Mean Genes

Reviewed for Booklist

In this brassy popularization of evolutionary biology the authors dissect a range of human behavioral maladies: addiction, obesity, infidelity, avarice, power-tripping and more. Economist Burnham and biologist Phelan argue that such behaviors are genetic inheritances from humanity's hunter-gatherer days: whatever then kept an individual one step ahead of the leopard, we descendants embody in our genes.

The authors alight on such a plethora of aspects of being human that their tour is constantly stimulating, whether discussing people's propensity to overeating or their relentless optimism about the future even under horrible circumstances. Burnham and Phelan are continually provocative as well and readers will discover themselves objecting to one or another of their assertions, until the authors conversationally trundle up some experiment in support.

Far from raising the white flag in our battles with instincts, the authors advance tactics of self-control for our next temptation, be it a sundae, stock tip, or pretty face. A delightfully readable presentation of the evolutionary, as distinct from the moralized, appreciation of human nature.

— Gilbert Taylor