Mean Genes

Boston Herald

Programmed to party? Authors offer advice on reshaping our `Mean Genes' by Rob Mitchell

Sunday, September 3, 2000

``Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food, Taming Our Primal Instincts'' by Terry Burnham & Jay Phelan (Perseus Publishing, $24.00)

Why do we eat too much, drink too much, and gamble excessively? Why can't we save even a tiny fraction of our income? Why do we have ridiculously unfair and arbitrary beauty standards?

Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan say it's because of a mismatch between our genes and the modern world. We have ``mean genes'' that predispose us to love fatty foods, spend every penny we earn, crave drugs, and take unreasonable risks.

In their accessible treatise on our harmful primal instincts, Burnham and Phelan ask, who were your ancestors most likely to be? Fatties, of course - men and women who were able to pack on the calories, cavemen and cavewomen who could ram every scrap of an 800-pound elk into their bodies. Evolution favored humans who could endure periods of scarcity. We still carry those genes, though, for most of us, the only periods of scarcity we experience are when dinner is delayed an hour or two.

Similarly, instincts for sound money management have not had time to evolve. Saving money was not an option for our ancestors. To survive, they consumed everything in sight, so that's what we're programmed to do. Our ancestors were also risk-takers. The successful caveman took risks - he left the safety of the cave, rustled up some food, and returned to procreate and fill the world with risk-takers. Now those risk-taking genes lead us to casinos and bungee jumping.

``Mean Genes'' offers a comprehensive and discursive analysis of several profound problems of human nature. Guiding the reader through our bad habits and urges - alcohol, drugs, greed, infidelity - the authors conclude that none of them is our fault. It's our genes. We're controlled by genetically evolved impulses that don't make sense today but helped our ancestors survive thousands of years ago.

Fortunately, say Burnham and Phelan, our mean genes don't always have to win. Without excusing our harmful habits, they offer encouragingly helpful strategies for controlling them. They dismiss advice to ``just say no'' as the route most likely to fail, and make realistic suggestions for dealing with the mismatch between our genes and the modern world and for staying alert to those who would seek to profit from the exploitation of our outdated instincts. By being aware and understanding our primal urges, we can predict their influence, even indulge and enjoy them, yet prevent them from controlling us.