Cover image for Mean genes : from sex to money to food, taming our primal instincts
Mean genes : from sex to money to food, taming our primal instincts
Burnham, Terry.
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Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Perseus Publishing, [2000]

Physical Description:
263 pages ; 22 cm
Explains the genetic role behind "modern" problems such as thrill-seeking, infidelity, eating disorders, and addiction.
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BF701 .B870 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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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.

Author Notes

Terry Burnham, Ph.D., is a visiting scholar at the Harvard Business School
Jay Phelan, Ph.D., is a biology professor at UCLA

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

In this brassy popularization of evolutionary biology, the authors dissect a range of human behavioral maladies: addiction, obesity, infidelity, avarice, power-tripping, and more. Economist Burnham and biologist Phelan argue that such behaviors are genetic inheritances from humanity's hunter-gatherer days: whatever then kept an individual one step ahead of the leopard, we descendants embody in our genes. The authors alight on such a plethora of aspects of being human that their tour is constantly stimulating, whether discussing people's propensity to overeating or their relentless optimism about the future, even under horrible circumstances. Burnham and Phelan are continually provocative as well, and readers will discover themselves objecting to one or another of their assertions, until the authors conversationally trundle up some experiment in support. Far from raising the white flag in our battles with instincts, the authors advance tactics of self-control for our next temptation, be it a sundae, stock tip, or pretty face. A delightfully readable presentation of the evolutionary, as distinct from the moralized, appreciation of human nature. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

Genes are credited or blamed these days for more and more human behaviors and predicamentsDbut gambling, courtesy and even greed? Phelan, a professor of economics at Harvard, and Burnham, a biology professor at UCLA, focus not on the mechanisms of particular genes but on the effects of more general evolutionary patterns. In this enormously entertaining sociobiological overview, they argue that humans are well adapted to the environment in which we originated, but since we are no longer hunter-gatherers, instincts that evolved under those conditions can lead to harmful excess in today's world. Obesity, for example, occurs because early humans faced food shortages and adapted to store fat in their bodies. Burnham and Phelan explain the evolutionary basis for such troublesome matters as overspending, gambling, drug abuse, sexual infidelity, rudeness and greed. The point, they emphasize, is not to excuse harmful behaviors, but to understand that they are part of our animal natures. This approach, they believe, enables us to find better ways to cope with these problems than mere willpowerDin their view, a tactic doomed to failure since it runs counter to instinct. Burnham and Phelan cite their own amusing strategies for dealing with food and gambling problems, and insist that anyone can learn to "tame" their "mean genes." Though this book only scratches the surface of a subject considered in detail by such scientists as E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and Sara Blaffer Hrdy, it is sure to generate wide popular interest. Agents, John Brockman and Katinka Matson. Author tour; 20-city radio satellite tour. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Why are there people who are always dieting yet remain overweight? What happens to spouses who promise to love, honor, and obey but then end up cheating? Burnham (economics, Harvard Univ.) and Phelan (biology, UCLA) explore the genetic evolution of behaviors that sabotage humans' willpower to resist temptation. Debt, fat, drugs, risk, greed, gender, beauty, infidelity, family, and friends and foes are presented as key issues that affect all people. The authors suggest that people have the ability to control their behavior despite the influence of negative genes by coming to terms with their animal nature. Though it is generally left up to readers to decide exactly how to use the authors' suggestions for controlling undesirable behaviors, this well-written, sometimes humorous book offers excellent biological background on temptation. Recommended for popular psychology collections in academic and public libraries. Elizabeth Goeters, Georgia Perimeter Coll., Dunwoody (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Books that make science understandable and interesting are a rare treat. Burnham and Phelan provide the reader with a unique combination of self-help and evolutionary psychology. Examining basic human behavioral flaws, they illustrate how these are remnants of behaviors historically necessary for survival of the species. The authors contend that as people in the developed world battle the bulge and strive to control spending, they are fighting impulses they are genetically destined to express. At the same time, behaviors viewed as "adaptive" in today's world are more recent additions to the repertoire of human behavior and less clearly related to survival than those passed on over the centuries. Thus, people are destined to continue to express and battle the "primal instincts" that no longer serve to facilitate survival in the modern world. Although not suitable as a reference tool or as required course reading, this book provides valuable insight into why humans do what they do even when they know that they should not. All collections. M. Pilati; Rio Hondo College

Table of Contents

Introduction: Our toughest battles are with ourselvesp. 1
Thin Wallets and Fat Bodies
Debt: Laughing all the way to the Darwinian bankp. 15
big business
Fat: Please don't feed the humansp. 35
Constant Cravings
Drugs: Hijacking the pleasure pathwayp. 59
Risk: Thrill-seeking genes taking us for a ridep. 83
jalapeno peppers
Greed: Running fast on the happiness treadmillp. 105
Romance and Reproduction
Gender: Girls against the boysp. 131
mars and venus
Beauty: It's more than skin deepp. 153
Infidelity: Our cheating heartsp. 173
Family, Friends, and Foes
Family: The ties that bindp. 199
Friends and Foes: Keep friends close and enemies closerp. 213
road rage
Conclusion: Surviving desirep. 245
Acknowledgmentsp. 255
Indexp. 257