Mean Genes

Washington Post

Sunday, November 19, 2000

The real dilemma, then, is not so much scientific as existential. Given the evidence, how should we live? Harvard economist Terry Burnham and UCLA biologist Jay Phelan offer some strategies for living with evolutionary hangovers in Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food, Taming Our Primal Instincts (Perseus, $24). Briefly, it is a self-help book for the merely average human being.

“Strength requires knowing that we will be weak," the authors write. We can't ignore our animal passions, they say, but we can alter our environment to make it easier to make the "right" choices. For example, Phelan relates how, as soon as he receives his in-flight meal, he smears mayonnaise all over the tempting brownie. He knows that his genes will direct him to devour it, building up fat stores, unless he outsmarts them first.

The Mean Genes message is optimistic, using examples from the sex lives of arthropods to offer "a winning strategy in the battle to lead satisfying and moral lives."

Reviewed by Mark Parascandola