England, culturing your eccentricities like yeast strains in Public Trust, but can you really hope to compete on our scale of self-aggrandized Special Ness? I think not.

Maybe it's not an accident that my son (aka Lord Running Boy), his mom, and to a lesser extent, me, share a newly studied condition called Restless Leg Syndrome, which is associated with growth factor genes MEIS1, BTBD9 and MAP2K5 and is 5-10 times more common in populations of Northern European descent than of Asian, African, or Mediterranean. There's no effective cure. Many Americans I've known have something of this "movement urge" quality, for example a longest-term girlfriend always fidgeted while waiting in line, same as me. Whereas I've not much run across that in distant habitudes. In myriad Old-World queues, I've stood and noted how they form wordlessly, by automatic consent, its members then exhibiting the patience of cattle, the posture of glaciers. Americans, by contrast, must frequently be told to form lines, then reminded. We find the word "queue" repellent, and therefore employ it only when conversing in Latin.

I've begun to suspect that we and I, along with millions of our fellow citizens, share a genetic mutation--and that there exists a biological, self-selected basis for the crazes of our nation. If you live abroad, you will eventually recognize Americans strictly by their walks: aggressive, rolling, forward angles, lots of arm/shoulder movement. Europeans walk possessively, far less arm movement, posture further back with a tendency to glide. Asians, well, they almost vanish at times, and could probably walk unnoticed through an Alice in Chains mosh pit. Generally, where nature leaves off and nurture takes over is mysterious, but Americans can be spotted when not walking, too. I've been sitting mutely in foreign coat, clothes, hat, haircut, and shoes, reading a foreign book or drinking a foreign drink when people approached to ask me a question in English. They could have been reading behavioral signatures, true, but Germans have also reflexively decoded my ancestry, a good part of which is from there, while correctly noting a Czechoslovakian influence.

Jack Kerouac perfectly captures American cultural distinctions throughout 'On The Road,' a book he wrote in 20 days using benzedrine and a 120-foot roll of typing paper. It explores America, criss-crosses its essence, and revels in restlessness while an archetypally manic Neal Cassady searches for "it." Cassady isn't alone. In one anecdote, two big farmboys from Minnesota pick hitchhikers up on their flatbed Chevy truck on the way to California. Blonde Swede-descended bats out of high-decibel hell, they drive through the night, eight unmuffled cylinders banging the air for speed, wooden planked bed kicking up violently over bumps following characters who would hot-rod Southern California. In other forms of wildlife, new traits are expressed quite rapidly as environmental pressures draw out mutations. Humans have shown varieties of imaginative and remarkable knowledge-based adaptations to environmental circumstance, but in the migratory magnet of the American Experiment, have we unknowingly bred a hyper-culture? It would explain much, so let's take a crack at it.

Freud believed all psychotic disorders are forms of narcissim; with mania, one becomes the anointed, the savior, the One with ecstatic insight and a license to redeem everyone and everything if they can only be made to comprehend, to see, to agree. With dementia praecox and depression, one is singled out for crucifictions, is helotized, degraded, paranoia transforming politesses into Parthian shots. Dr. Ronald Fieve, the psychiatrist who pioneered lithium treatment for patients with bipolar disorder, gave us a clue. Years ago he noted that 90% of North Americans who come under treatment are diagnosed as manic-depressive, only 10% schizophrenic, remarkable in that the percentage of these clinical pathologies is reversed in Europe.

I'm not a geneticist, but as an observer of human history, I'm well aware that even in the face of war, persecution, and famine, for every 2 people who flee, 98 stay put; only prolonged starvation causes mass migrations. This is entirely consistent with primate behavior, where those most likely to migrate are the edge-dwellers, usually aggressive low-level males. They leave their tribe (the term is used intentionally) not because they're driven out, but because they seek opportunity and are optimistic enough to countenance risk, unattached enough to leave their loved ones.

The migrant monkeys and apes who make it through the meat gauntlet to seed a new troop are the smartest and most hardy, so in their new troops they often wind up on top, creating species-level evolutionary impacts. Some of my other forebears crossed the Atlantic in what were accurately called "coffin ships," and despite the Great Famine, despite the lethality of Black '47 and years to come, more of the Westies stayed in Ireland than ever left. Even under the worst circumstances, the ones who crossed the water were the most motivated and the most dissatisfied, traits which they passed down culturally.

Accordingly, if I were a geneticist, to prove my case for American Mania I would search for studies that look along mammalian pleasure stations, the dopamine receptors. Examples are readily found: "Dopamine D4 Receptor Exon III Polymorphism Associated with the Human Personality Trait of Novelty Seeking;" Evidence that the Dopamine D4 Receptor Is a Susceptibility Gene in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; and "Population Migration and the Variation of Dopamine D4 Receptor Allele Frequencies around the Globe."

Well, then. People who can get up and go, they echo or amplify a core human evolutionary advantage. We got the hell off the Savannah and went looking for the smorgasbords of our prophecies. Whether it was catastrophe, longing, or wild hairs, something made us leave behind the security of our lakes in the Ethiopian Rift Valley. The D4-7 allele is a comparatively young recombinant outlier which differs by 6 sequential mutations from the common DRD4 alleles, and the American population is full to the gills with it. To quote the team of the latter migration study above, "we propose that this (D4-7) allele originated as a rare mutational event that nevertheless increased to high frequency in human populations by positive selection." The optimisms which can shift into pitiless, uncontrollable ecstasies, the energies which can be encased in the painful thralls of ADHD, they are our birthrights.

There are a host of implied linkages about how our genetics shaped the American interpretations of commerce and capitalism, winner-take-all competition as tied to Smithian evolutions, and greater-sum game theories. But if I wanted to write a book about it, and someone will, I would no longer be a knock-about blogger, would I? Therefore I'll just climb up on de Toqueville's imposing back:
"Choose any American at random and he should be a man of burning desires, enterprising, adventurous, and above all an innovator. The same bent affects all he does--his politics, his religious doctrines, his theories of social economy, his domestic occupations--he carries it with him into the depths of the backwoods as well as into the city's business."

(Democracy in America, Vol. I, Pt. II, Chapter 10)
That's still how Europe sees us. Like an aching knee foretells the storm, every day I stare down the ugly barrel of what I know is an epic, unfolding seizure in the American Experiment. Every week I give a thought to leaving, just like all my grandparents or great-grandparents did, just like the majority who have ever settled here, be they rapacious Vikings, religious nuts financed on a stock swindle, Scots-Irish Picts looking for somebody to shoot, huddled puking masses waiting to jump ship, economic refugees slaving over gourmet meals in L.A., or the elite and brilliant scions of India out to make a Silicon Valley fortune. Where else would we go? We have traveled the world, and it is not enough.

Many now argue for American post-exceptionalism, and I positively ache for it, but it's not that simple. That much must be confessed; I and my country-mates are genetic outliers. A collection of mutants, our bodies process the very pleasures of life differently, and we are a manic nation.
Quod erat demonstratum, U+220E. At the very least, and more charitably, we are comparatively hyperactive and cannot alter our inner structures.

The next time we hear someone preaching crazy-ass moonshines from our national podium, there's a good chance they actually mean them, but require medication. Self-knowledge, after all, is a most valuable tool for managing temperaments, moods, reactions, selves, nations. We are Americans. Brown, yellow, black, red or white, we're crazier than thou and our genes went through serious shit to make it this far. We don't need an economist. We don't need an enabler-politician. We don't need a preacher. We need a good psychiatrist.


Anonymous said...

"We don't need an enabler-politician. We don't need a preacher. We need a good psychiatrist."

Calling Dr. Jim McDermott?

Terrific piece. I'm in slack-jawed awe, as usual.

MarcLord said...

Thanks Phil, and for reminding me of McDermott. It's sure nice to have him representing the District, even getting sued by the Pugs.

Vincent said...

I had to check google for the meaning of "Alice in Chains mosh pit". Only your piece came up so I had to split it into the two phrases. Gruesome enough.

Yes, I think you have pretty much summed it up. Feels intuitively correct. And what makes it doubly compelling is the embodiment of what you are arguing in the mood and texture of your piece. You are on the inside of the asylum, infected with the same things; but your ability to identify them must give you some kind of immunity that's the next best thing to emigration.

Bruce said...

"Marilyn Manson was a skinny public high school kid, not some monster from out of this world."

-- Todd Snider

MarcLord said...


and the genetics are really fascinating; i've got a lot to learn there, of course, and am just taking more interest in the mechanisms. I truly-truly hope you're right about the immunity part. The Funhouse is really hopping now.

MarcLord said...

Great stuff, Bruce. I've only listened through half the song so far, but I see why you posted them and went to see them!

Bruce said...

Dude, you are a serious multi-tasker if you didn't wait until the end of the song to reply! ;-)

The end is the best part, by the way. Ties it all together.

MarcLord said...

I am a serious multi-tasker, bruce, albeit not by inclination. Fatherhood did it to me.

isabelita said...

I read some time ago about a theory that Americans are hyper because the people that came over to settle in what has become the USA were hyper, many of them second sons of Europeans who didn't stand to inherit anything over there. Also, it took a bloody lot of energy to keep pushing Westward - who else but ADHD folks could do that?

MarcLord said...


thought about that second son thing & European inheritance law, too, but don't know how to get that data. Funny enough, you & phil, me & my wife, we're all sterling examples of internal migration, which America still has an exceptional amount of. Egg/Chicken, sure, but it does fit the hypothesis.

And hey--do you remember where you read that second son theory?

isabelita said...

Argh - I shall rack my brains - or is it "wrack"? Rack through the wrack? At the moment I don't even recall how long ago it was. Maybe in a book review? In the NY Review of Books?
I'll let it sit for a bit in the back of my mind...

Naj said...

what a nice post!

But, nature/culture interact, yes at a genetic level too.

As America's manic phase is coming to the grinding halt we are anxiously watching, as the depressive symptoms of the "Inconvenient truth" of "no where to go" begin to take over, America will learn to breed a more mellowed down generation.

America's hyperactivity is NOT due to a genetic determinant; it is the "nature/culture" of wealth, freedom, and POSSIBILITY, having allowed it so far. Not all this 300 million will come to Cananda (thank god for winters) ... they WILL change!

The 'aggressive' Europeans learned humility as their bottoms were kicked out of India, Indonesia, Algeria ... so will Americans!

MarcLord said...


don't wrack too hard, would just love to see other thinking on the same avenue. I'm way over my head on the genetics.


Every manic cycle has its burn-out. not sure if American exceptionalism has a genetic determinism or not, but there is some evidence for it; for both Canada and the US, migration as a cultural determinant is very obvious. (Come to think of it, Canada might warm up quite a bit.)

you're right, of course, but it sure took the Yerpeens a long time to learn!