Mean Genes

Kirkus Reviews

A sly and informed discussion of the human animal—a creature whose precarious self-control is at the mercy of genes programmed several millennia ago at the start of the evolutionary process.

Burnham (Economics/Harvard) and Phelan (Biology/Univ. of California) look less to Sigmund Freud than to Charles Darwin in understanding the psyche. They draw on a host of examples from the animal kingdom and from different human cultures to illuminate issues such as debt, fat, drugs, risk, greed, gender, beauty, infidelity, family, friends and foes.

Ancient humankind, they contend, adopted a host of strategies to ensure the survival of the species. Today, these instincts are so hard-wired into our internal system that even though their original purpose has faded, they frequently override our best intentions. Fat helped our prehistoric ancestors survive famines, but now, without food scarcity or constant movement, it provides only love handles and saddlebags.

The authors use amusing examples and analogies to underscore their points. Why are men more prone than women to engage in casual sex? Women have 80,000 calories invested in a pregnancy, while a man's investment "may not even last as long as a Super Bowl commercial or involve more than five milliliters of fluid."

Our most powerful instincts often result in certain anomalies of modern life (people are more likely to die from gunfire than from snakebite, for example, but they still instinctively recoil sooner from a lizard than a firearm).

After such relentless stress on this slavery to passions, it comes as a surprise when the authors disclose that the remedy also lies within us; when iron self-discipline (nicknamed the "Arnold" approach, after a certain body builder-turned-actor) isn't enough, they believe that self-knowledge can help us take pre-emptive steps to check our passions.

Better at cataloguing the mismatch between genetics and modern life than prescribing how to overcome it—but, still, instructive.