There's Nothing Shameful About Accountability

John Edwards

Sadly, here we go again. On 8 August 2008, ABC aired and posted a public confirmation by former presidential candidate John Edwards of an affair. Edwards reported that more than a year earlier he had confessed to his wife. But Edwards' campaign supporters now had to absorb the fact that their presidential candidate had repeatedly lied to them (and to the nation) when pressed by the media about the allegation -- and that he had lied while he was still in the running. Sexual indiscretion thus, once again, escalated into willful public deception that, over the long-term, is the most damaging of all to public trust.

As I wrote in my March 2008 blog, Lizard Legacy Bites 3 More Alphas: "Have we learned anything from these personal and public tragedies? I would venture this: So long as religious and political leaders continue to ignore our evolutionary heritage, and thus do not put in place structures of internal and external support that can withstand the high dosages of testosterone that high status and power necessarily confer, then there will be no hope for a less calamitous future." (This quotation was drawn from page 162 of the Viking/Plume 2008 edition of my book, Thank God for Evolution.)

By "3 more alphas" I was then referring to (1) the prostitution scandal of the governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer; (2) the pre-emptory confession of past infidelity by the man who was stepping up to replace Sptizer, David Paterson, and (3) the perjury charge that had caught up with Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who had denied under oath improper sexual conduct with a staff member.

Let us now examine, with an eye instructed by evolutionary brain science (see chapters 9 and 10 of my book), Edwards' own words at the core of his confession. What we shall see is that one of the highest-status men in America well describes (though obviously lacks any scientific understanding of) the chemical basis by which an increase in status profoundly affects a man's testosterone levels, which in turn will escalate both his sex drive and his willingness to take risks. Edwards told the world,

I was slapped down to the ground when my son Wade died in 1996, in April of 1996. But then after that I ran for the Senate and I got elected to the Senate and here we go again, it's the same old thing again. Adulation, respect, admiration. Then I went from being a senator, a young senator, to being considered for vice president, running for president, being a vice presidential candidate and becoming a national public figure. All of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want. You're invincible. And there will be no consequences. And nothing, nothing could be further from the truth."

Thus yet another bright, successful man with a passion for public service was unprepared for the drug-like hit of testosterone that his career trajectory made an inevitability.

Instead of tut-tutting about yet another casualty, or speaking from an implied position of holier-than-he, my response is this: "There but for the grace of understanding our brain's creation story go I."

The turn in my own less-than-integrous life came when I began to understand the chemical basis of my own temptations to waywardness. To move beyond denial and its twin of grandiose self-justification was, for me, a multi-step process. Early on, I benefitted from the 12-step recovery process of coming to admit that my sexual appetite had become a problem and that, without support, it could easily undermine not only my marriage but the higher purpose for which I now live: my very mission in life. Yet it was not until I came to embrace the evolutionary story and its implications for my personal challenges that I found the keys to the kingdom and "the peace that passes all understanding."

The evolutionary story worked its magic for me in this way: First I came to genuinely appreciate the "demon" within. That is, I accepted the very real possibility that it was, in fact, high doses of testosterone that had given my ancestral grandfathers both the strength and the rage to protect their families and villages from marauders. It was testosterone that endowed my male forebears with the courage to hunt mammoths despite terrible casualties. And, yes, it was testosterone, too, that had made my entire lineage of grandfathers masters at taking every opportunity to engage in sexual intercourse -- and not that long ago: my mother never learned the name of her father, nor the circumstances by which her mother, my grandmother, had become pregnant.

But I couldn't stop there. Such storytelling would only feed the demon of self-justification, what Edwards calls "self-focus, egotism." Rather, I had to admit to myself and others that -- because I was human and male -- the very trajectory of my life work demanded that I take steps to curb and channel ancient instincts that were now out of sync with the culture and time in which I lived. You see, my 21st-century village no longer tolerates sexual profligacy in its leaders. Adultery has morphed from being what a man, in biblical times, might do with another man's wife, to what a married man might do with any woman (or man, for that matter). America thus no longer will ignore (and surely does not accept) sexual infidelity among its married leaders.

To prepare for the journey ahead, I knew that nothing was more important than to put in place both internal and external supports. As I suggest in my book, "Evolutionary psychology helps us understand why it is that accountability, or the lack of it, is the single best predictor of long-term integrity in individuals and groups." (p. 175) And thus I proclaim today: There is nothing shameful about accountability. And, yes, I do have in place in my own life both internal and external systems of accountability. For example, whenever I travel away from my wife, I call my "integrity partners" and let them know where and when I will be away. I vocalize my commitment to affectional and sexual integrity as a married man, and I promise to report back to them, on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 meaning I was wildly flirtatious, 10 meaning I was impeccable), how well I complied with my commitment to integrity.

This is a path that works for me and allows me to thrive as a monogamous man in today's world, even given my high levels of testosterone. Today, praise God, I find it effortless to abide in deepest integrity and have my sexual energies serve the rest of my life, and my beloved wife. I experience all of it, including my earlier challenges, as a gift. I highly recommend the path of accountability to any and all political and pastoral leaders, and those aspiring to become such leaders. You may be able to do it on your own right now, but as your status rises, the brain chemistry that will change in tandem with your success may well be your undoing.

Further Reading:

• For more on the science linking testosterone levels with status, see chapter 3 of the 2001 book by Joshua Goldstein, War and Gender, excerpted at

• The August 8, 2008 issue of Christianity Today surveys the various ways that evangelical Christian groups are enhancing the effectiveness of traditional recovery methods for sex and internet porn addiction by building in accountability and other features. The entire article can be found online at: