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Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food Taming Our Primal Instincts Paperback – September 1, 2001


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; 1 edition (September 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142000078
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142000076
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (123 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #378,718 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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 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.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

These guys really put things in perspective and make you feel better about yorself.
D. L. Bodenstab
You can enjoy this book, use it to improve your life, and even dazzle friends and acquaintances with your understanding of what makes them tick.
J. Bodenstab
This book is educational, but written in such a manner that it is very entertaining and easy to understand for anyone-A MUST READ!
Jordan Pratzel

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

72 of 79 people found the following review helpful By John K. Fetterman on August 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I had the good fortune of being exposed to the Mean Genes argument over two years ago after having Dr. Burnham as a professor. With E.O. Wilson already weighing in on Mean Genes, I have no illusions what my opinion will mean to any still-skeptical amazon.com customers considering a purchase.
However, all I can say is that Mean Genes is a deeply important book and philosophy. If you compile all of the tacky self-improvement infomercials and combine them with every book on diets, relationships or money, they still don't address the basal forces that create the dysfunction in the first place. With Mean Genes, one is empowered to drop down below the self-help cacophony and begin to view and frame daily struggles in a beautifully logic, yet straightforward, humorous manner.
The book has radically enriched the quality of my life. I simply can't recommend Mean Genes highly enough.
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Scodhu on September 19, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Do you ever wonder why you do self destructive or illogical things? Why it is so hard to resist fatty foods, drugs or running up credit card debt? Mean Genes shows that behavior that is bad for humans in today's society of plenty, is the same behavior, refined through tens of thousands of years of evolution, which allowed our ancestors to survive and flourish as hunter-gatherers.
This book is filled with interesting and amusing studies done with animals, primitive cultures and modern humans that demonstrate that people haven't evolved much in the past 5000 years. But all is not lost. Burnham and Phelan point out that humans, unlike other species, have a capacity for self-control, and more importantly the intelligence to combat our destructive instincts and biology. And while they don't place much hope in an individual's will power, the authors offer creative ways to restrain our genetic desires.
Mean Genes is an intelligent, fast reading and totally enjoyable book that makes us look at ourselves as the product of the 'survival of the fittest', and helps us deal with that in today's world.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By David M. Scott on October 22, 2000
Format: Hardcover
If you're struggling to make your characters real, Mean Genes helps you understand their primal motivations! Mean Genes wasn't intended to be how-to book for fiction writers, but it accomplishes that goal better than anything else out there. Addiction, violence, sexual attraction, greed-its all in here-and more. Make your characters real-give them mean gene motivations.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Mean Genes does three things very well: it teaches you to control yourself, it educates you about evolutionary biology, and it makes you laugh.
For the uninitiated, the basic premise of evolutionary biology is that all human behavior is driven by genetic traits, traits that are incredibly well-adapted -- for the desert humans evolved in 250,000 years ago.
Burnham and Phelan take the human-as-cavemen-unadapted-to-the-modern-world view and illustrate why many of our common weaknesses are actually based on behaviors that were quite useful a quarter of a million years ago.
When you view human nature this way, a few things will happen. First, you'll understand the persistence and prevalence of many seemingly self-destructive human idiosyncrasies (for example, adultery and gluttony). Second, you won't feel as bad about yourself! And third, and most useful, by understanding the roots of these common behaviors and by following Burnham and Phelan's recommendations, you'll have the tools to effect genuine self-improvement.
Finally, the book is quick and entertaining, so it's a fabulous investment.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By "malibuonline" on September 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I am 34-year old attorney and have probably read over 2000 books in my life. Hands down, Mean Genes tops the list. This book is written for me, you, virtually everyone. The most remarkable aspect of this book is that it gives you rock solid, meticulously researched data on a range of topics that will help you become a more knowledgeable member of our fascinating world. For instance, I was in Hollywood the other day and read the "homosexuality" section; I was on an LA freeway and read "road rage" when I got home; I was craving a hot Indian curry dish and I read "jalapeno peppers" in the thrill-seeking chapter. Each reading was a revelation--and goddam is it well-written, with massive dollops of humor and sassiness. At its heart, Mean Genes is a deeply responsible book. The more we understand and control our own behavior, the better we understand and can predict others' behavior. The revolutionary ideas and advice in Mean Genes will make the world a better, healthier, happier place. The authors, Jay and Terry, are perfectly qualified to write such a landmark book--dedicated, highly educated, endlessly curious, and enormously likeable. May they live long and well. Make it a point to catch them at a media event--the Mean Genes website has details.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 24, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Irven DeVore said it best on the back of the book--"Warning! You will not be able to put this book down! It will change your life".
Mean Genes is gripping from start to finish and yes, it has changed my life. Not a day goes by that I don't find use for some of the sage advice and insight offered up by Burnham and Phelan. Mean Genes takes a universally important (and broad) topic and translates it into bite-sized portions, which are readily digestible to all readers--not to mention witty and entertaining. The authors draw from their own experiences in demonstrating ways that we can battle our own 'Mean Genes', and live happy and fulfilling lives.
Mean Genes is the best book that I have read so far this year, and most certainly one of the most influential and useful books I have ever read.
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