Would Boris Johnson be any more use to us if we were all transported back to our ancestral home in the African Savannah? The primeval instincts that drive us to elevate our social status have not changed but the ways that we achieve it have diversified. As we become increasingly aware of the biochemical mechanisms that underpin these motivations, we ought to be evaluating their worth. Our brains are adapted to reward us when we eat more than we need and solving the obesity epidemic hinges on training people to ignore such urges. In my opinion we would do well to train the likes of Boris to ignore his vacuous power lust.
Boris Johnson is among a class of political leaders about whose antics everyone constantly needs to qualify analysis with a reminder of how clever he is. Lest we forget, the likes of Dubya and Bojo are much more intelligent than their carefully cultivated buffoonery would have us all believe. What does clever mean in this context? Does it mean they can understand complex ideas and relay them to others in their own words? Does it mean they can do mental arithmetic quickly and accurately? Can they solve a Rubik’s cube blindfold in 20 seconds? All of these things require intelligence but they are not traits we should prioritise when selecting leaders.
It’s great to be clever but what people really need is creativity. After a 20th century coloured by sinister debate over the extent to which intelligence is genetically determined at the point of conception, researchers are increasingly rubbishing flawed metrics like IQ tests, partly because they are poor predictors of creativity, which to my mind is what we really need. Creativity is defined at the academic level as the ability to output produce both novel and useful. Boris is certainly a novelty but can he offer anything of use?
Critically, what plan does he have for Brexit? None whatsoever as far as I can tell. Just yesterday he was on record as saying that he wants our relationship with Europe to remain unchanged, except that we will “regain” the sovereignty that experts such as Professor Michael Dougan tried so painstakingly to tell us we had all along. So in other words – he wants everything to stay the same. Great leaders are visionaries – able to see the same old reality in a brand new way. Boris’ plan for Europe demonstrates no vision – it is delusion.
Really, he has no plan. But of course this was a campaign in which his sidekick Michael Gove said that we’d had enough from experts. They certainly know their audience. A leave voter from Liverpool said that he didn’t care about the loss of funding that the UK science community would suffer following a Brexit. What Boris and Gove would have us believe is that they can sustain continual economic growth without the experts who constantly drive technology forward. Continued economic growth does not depend on constantly selling more products to more people; it consists of constantly elevating the level of technology - inventing new things for people to buy. That's the cornerstone of any economy. That’s why we ignore experts at our peril.
Despite all this we are also compelled to say that Boris is the likely choice for the next leader. But what credentials does he actually have? Say what you want about Tony Blair – and I hope the Chilcot Inquiry will say what many of us thought all along – but he had a vision. He had ideas. He didn’t just lavish the working class with the money accrued by his predecessors, he pioneered the third way. It didn’t work but it was an idea worth trying. He had the integrity to declare up front that he planned to charge university students for their education. He introduced the minimum wage. What would Boris actually do if he was PM?
Boris is the most dangerous fallout of a generation that wants to be a celebrity just because. As our vacuous tabloids have increasingly venerated it girls and reality TV show winners, people have begun to think that fame is the goal. Prestige, celebrity, acclaim, these should be the by-products of a talent well plied not the end in itself. It’s ever more apparent that Boris thinks he should be the PM just because he wants to be in charge but I cannot see how his supposed intelligence will help him do the job well. I think it’s more likely that he’s a slave to his biology.
Scientific research is painting an ever clearer picture of the reasons why we do things. Our brains reward us with soothing opioids – the biochemical cousins of the narcotic opiates harvested from the poppy – when we engage in activities likely to increase the representation of our genes in future generations. We are rewarded for eating, especially sugars and carbs which fuel the numerous chemical processes that happen around our body. We are rewarded for having sex, which directly contributes to the likelihood of our genes being replicated in our children. (Or at least it did before we invented contraception.) And evidence is mounting that we are rewarded when we elevate our social status – because it enhances our access to food and mating partners.
Another key player in all this is dopamine. Previously thought to cause the pleasurable feeling of reward, it is now thought to guide us towards reward-worthy activities. As researcher Kent Berridge has suggested, dopamine makes us want things, and opioids cause us to like them when we get them. Dopamine currents motivate us to eat and when we act on this motivation, opioids provide the sensation that characterises comfort eating. Similar mechanisms mediate sexual activity, which is where we start to cross over into social dominance territory.
Both social dominance and sexual activity have long been linked with testosterone levels. This makes sense because social status is a dictator of mating potential. But research into sex, particularly dysfunction such as impotence, presented a poser for researchers: If testosterone drives us to have sex, why don’t testosterone supplements make us friskier? The point is that testosterone does not act in isolation; it is only as good as the biochemicals with which it interacts, specifically receptors. Receptors are molecules which are selectively activated when they bind with specific partners. In this case testosterone primes receptors to interact with our DNA, causing certain genes to be expressed. One such gene is called nitric oxide synthase, which in turns produces nitric oxide, a neurotransmitter which influences dopamine currents. So in other words, the presence of both testosterone and its receptor in the right part of the brain has the ability to influence our motivation, but what for?
Evidence is mounting that the dopamine opioid dyad motivates us not only to have sex but also to elevate our social status. A notable example is the winner effect, the phenomenon that winning one competition increases the likelihood of winning the next. Such winning streaks are not only observed in sports teams but also in animal species as diverse as fighting fish and crickets. Researchers have found that winning a bout causes a spike in the number of testosterone receptors, making the neural circuits in question more sensitive to the presence of testosterone. It’s not that we need more testosterone to sustain a winning streak, it’s that we need more receptors with which for the hormone to bind. Moreover, like intelligence, our ability to dominate is not set in genetic stone when we are conceived, but is subject to a fiercely complex interplay between our genes and our environment.
Boris has been on a winning streak for some time, starting with his regular appearances on Have I Got News For You, through his tenure as London City Mayor to the current moment, when leadership of the conservative party, and potentially the country, seems ripe for the plucking. I can only speculate that his brain is fertile with androgen receptors, ready to drive his winning streak forward. What worries me is that there is no substance to his power bid. Fellow tory MP Anna Soubry went on record the day after the referendum result was announced to suggest not only that Boris was only in the leave camp as a power play, but also that he never actually expected the leave camp to win. So when we say that Boris Johnson is clever, may I suggest the following interpretation: He’s clever at getting himself in charge. That’s an important talent for anyone looking to succeed, but it’s useless on its own. It’s like a teacher who can manage behaviour but cannot make their compliant students learn anything.
In terms of biochemistry I see a parallel with obesity. We all have unique body chemistry meaning that we differ in our response to stimuli. For example two people given equal portions of cake may experience a different degree of reward and whoever gets the smaller reward – either because their brains paid out a smaller dose of opioids or because other parts of their brains were less sensitive to opioids – may thus have a greater temptation to eat more cake. A similar imbalance could make Boris overly inclined to elevate his status, even though the incipient bid seems to lack any substance. In both cases the need arises for appetites to be managed. I must confess, I am overweight and I always want to eat. What I need to do is train myself to ignore my near constant urge to indulge. It seems to me that Boris should take the same view. I am not so naïve as to consider that likely, I just think the same logic applies. When food was scarce in hunter gatherer times, it was adaptive for our brains to encourage excessive eating. In modern day situations where food is abundant, it has become maladaptive. Similarly, Boris’s biochemical makeup may be finely tuned for status elevation, but that doesn’t make the drive useful.
Of course I would say this because I think Brexit is a disaster. His reaction – assuring us all that he aims to change our relationship with Europe as little as possible – is consistent with Anna Soubry’s accusation that he never truly expected to win. If the UK prospers outside of Europe, we will look back and hail him as a visionary. Frankly it doesn’t feel that likely. He has a primeval power lust and a soundbite skillset. He’s like a dinosaur with a smart phone – all that power, all that technology, but no ability to link them up. I can’t help thinking he’d be as much use in the Savannah as he is to us now.
The biochemical themes referenced in this article are explored in more detail in my forthcoming book The Chemistry of Human Nature. Subscribe below for updates.(The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of the publishers The Royal Society of Chemistry.)
Photo of Boris Johnson, titled "Boris Johnson" © Andrew Parsons/ i-Images, downloaded from Flickr, distributed under creative commons license.