Mean Genes

New York Post


Tuesday, September 19, 2000



HUMAN beings are weak, selfish creatures with no self-control and it's all Darwin's fault.

So says Terry Burnham, a Harvard professor and co-author, with Jay Phelan, of "Mean Genes: Taming Our Primal Instincts."

"Mean Genes," which has received raves from such diverse sources as Publishers Weekly, Pulitzer Prize-winner E.O. Wilson and David Letterman, argues that we have no willpower and should use that knowledge to tame harmful desires. In other words, we have to manipulate ourselves to be healthy, moderate and moral.

The self-help book is divided into 10 subjects concerning modern life - debt, fat, drugs, risk, greed, gender, beauty, infidelity, family and friendship. And it offers tips how to avoid what our primal instincts would have us do, in favor of how to lead a healthy life in the modern world

Burnham, who used to work on Wall Street at Goldman Sachs, cites his stock trading habit as an example of the way he harnessed a destructive obsession.

"I had a cheap broker who charged $5 a trade. I made 2000 trades in 1998, almost 10 a day," he recalls. "It was getting addictive. I switched to a more expensive broker who charges $100 a trade. I only made 200 trades that year." When asked if he made more money, he says "No, I made less," and laughs. "But I had a life."

When it comes to overeating, a common problem in today's fast-paced world, he cites Chantek, an orangutan brought up in a human household. "Living a yuppie lifestyle, combining laziness with fast food, Chantek ballooned to 500 pounds.

"Wild orangutans usually weigh 160 pounds because food is scarce and hard to obtain in the jungle. Humans suffer the same way. Our instincts are out of touch with our modern lives," explains Burnham, 40.

Another method he's used to trick his brain is parking his car a mile away from home so he has to walk a mile to get his car in the morning - it helps keep him fit. He chugs high protein shakes before going to a big dinner so he eats less fat and spreads mayonnaise on brownies so he won't gobble them up. (He needed a Harvard Ph.D. to figure this out?)

"And I have a friend prepay for a squash court so I'll feel too guilty to cancel out last minute," he says.

"A lot of successful people do stuff like this ... Hemingway would stop his work at the end of the day and leave the last part of a chapter unfinished. That way, when he'd wake up the next morning, he'd instantly complete a chapter and feel productive.”