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Book Forum: History and Society   |    
American Mania: When More Is Not Enough
DAVID V. FORREST, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2005;162:2414-2415. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.12.2414
View Author and Article Information
New York, N.Y.

By Peter C. Whybrow, M.D. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 2005, 338 pp., $24.95.

This is a thought-provoking book, both because and in spite of itself. The author seeks to explain "the dramatic shift away from social concern and toward competitive self-interest that occurred during the closing decades of the 20th Century" (p. 257). He feels that "the same tools and technologies that have enabled America to achieve Adam Smith’s ‘universal opulence’ have also compromised the social anchors" (p. 258). He sees our challenge as "transforming those pleasures into mass happiness" and "forging from the affluence of commercial success a balanced and equitable society" (p. 263).

Whybrow, himself a British immigrant, advances the anthroposocial hypothesis that we Americans are a nation of "migrants" who are equipped not just with the selfish genes of all biology but also with the restless, adventuresome genes of those who have risked all to seek a new land of opportunity. The book’s argument relies on the work of Chuansheng Chen and his co-workers (1), who correlated a greater percentage of certain dopamine-4 alleles, specifically 7-repeats and long alleles (5- to 11-repeats), with exploratory human nature—novelty-seeking personality, hyperactivity, and risk-taking—in human groups who have "macro-migrated." The 4-repeats, according to this argument, are more prevalent in sedentary groups. It is the opinion of Chen (whose name is misspelled) and his co-workers that the gene variation is the natural selective result rather than the cause of migratory culture over thousands of years and that recent U.S. immigrants (Japanese, Chinese, and Europeans) do not show the effect. The effect is seen, for example, in Colombian Indians who migrated far across the Bering land bridge 10,000 and 5,000 years ago. Granted, North American Native Americans, who are rich in 7-repeats, have contributed to the casino bubble, but this is not necessarily a sign of risk-taking, because this business has not proved very risky for them and, in any case, they have had help from other Americans of European ancestry. The savings and loan and Internet collapses, caused by risk-taking, were associated with Americans of European ancestry, who have the same number of repeats and alleles as their forebears.

The book has a booming tone, as though it were written standing at a lectern with a feather pen. In keeping with the author’s admiration of de Tocqueville, he seems to view Americans at a remove that is mercifully relaxed only in discussing his interviewees.

Whybrow argues that highly migrant people are novelty seekers, restless and optimistic risk-takers, and poor farmers. An overload of social stimulation engages and "hijacks" the same dopamine "superhighways" as caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, and amphetamines (p. 93), with the result that the United States bubbles over with unusual "irrational exuberance" and "infectious greed" (in Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan’s words [p. 127]), which Whybrow likens to hypomania and florid mania. This is aggravated by "globalization and greed," resulting in a "manic society" in which more is never enough and time pressures increase. As examples he parses the Internet bubble of 2000 as if the United States were going through the phases of a manic illness—namely, optimism, hypomania, full flower, and bubble bursting. In America, failure is no shame, only not to try is.

"Turbocapitalism" (p. 187) and "a giant casino" (p. 240) have resulted, with the growth of megacorporations like Wal-Mart, which accounts for 6% of American retail sales, undermining the cohesive and supportive personal social microcosms of the rural villages with their butchers and bankers in a Faustian exchange that substitutes the impersonality of "multinational companies with little accountability" (p. 255). Whybrow amply illustrates the loneliness and isolation that result and bemoans Thomas Jefferson’s substituting "the pursuit of happiness" for "property" in the Declaration of Independence. As one of Whybrow’s interviewees puts it, "Happiness cannot be pursued. Happiness is something that wells up inside" (pp. 46, 240). This book has rich chapters on the evolutionary psychobiology of American malnutritive obesity and our sleep-indebtedness to our suprachiasmatic nuclei. Whybrow notes that coffee is second only to oil as a traded commodity (p. 162).

Fearing that as a New Yorker I am unqualified to critique this book because manic time pressures seem normal here, I refer the reader to Jacobs and Gerson (2), who showed that the temporal pressure of staying long at work is confined to us professionals and that the national uptick in annual work hours is the result of more women working. Thomas Friedman (3), the New York Times correspondent, argues that with globalization, the "flattening" of the world economy has allowed India, China, and many other countries to join in the global supply chain of manufacturing and services, which will require us to run even faster to stay in place than Dr. Whybrow notes we are already running. In my opinion, the best evidence for Whybrow’s case is the multiplication of slot machines, the growth of Las Vegas, and the meretricious, pseudoreligious sanctimony of the new sanitized, family-friendly casinos.

Whybrow’s book is provocative in spite of itself because it not only revisits the possibility of psychodiagnosis in the axis of culture, venturing beyond the pieties of anthropology and identity politics that all cultures are equally beneficial, but also challenges us to reconsider the inadequacy of our psychiatric descriptors for that task. Identifying a culture as manic or paranoid or obsessive or dyssocial is somewhat informative, but we could seek better concepts and terms for a culture’s role in psychogenesis. Kardiner (4), attempting to avoid the idea of national character, proposed a basic personality as the repository of a society’s values, from which individual character differentiates. Specifying the concepts and nomenclature awaits our ingenuity.

Chen C, Burton M, Greenburger E, Dmitrieva J: Population migration and the variation of dopamine D4 receptor (DRD4) allele frequencies around the globe. Evol Hum Behav  1999; 20:309–324
[CrossRef]
 
Jacobs JA, Gerson K: The Time Divide: Work, Family, and Gender Inequality. New York, Harvard University Press, 2004
 
Friedman TC: The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century. New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005
 
Kardiner A: The Psychological Frontiers of Society. New York, Columbia University Press, 1950
 
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References

Chen C, Burton M, Greenburger E, Dmitrieva J: Population migration and the variation of dopamine D4 receptor (DRD4) allele frequencies around the globe. Evol Hum Behav  1999; 20:309–324
[CrossRef]
 
Jacobs JA, Gerson K: The Time Divide: Work, Family, and Gender Inequality. New York, Harvard University Press, 2004
 
Friedman TC: The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century. New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005
 
Kardiner A: The Psychological Frontiers of Society. New York, Columbia University Press, 1950
 
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