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

4.4 out of 5 stars 130 customer reviews

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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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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; 1 edition (September 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142000078
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142000076
  • Product Dimensions: 7.6 x 5 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (130 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,054,190 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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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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Format: Hardcover
Evolutionary biology has uncovered truths about human nature that are as fundamental as anything coming out of the genome project. Burnham and Phelan distill all the insights of evolutionary biology into an incredibly readable and entertaining book. But equally important, they show us how to use this knowledge in practical and useful ways to improve our daily lives.
I've had my share of trouble dieting, saving money, and attracting the opposite sex. Unfortunately, this book won't make you lose your appetite when you see your favorite sin food or make you better looking. But it does the next best thing. It makes you smarter in dealing with yourself. There's no gimmicks or tricks. It's like learning to ride a bicycle. Once you've learned how to control the machine you're the one who decides which way to go. Think of this book as training wheels for the human machine.
But this isn't only a self-help book. It is also a book for anyone who wants to understand evolutionary biology, or human nature and behavior more generally, better. The authors wear their scholarship (and their Harvard Ph.D.'s) lightly, but underlying all the smart and funny prose is a bedrock of knowledge.
Finally a confession: I've always been troubled when people start talking about human beings as though we are animals or machines that have only instincts and don't have free will. After reading this book, I've realized that we are all governed by our instincts more than we'd like to admit. But what raises us above animals is precisely that we are capable of using our minds to understand and conquer our instincts.
This is a fun book, a useful book, a great book.
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