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Exploring the link between biology and behavior

Exploring the link between biology and behavior
In recent years, the debate over nature vs. nurture has gone decidedly natural. Overweight? Blame it on your genes. Addicted to drugs? It`s those damn genes. Prone to depression or infidelity? Again, genetics. Of course, not everybody buys into this notion. The idea that biology substantially influences behavior is not just controversial, but unsettling. Does this mean people aren`t responsible for their choices and actions?

Well, yes and no, say Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan, authors of "Mean Genes." Human behavior, they contend, is largely the result of natural selection.

For example, we tend to fritter away our money - spending lots, saving little - because evolution suggests that`s a better survival mode. Our hunting-and-gathering ancestors typically consumed all they could as often and as quickly as they could. Saving for a rainy day made no sense, because food (the most valuable commodity of the time) didn`t last; it either spoiled or somebody else ate it. Thus, no gene for prudence - food, fiscal or otherwise.

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On the other hand, humans clearly aren`t "dumb" animals. We have large brains, from which a novel state of consciousness and free will arise. Unlike other species, we spend great amounts of our time pondering - and anguishing - over choices. A dog doesn`t fret about weight control. It eats until it can eat no more. A chimp, as far as primatologists can tell, never resolves to be less selfish.

But humans do these two things and more. Thus, the book`s subtitle: "Taming Our Primal Instincts."

According to Burnham and Phelan, a genetic predisposition toward chubbiness doesn`t dictate a lifetime of shopping at the Big & Tall or Pretty & Plump. But it does suggest you might benefit from a better understanding of the links between biology and behavior.

That`s where Burnham, a Harvard economist, and Phelan, a University of California Los Angeles biologist, come in. "Mean Genes" is clearly intended to be the popular treatise on genetics, sociobiology and the yin-yang of nature and nurture. From its eye-popping purple-and-orange book jacket to their sassy, conversational prose, the authors work hard not merely to explain some rather difficult scientific concepts, but make them sound fun and trendy. This is self-improvement for the semi-cerebral.

In the process, the genetic underpinnings of some pretty universal human conditions are revealed:

We are overweight because, in evolutionary terms, fat is good. Fat is energy stored for hard times. Early humans experienced lots of the latter, so any fat they acquired didn`t last long. Modern humans don`t often confront periods of extended hunger, or find themselves endlessly trekking across the savannah. As a result, our fat sticks around, accumulating.

Beauty isn`t really defined by Madison Avenue or the fashion mavens. While details may vary with time and culture, the fundamental basis for what and who is beautiful are biologically based. In all societies and in both sexes, such aphrodisiacs as vigor, clear skin and symmetrical features are treasured. These suggest good genes and health, advertising their owner as an attractive mate.

Families are focal points for both the strongest bonds and most divisive conflicts. Shared genes reinforces the former, but it`s not always enough to overcome individual interests. Conflict is a part of every human relationship, and sometimes the fiercest competition (for things like love or inheritance) comes from those closest to us.

The bottom line: Our genes influence us every day in almost every way. We are perpetually predisposed. This is a sobering thought, say the authors, but not necessarily an overwhelming one. Your life is still yours to fashion and mold. It just takes discipline and smarts - provided you`ve been genetically endowed with enough of each.

- Scott LaFee

"Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia"

By David Gaddis Smith ;

"Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia" by Paul Klebnikov; Harcourt; 352 pages; $28.

Boris Berezovsky already was a successful businessman when a major key to his success in becoming a Russian oligarch took place: He published President Boris Yeltsin`s book, "Notes of a President."

The book apparently did not sell very well, but Yeltsin, who a top aide said "never accepted any money from anyone," expected to make a tremendous profit. To make it seem like it was a best seller, Berezovsky deposited large amounts of money into Yeltsin`s London bank account, telling Yeltsin it was from his book sales. This got Berezovsky into Yeltsin`s inner circle and admittance into the Presidential Club, an athletic club reserved for top officials. It also got him close to Yeltsin`s daughter, Tanya, who would play a powerful role in her father`s decision-making.

All this is related in fascinating detail in Forbes Senior Editor Paul Klebnikov`s "Godfather of the Kremlin." The book takes a panoramic view of Russia`s crony capitalism in the 1990s while focusing on Berezovsky, who achieved tremendous business success through muscle and political connections.

Klebnikov helps explain what went wrong in Russia during its transition from communist rule toward its theoretical goal of capitalist democracy. In rigged bidding, businessmen bought profitable state-owned companies for a song. The businesses then created middleman companies that drained the companies of cash and made it appear there was little profit to tax, leaving stockholders and the cash-strapped government holding the bag.

Berezovsky`s connections apparently helped him gain control of Aeroflot airline, a major oil company and the ORT TV network, among other businesses. He also served as a top government official for a time.

Before publishing Yeltsin`s book, Berezovsky ran a chain of car dealerships. He bought cars from a state-run factory at subsidized prices and sold them for high prices, as cars were in tremendous demand. In a holdover policy from communist times, the factory sold cars for export at even lower prices; Berezovsky created a paper trail that made it appear he had exported them when in fact they were sold on the domestic market.

Because there were such tremendous profits to be made, gangsters tried to muscle into the businesses, or demanded protection money. Klebnikov makes the case that Berezovsky hired Chechen gangsters as his protectors. These contacts apparently were a factor in Berezovsky`s later dealings with Russia`s breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Violence followed Berezovsky. He survived a 1994 car bombing that killed his driver and took the eye of his bodyguard. (He said threats against him were a factor in his obtaining Israeli citizenship.) Some of his business rivals were killed. He was a suspect in the 1995 murder of Vlad Listyev, a popular talk-show host who had control of advertising revenues for the TV network in which Berezovsky acquired a 49 percent stake. Klebnikov says the day before Listyev was killed, Berezovsky paid a mob boss $100,000.

Klebnikov claims Berezovsky and others used state money to buy Yeltsin the 1996 election and points out that Yeltsin`s greatest rival in the race, Communist Gennady Zyuganov, essentially was not allowed on television. The book says Berezovsky helped orchestrate President Vladimir Putin`s election this year, too. Still, Putin has made moves lately to reduce Berezovsky`s control of the TV network.

Klebnikov, who holds a Ph.D. in Russian history from the London School of Economics, conducted hundreds of interviews for this book. Its major shortcoming is that many of the conclusions it draws and inferences it makes are based on circumstantial evidence.

While faulting the United States for giving Russia naive advice, the book does not address the big-picture issue of how it may be in the West`s best interests for once-powerful Russia to be struggling. Klebnikov points out all that went wrong; not until the epilogue does he say the 1990s were likely to be a failure no matter what any official did.

"The fact that Boris Yeltsin inherited an unhealthy state and an unhealthy society," Klebnikov writes, "made it nearly impossible for his reforms to succeed." Still, as the book illustrates, Russia deserved much better than what the often-unhealthy Yeltsin gave it.

- David Gaddis Smith

(c)Copley News Service


Author: Scott LaFee

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