"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 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 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 Reagan-esque 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 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
From Publishers Weekly
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.)
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Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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