Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts

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9780738202303: Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts

Short, sassy, and bold, Mean Genes uses a Darwinian lens to examine the issues that most deeply affect our lives: body image, money, addiction, violence, and the endless search for happiness, love, and fidelity. But Burnham and Phelan don't simply describe the connections between our genes and our behavior; they also outline steps that we can take to tame our primal instincts and so improve the quality of our lives.Why do we want (and do) so many things that are bad for us? We vow to lose those extra five pounds, put more money in the bank, and mend neglected relationships, but our attempts often end in failure. Mean Genes reveals that struggles for self-improvement are, in fact, battles against our own genes--genes that helped our cavewoman and caveman ancestors flourish but that are selfish and out of place in the modern world. Why do we like junk food more than fruit? Why is the road to romance so rocky? Why is happiness so elusive? What drives us into debt? An investigation into the biological nature of temptation and the struggle for control, Mean Genes answers these and other fundamental questions about human nature while giving us an edge to lead more satisfying lives.

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Review:

"Don't trust your instincts." Hardly the standard self-help fare, to be sure. Arguing that Darwin has a lot more to tell us about ourselves than Freud, Mean Genes is high on evolution and low on inner child. Deemed "brilliant" by none other than E.O. Wilson himself, the book is the work of two young Wilson disciples: Terry Burnham, an economics professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and Jay Phelan, a professor of biology at UCLA.

Burnham and Phelan divide life issues into 10 categories (debt, fat, drugs, risk, greed, gender, beauty, infidelity, family, and friends and foes), and then offer up a two-step guide to better living: "Step 1 is to understand our animal nature, particularly those desires that get us into trouble and can lead to unhappiness. Step 2 is to harness this knowledge so that we can tame our primal instincts."

Needless to say, Nancy Reaganesque bromides don't fit into the Mean Genes scheme of things:

"Just say no" to drugs is the simplest way to kick a habit. Unfortunately, this obvious and low-cost approach is also the route most likely to fail. For example, only one person quits smoking for every twenty who attempt to just say no. Raw willpower seems like a great solution right up until weakness strikes and we light up a cigarette or mix a margarita.
Instead of slogans, the Mean Genes approach to overcoming drug addiction is to first recognize that "every person has strong, instinctual cravings for destructive substances." This, coupled with a thorough scientific understanding of a given drug's pleasurable effects on the brain, offers a more realistic course of action, such as finding a less harmful substitute for achieving a similar buzz.

Be it talk of weight loss, saving for retirement, or resisting the neighbor's wife, such practical, tough-love suggestions for subduing the beast within are provided throughout the book. Phelan describes how he instantly smears mayonnaise all over tempting sweets served with airline meals to keep from eating them during long flights, and Burnham writes of giving away his Internet access cable in order to free himself of a serious day-trading fixation.

The authors also rely heavily on findings from the animal world in stating their case, which makes for fascinating reading, if not always for the most readily transferable lessons to daily life. Consider, for example, certain frog species that "continue individual bouts of mating for several months. If people mated for a similar percentage of our lives, a single round of intercourse would last almost ten years." And then there's the famed black widow spider. "Shunning the more traditional chastity belt, the male breaks off his sexual organ inside the female, preventing her from ever mating again. When the act is completed, the female kills and eats the male."

Put off by all the sex and violence? Don't worry. There's also a nod to family values in the form of the Australian social spider. "Soon after giving birth to about a hundred hungry spiderlings, Mom's body literally liquefies into a pile of mushy flesh. The babies then munch on the flesh so they can start their lives with full bellies."

Mean genes indeed. --Patrick Jennings

About the Author:

Terry Burnham is an economics professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where he studies the Darwinian origin of economic behaviors. He received a Ph.D. in business economics from Harvard in 1997. He has worked on Wall Street and is the co-founder of Progenics, a publicly traded biotechnology firm with promising treatments for cancer and AIDS. He studied chimpanzees in the African rainforest and drove a tank in the U.S. Marine Corps.Jay Phelan is a biology professor at UCLA. He received a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard in 1995, and master's and bachelor's degrees from Yale and UCLA. His main area of research is evolutionary genetics and aging. He has been featured on the BBC and on "Talk of the Nation" as well as in magazines and newspapers. An accomplished educator, he has received accolades and numerous awards for his teaching. Terry Burnham is an economics professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where he studies the Darwinian origin of economic behaviors. He received a Ph.D. in business economics from Harvard in 1997. He has worked on Wall Street and is the co-founder of Progenics, a publicly traded biotechnology firm with promising treatments for cancer and AIDS. He studied chimpanzees in the African rainforest and drove a tank in the U.S. Marine Corps.Jay Phelan is a biology professor at UCLA. He received a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard in 1995, and master's and bachelor's degrees from Yale and UCLA. His main area of research is evolutionary genetics and aging. He has been featured on the BBC and on "Talk of the Nation" as well as in magazines and newspapers. An accomplished educator, he has received accolades and numerous awards for his teaching.

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