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Ask Darwin's Grandma

Fiona Cowie

Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts. Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan. 263 pp. Perseus Publishing, 2000. $24.

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Acting like a Neanderthal? Got the urge to monkey around? Big as a beached whale? Not squirreling enough away in that IRA? Mean Genes, promising a dose of Darwinian self-help, may be the book for you. Written for a popular audience, it aims to provide a compendium of illustrative ethological homilies and biologically savvy hints on how to fool those nasty genes and thwart their production of behaviors that, however comme il faut on the savannas of the Pleistocene, today Simply Will Not Do.

The authors (Terry Burnham, an economist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and Jay Phelan, a UCLA biologist) offer the usual smorgasbord of evolutionary psychological explanations of our tendencies toward misbehavior—overeating, overspending, drug abuse, excessive risk-taking, xenophobia, infidelity and family bickering. Thus, for instance, we're said to spend more than we earn (and, incidentally, get fat) because "In [the ancestral] environment, the best way to save is, paradoxically, to consume." Our ancestors had no fridges or banks, so our dumb old genes think that "saving for a rainy day" means "Let's go eat out." The result: a nation of fatsoes with thin wallets.

Unlike much pop sociobiological fare, these speculations about our psyches' evolutionary trajectories are well peppered with interesting cross-cultural and cross-species comparisons. In addition, the book appears to be well researched: More than a thousand citations and explanatory notes, complete with hypertext links, are available at the book's Web site (

On the downside, Mean Genes follows the evolutionary psychological tradition of leaping straight to the biology without exploring alternative, nongenetic and nonadaptationist explanations of the behaviors under examination. One wonders, for instance, what the chapters on debt and obesity would have looked like had they been written in Japan, a land that, as the authors themselves note, is peopled by obsessive savers of sylphlike proportions. Would the relevant ancestors have been thrifty ants, squirrels and bees rather than the profligate grasshoppers and elephant seals appealed to here? Or would an explanation emphasizing cultural, economic or more recent historical factors have served better both in that case and our own?

But Burnham and Phelan (or Jay and Terry, as they cozily refer to themselves throughout the book) aim not just to describe, but also to prescribe: "Mean Genes is the first book that converts the modern Darwinian revolution into practical steps for better living." To which end we get advice such as the following: To escape debt, you should pay cash, cut up your credit cards and put your extra money in long-term certificates of deposit where you can't get at it. "By making ourselves feel poor . . . we can fool our genes, at least a bit, into thinking there is less surplus to be consumed." To get thin, you should eat before you go grocery shopping, not buy fatty or sugary foods, have healthy stuff on hand for snacks and tie yourself to the mast by discarding or making unpalatable any yummies lying around. (Jay recommends putting mayonnaise on airline desserts at the start of your meal so you won't be tempted to eat them later.) Drug abuse? Not much you can do there beyond methadone, the nicotine patch and Antabuse. Risk addiction? Get your thrills on a roller coaster rather than at the roulette table, or if you absolutely must gamble, "decide in advance the maximum [you] can lose and then ensure [you] absolutely cannot exceed that limit." Adultery? Give your wife presents when she's ovulating (and hence genetically programmed to stray)—it works for hangingflies. Gender equality? "Women are still from Venus and men from Mars. There is no simple path to ensuring gender equality. The hope is, however, that by combining equal rights with a deeper understanding of human nature, we can all be happier."

In short: Read this book for the latest scoop on the evolutionary origins of your sins; but if you want advice on how to be a better person, don't ask Darwin—ask his granny.


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