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Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food Taming Our Primal Instincts Paperback – September 1, 2001
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The Amazon Book Review
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"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
"The Mean Genes message is optimistic...a self-help book for the merely average human being." The Washington Post Book World
"An unusual cross between a social Darwinist monograph and a self-help manual." The New Yorker
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== Spoiler Alert(beginning) ==
Let me give you an example of some fascinating thing you learn : You know how most of us are keen on fatty and sugary food, well the authors explained why is that so.
Let's think back to our ancestors (cave men); back then, when a hunter killed an animal (let's say a giraffe) they couldn't storage the leftovers and after a while the giraffe would spoil. So what would be the wise thing to do back then? Well the best to do would be to eat as much as you could and store the extra food as fat in your body (you know those love handles).
Now let's see why we inherited this behavior; the cave men (and women) who wouldn't overeat (what today we consider a wise thing, with reason) would die if there was a shortage of food, while those who put up some fat for the winter would survive. Now guess what, who do you think we came from? Of course we came from those who survived, the overeaters.
The problem we have now is that society has change in the way that you don't spend 700 cal. to bring home some food, but instead about 0.5 cal. ordering a pizza through your phone. So society changed but our genes didn't!
== Spoiler Alert(end) ==
Anyway, that was one of the many many examples of behaviors in this book!
Mean Genes is a very unique book in that it provides important information on an intellectual topic but is written in such a manner that it is easily readable by the general reading public. This one aspect has most impressed me with this book - It is not only informative, but it is also so damn entertaining! If for no other reason, this book deserves 5 stars!
I am an avid reader of science books and am accustomed to reading complicated and dry material. Unfortunately, most readers will put down such a book before they actually learn anything. Mean Genes breaks this mold. These authors have used considerable skill to create a book that is a joy to read and still leaves one feeling that they have learned something useful.
This is not a "self-help book" in the normal sense. It does give us insight into our own behaviors and why it is almost impossible to change some of those behaviors. Our only hope is our understanding of why things are the way they are. This offers us an opportunity to overcome our own genetic programming to some degree. And if not, we at least know why it is that way.
But most importantly, this book makes the reader think. It helps us to take a second look at our own prejudices and assumptions. It provides a useful framework for examining behaviors. We get to think for ourselves about why things are the way they are and to reach insightful conclusions.
A word of warning! Once you pick up this book, you will find it almost impossible to put it down.
I am a psychology doctoral student, but absolutely anyone would be able to read this and appreciate it.
Most recent customer reviews
- relatively short chapters
- chapters deal with life in general (greed,...Read more