Introduction: Our toughest battles are with ourselves.

Consider this book an owner’s manual for your brain.

Most of us would feel cheated if we bought a car or a microwave and it came without instructions. But our most important possessions–body and mind–come with no such guide, leaving us searching haphazardly for satisfaction: a dollop of exercise, thirteen minutes of sex, a "Happy Meal," a cocktail, and a sport-utility vehicle. Mean Genes offers the missing information that can help us take better control of our lives.

When we drive a car or operate a microwave, our orders are carried out exactly as we command. The machine doesn’t talk back or have an agenda of its own–at least not yet. On the other hand, if we tell our brain, as part of a New Year’s resolution, to cut down on fatty foods, it most likely will let out a hearty laugh and continue to set off bells and whistles of approval when the dessert cart rolls around.

Our brain, for better or worse, is not an obedient servant. It has a mind of its own. Imagine that you are actually two things: a personality who has likes, dislikes, desires, and dreams. But inside your body there is also a "machine," your brain, that processes commands and acts on those likes, dislikes, desires, and dreams. It fights you all the time. And it usually wins.

Why can’t the two of you see eye to eye? Why do we have battles over controlling our own behavior? And why are these battles so hard to win? Are cats and dogs obsessed with fighting addictions, controlling their weight, and remaining faithful to their mates? Do chimpanzees regularly resolve to be less selfish?

In a creepy campfire legend, a babysitter alone in a house receives increasingly menacing phone calls. Terrified, she contacts the police, who put a tap on her phone. After the boogeyman calls again, the cops frantically phone her, screaming, "We’ve traced the call. It’s coming from inside the house! Get out!"

Similarly, the source of our self-control problems lies within us, in our genes. But we can’t get out or leave them behind. Manipulative media, greedy businesses, and even our friends and family play roles in nurturing our demons. Still, most of our self-control problems stem from our impulses to do things that are bad for us or for those whom we love.

A visit to any bookstore reveals the nature of our struggles. Glancing at the bestsellers, we can see what’s on people’s minds. There are dozens of books on finding love, losing weight, and creating wealth. Conspicuously absent are a host of other topics. Where are the books entitled How to Build a Bigger Beer Gut, Ten Steps to Frivolous Spending, or Nurturing the Infidel Within? Why do some behaviors come so naturally while others require so much effort? It’s because our genes predispose us to certain failings.

Like it or not, we are each engaged in a battle against our own set of mean genes. They are wily opponents, too. Masters of the visceral, they control through satisfaction, pain, and pleasure.

Even the most successful people succumb. Look at Oprah Winfrey, for instance. She runs a powerful media empire and is reportedly closing in on billionaire status. Her long list of accomplishments includes seven Emmy awards, an Oscar nomination, and a beauty queen crown. Rich and influential, this exceptional person is also very ordinary in one respect. Along with the rest of us, Oprah struggles for self-control.

Because she has been so honest about her weight and other personal issues, Oprah has helped millions. Furthermore, because her journey has been so successful in spite of powerful urges, she demonstrates an important point: we are not lumbering robots doomed to carry out our genetic programming.

In daily life, two paths beckon. One tempts us simply to live as our urges and passions direct. This can be called the "pet path" since it is followed by all animals, including the family dog. Eat when hungry. Eat until the food is gone. Remain loyal and faithful only to the extent that loyalty and faithfulness pay. If something feels good, do it again. If something hurts, avoid it.

Less clearly marked is the alternative, the path of most resistance. On this path we take charge, calling our own shots. Along with passions, genes have created willpower and the ability to control behavior consciously. With these uniquely human abilities, we can rise above our animal instincts.

Mean Genes is a guide to doing just that. Step 1 is to understand our animal nature, particularly those desires that get us into trouble and can lead to unhappiness. Step 2 is to harness this knowledge so that we can tame our primal instincts. ...

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