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The Grumpy Gene

grumpy
Science has discovered the gene for short-temperedness, but can grumps get the respect they deserve?

By Ted Rall



I'VE ALWAYS HAD AN attitude. Back in the third grade, I remember my teacher explaining that, even though it appears throughout such classic works of fiction as the Bible, "damn" was a "bad" word, inappropriate for use--ever, particularly in school. Afterward, I took to using the word in every single sentence, as in "May I please go to the goddamn rest room, dammit?" She sent to me to the principal's office the first few times I did this but eventually gave up, and I spent the entire year strolling the halls, repeating the D-word thousands of times.

As one of the shortest kids in junior high, my role in the juvenile social contract was crystal-clear: Stay inconspicuous, avoid harm. Yet instead, I repeatedly found myself sneaking up behind some teenage behemoth, kicking him as hard as possible in the shins while screaming insults regarding his mother's extracurricular sex habits. I fully expected--and received--a pounding each time. But I just couldn't help myself. It was worth it just to see the look of surprise in their faces.

Moving to Manhattan to attend college helped calm me down a bit. The first time I observed New York motorists at a stop signal, revving their engines while watching for the green light going the other way to turn yellow before flooring the gas like racers at Le Mans, I knew I'd found home. Here was an entire city full of people just as anxious as me, and many of them were armed. Now to get rid of the damn tourists!

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Metro's own rundown of the greatest grumps in
Santa Clara County, plus life with grumps and
grumps on film.

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Now biochemists writing in the journal Science reveal that easily irritated, uptight people like me probably have a slightly shorter version of the gene that handles the movement of the neurochemical serotonin from one brain cell to the next. Anti-depressant drugs like Prozac work by increasing the flow of serotonin, so having the shortened transporter gene acts like anti-Prozac, making a person nervous, grumpy, cynical, perhaps even neurotic. Pessimism, it turns out, may not so much be a personality trait as a genetic disorder.

The scientists studied more than 500 college students, most of them white males, and asked them whether they agreed or disagreed with such questions as "I am not a worrier" and "Frightening thoughts sometimes come into my head." They took blood samples, and found that those students with truncated transporter genes tended to be more neurotic than those with the longer ones.

I am depressed about this. I have spent much of my life arguing with my optimistic counterparts in defense of my finely honed negative attitudes. For me, negativity isn't the default mode that results after abandoning positive thinking; it's simply the only logical course. I have taught myself to take for granted that all politicians eventually become corrupt, that all corporate executives enjoy polluting rivers, that most people are stark raving idiots. I've always found satisfaction in the predictability that my admittedly rancid world view offered me.

My enduring belief that everything sucks, based on scientific observation, conveniently explains such seemingly disparate phenomena as the popularity of Pearl Jam, cigars and the Republican Party. My negativity has been vindicated as I've watched my friends and colleagues suffer disappointment after disappointment as they were passed over for promotions, fired unfairly and mistreated by their significant others. The newspapers are consistently choked with articles depicting people shocked by some negative turn of events like a draconian welfare-reform bill or a hurricane blowing their house out to sea.

Not me! I've accepted such catastrophes as being expelled from college and getting fired for a theft I didn't commit as a matter of course, the inevitable result of life's vicious unfairness in a world populated by exploiters, liars and opportunists.

Maybe I never put on a happy face or had a nice day and worried about everything all the time, but my philosophy, that no matter how bad anything is, it can and probably will get worse, always worked. Pessimists are never disappointed, only pleasantly surprised when things go well. The last time I went through a near-death experience, my might-have-been-last thought was: "Figures."

Now I face a philosophical dilemma: If the nervous pessimism that worked so well in the past wasn't the result of an intelligent choice, as I formerly thought, but rather an genetic mutation caused by my mom living too close to a nuke plant while she was pregnant, shouldn't I reconsider it? After all, one's behavior should be the culmination of one's experiences and the result of careful deliberation, not the result of some arbitrary biological factor.

But this, of course, leads to another question: Am I, in fact, free to become a giddy, toothy-grinned optimist? Or am I genetically doomed to my bad attitude?

I plan to get tested in the next few weeks. Whatever I find, I'll take comfort from another result of the gene study: Nearly 70 percent of people have this pessimistic, anxiety-laden short gene. Dr. Una McCann of the National Institute of Mental Health told The New York Times that the popularity of genetically enforced pessimism could be the result of Darwinism: "Anxiety is there for a really good reason. It's one of the things that is part of our genes because it's protective."

Things are looking up!

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From the August 7-13, 1997 issue of Metro.

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