Mean Genes

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review

August 14, 2000

Genes are credited or blamed these days for more and more human behaviors and predicaments—but gambling, courtesy and even greed? Burnham, a professor of economics at Harvard, and Phelan, a biology professor at UCLA focus not only 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 on 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 willpower—in 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 Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, it is sure to generate wide popular interest.