Mean Genes


Academic authors are comfortable in their genes


What do you get when two professorial Ph.D.'s contemplate man's place in the biological world? Quite simply, "an owner's manual for your brain," according to authors Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan.

Some of their conclusions about how our brains work, documented in the new book, Mean Genes, are bound to stir controversy. "Faithful or not in life, human bodies are designed for infidelity," the authors contend. And if you're interested in sharing your inadequacies with friends, Burnham and Phelan advise against it: "Weaknesses we reveal [to friends] may be used against us in the future," they warn.

When they wrote Mean Genes, Burnham, an economics professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and Phelan, a biology professor at UCLA, set out to combine science and self-help by examining how our genes affect our behavior and how we can overcome our primal urges.

"What we talk about is what's true on average for all people," and for some other mammals as well, Burnham said in a recent interview. As they tackle issues such as debt, fat, drugs, risk, greed, gender, beauty, infidelity, family, friends, foes, business relations, and achievement, one concept emerges: "Our brain is not an obedient servant."

Phelan said he became fascinated with gene study because genes appear to have "an agenda of their own. I do feel that very often it's not the same agenda I want to have. I think of them as maybe not mean [despite the title of the book], but not always looking in the same direction I'm looking." But, Phelan is quick to add, "This is not another Darwin-made-me-do-it kind of book." The authors' intent is to point out that "human genes have not changed very much in thousands of years," and though our instincts served us well in our natural environment, they sometimes fail us in modern industrialized society.

"Genetically, we are still cavewomen and cavemen despite our living in ultramodern homes," the authors write in Mean Genes. Look at diets (the ones we constantly fail). "Our appetites were built in a world where plentiful food was inconceivable," and life was much more draining. We are genetically programmed to eat as long as food is on the table; dieting goes against that. While "our nearly insatiable appetite was once a survival feature of human biology," Burnham says it now undoes us. Phelan adds, "Each of us has fairly predictable periods of strength and weakness, so we should take preemptive steps when we are strong." The authors offer similar suggestions throughout the book for overcoming the problems created by our genetic heritage.

Ever make promises to yourself, fail, and then rationalize it away? "We are wise to people who renege on their promises. Unfortunately, we are less savvy when it comes to our own internal promises," the authors note. The brain has a convenient way of minimizing or hiding our own failures, a valuable tool when it comes to survival, but a nuisance when we're aiming for self-improvement. The authors suggest following the common self-help advice of writing down our goals.

 For motivation, Burnham and Phelan point out, "Positive surprises make us happy, even when they are small." It's like the caveman suddenly finding another bug before bedtime -- suddenly the day is brighter. To create daily positive experiences, on your to-do list only write things that can be accomplished on that day. That way, you can wipe items off the list and get a hormone buzz (seriously, the authors say). If the task will take two days or more to accomplish -- or three years, as in writing Mean Genes -- break it down into smaller tasks that can be accomplished on assigned days (except for my wife who can accomplish several tasks at once).

Which brings us to another question about our genes: is there a significant genetic difference between men and women? Studies show that by chemically switching hormones, a male begins to act like a female, and vice versa. Huh? Diaper changing just got easier? "Genes build men and women with different bodies, and our brains have some subtle differences" as do our life spans, Burnham and Phelan say. "The cost of keeping your testicles runs about 15 years!" Yikes. The authors go into great detail discussing our gender differences, our commonalities, our parenting proclivities (in animals, "you can be confident that the smaller sex is probably doing most of the child care") and what qualities we value in a mate. "Beauty is as much in the gene of the beholder as the eye," they say, offering a mathematical formula as proof. Most beautiful women (as human males see them) have a 0.7 ratio of waist measurement to hip measurement. "Scientists studying conception found that women with the 0.7 ratios were the most fertile. Men are attracted to a particular hourglass shape because it indicates fertility." Pull out those measuring tapes.

Like any nonfiction book, Mean Genes should be read analytically. There are a few spots where conjecture replaces correlation, and others where experts may disagree with the authors' conclusions. But on the whole, the authors deliver on the promise that their research will "allow us to predict when we will be weak and why we are vulnerable." From sex to money to food, Burnham and Phelan present a fascinating look at our aboriginal dark side.

Clay Stafford, a former college professor, is a writer and filmmaker.