Mean Genes

The Citizen

Former KSG Professor Attacks the Devilish Genes Within

By Michael Boyle

Throughout the course of human history, three questions have confounded our greatest minds.  First, what is the meaning of life?  Second, is world peace possible in our lifetimes?  And finally, how can I resist that jelly doughnut on the dining room table?

This last question is admirably tackled by the former KSG economics professor Dr. Terry Burnham in his first book entitled Mean Genes (Perseus Publishing, 2000).  Dr. Burnham, who taught API 101 for the current class of MPP2s, worked with the biologist Dr. Jay Phelan of UCLA to explain why our the basic human impulses, created and sustained by our genetic makeup, encourage us to act the way in the sometimes harmful ways that we do.  Employing evolutionary biology, genetics and behavioral sciences in an accessible, reader-friendly fashion, Mean Genes promises readers to be an “owner’s manual for the brain.”

The central argument of Mean Genes is that our genetic makeup was uniquely suited to the environments of our cave-dwelling ancestors but has failed to adapt to the temptations provided by modern conveniences and technologies.  According to Burnham and Phelan, many of our biggest daily challenges – controlling our weight, not becoming jealous of our wife’s attractive coworker, and overcoming greed – are a battle against the impulses of our genes operating properly but in an environment that no longer requires them to do what they want to do. 

But all is not lost.  Throughout the book, the authors make a compelling case that we can control and even harness the power of our impulses by understanding them and adapting our behavior accordingly.  While all of us cannot have the iron discipline of Arnold Schwarzenegger, we can outsmart our genes by realizing what they are driving us to do and setting personal incentives to do the opposite.  If the best advice for preparing for any conflict is “know thine enemy,” Burnham and Phelan maintain that the best advice for our battles of self-control is “know thyself.”  

One of the most interesting features of Mean Genes is its use of analogies from the animal kingdom to explain how the basic impulses of human nature keep us alive in our natural environment.  With far more narrative flair than Wild Kingdom or a PBS special, they explain how the behavior of male spiders sizing each other up for the attention of a female is strikingly similar to human calculations of the benefits of taking risks when checking out a woman at the end of the bar.  Shifting effortlessly between the arachnoids to the Yanomamo people in Africa and finally to your average Harvard graduate student, Burnham and Phelan ably demonstrate that the core instincts for survival – self-preservation, risk-taking, and others – are much the same no matter who (or what) you are.

But while the anecdotes about the behavior of our animal and insect compatriots makes the book a fun read, it is the insights on the complex problems of human nature that leave a lasting impression.  Addressing such perplexing issues as obesity, debt, drugs, and infidelity, Burnham and Phelan display a compassionate and nuanced view of our foibles and fears and offer useful advice without a hint of condescension or paternalism.  Unlike most books with a prescriptive self-help element, Mean Genes approaches its subjects with clear realism and a sense of humility that leaves the reader truly feeling better about his or her chances for self-improvement.  In this way, it manages to truly transcend the limitations of its genre. 

This is in part because, while the book is written with a conversational and light tone, it is backed up by new research in evolutionary biology and genetics.  Burnham, an economist with a PhD from Harvard, is a devout student of biology and co-founded Progenics, a biotechnology firm with promising treatments for cancer and AIDS.  Phelan, a biology professor at UCLA, received his PhD in biology from Harvard in 1995 and is currently researching evolutionary genetics and ageing.  Their work, a product of a number of years of collaborative research, has its groundings in the latest research on evolutionary genetics and behavioral sciences and breaks new ground through its infusion of the two.

In sum, Mean Genes is a rare pleasure to read because it is deeply thoughtful and at the same time entertaining to the average reader.  Unlike many academic tomes, Mean Genes is deliberately accessible to the general public and peppered with insights from literature and history, from popular culture and from the author’s personal experiences.  And ultimately, it is a book that offers hope that we may escape the curse of being victim to the devilish genes within.

Mean Genes is available in most major bookstores, including the Harvard Bookstore on Apian Street.  More information is available at