Book Reviews

Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts
by Terry Burnham & Jay Phelan
Hardcover - 224 pages (August 2000)
Perseus Book Group; ISBN: 0738202304 ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.90 x 8.44 x 5.63
Editorial Reviews
Review by William  A.  Spriggs,  July 21,  2001

Advances in the genetic, neuro, and psychological sciences that emphasize the evolutionary perspective have advanced at such a rate over the past forty years that today we are flooded with knowledge from well-documented academic studies in uncountable science journals. These journals are written in their highly formal structure to add strict adherence to validity and give acknowledgement of the work others have done helping to support the current argument. This is good for the advancement of science, but leaves the common person perplexed, bothered, and bewildered as to where to turn to find answers to the meaning of life.

Now like Calvary charging over the hill in the movies comes relief in the form of Mean Genes. Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan have written an excellent primer on human nature and give practical steps for better living; they call their book an "owner's manual for the brain". What I love about the book is that they have written in understandable language, and with enough humor to make them candidates as guests for The Jay Leno or Dave Lettermen shows. Don't get the wrong impression -- this is not "The Brain for Dummies," as these are two highly-credentialed scientists who have had experience in teaching the subject and do not lose focus that their target is a non-academic audience.

So what phase of life has you perplexed? Can't seem to get rid of your credit card debt? Can't seem to save any money in your savings? Perplexed why big business acts the way it does toward its own consumers? Can't ever seem to lose those extra pounds that stick to your waist? Ever wonder why you seem so lazy and can't stick to your exercise regime? Ever wonder why you get a kick from caffeine? How does alcohol affect the brain? Why do people get addicted to drugs? And, intriguingly, why do  humans seem to have boundless hope even in the face of adversity? Hey, when all else fails, read the instruction manual, right? Read the book.

Continuing their tour de force under the broad section called Constant Cravings, Burnham and Phelan include such topics as Risk which encompasses thrill-seeking, gambling, roller-coasters and rewards. They then direct us toward Greed, which touches on money, happiness, materialism, and progress. In a section called Romance and Reproduction, the authors cover Gender, Beauty, and Infidelity; under Family, Friends, and Foes they tell us to keep our friends close and enemies closer. In that section they discuss warfare, race, gossip, road rage and loyalty. In every section they present each case plainly and with conviction and then present their insightful solutions.

Let me share a few notable quotes from the book that I thought excellent: In the section on FAT, the authors gives us a problem and a solution: Problem: I buy the wrong food at the supermarket. As soon as I enter the store, my cart moves, almost of its own free will, into the aisle with the soda and chips in spite of my vow, just moments before, to buy only healthful food. Solution: One well- known option is to shop only after eating. if this works for you, be sure to eat before each trip. If not, take more drastic steps. For example, make a list and send someone else to shop. This is becoming easier nowadays with Internet grocery shopping services; just don't punch out the delivery person for bringing brown rice instead of brownies. p. 46 & 47.

In informing us that gambling is a universal trait under the section of Risk, Burnham and Phelan give us this gem: "This universal love of gambling is just a small part of our general tendency to derive pleasure from taking risks. anyone who has enjoyed driving a car a bit too fast knows the rush of a little danger. We watch movies about rebels without a cause, not about people buying insurance. Advertisements are filled with rock climbers and bungee jumpers, but rarely with favorable images of cautious people in their living rooms wearing helmets and safety goggles." p. 84.

Under the book's section called Greed, the authors explain to us about money and happiness and I must admit that an uncanny timing of a world event helped to bring home this point abundantly clear. As I write these words today, July 21, 2001, a massive demonstration against industrial globalization is taking place at the yearly G8 conference that is being held in Genoa, Italy. It seems the protesters are arguing that globalization, in its quest for profits while trashing the planet, is very much worth protesting, fighting against, and with one youth, dying for. In some ways, I do agree with both sides; while the industrialists hammer away at us about the positives of lifting those in third countries out of poverty as an enormous benefit, they also fail to mention that they get very rich while the rest of us remain stuck where we are. This creates a growing resource differential ratio that our innate brain senses is not quite fair and just. Most likely our ancestral humanoids knew when someone in their hunter-gatherer group had more than enough food to survive, and since food could not be kept for long periods of time without wasting away in the physical environment, those who did not share, most likely did not receive favorable comments during grooming sessions and perhaps they possibly were targets of hierarchical overthrows. It would appear that the inflamed passions of the crowds in Genoa, Italy seem to indicate that our hunterer-gatherer brain that seeks more has meet the globalization brain that suffers from "affluenza" and is being asked to share more.

Most of us, not just the wealthy, seem convinced that acquiring more "stuff" is the only path to happiness. Burnham and Phelan give us a clue as to why people acquire the trappings of wealth, but do so with an asterisk attached that every human should note: "The average income in the United States (adjusted for inflation) has risen more than 40% since 1972. Every year, researchers have asked, "How happy are you with your life?" In spite of having more money, safer cars, and homes that have doubled in size, our answers reveal no change in satisfaction over this period. Similarly, the average person in Japan has become more than three times richer since 1958, and the Japanese too report no increase in happiness. So we are much richer, yet we are no happier. The conclusion appears obvious but also puzzling. Deep, longterm happiness does not come from material circumstances. Although acquiring money, TVs, and cars makes us happy, having them does not." p. 105 & 106. Perhaps we should hand out copies of Mean Genes in wealthy communities to "enrich" the poorly enlightened.

As a bonus besides excellent advice pertaining to genetic influences that influence our behaviors, we find something that is physically different about this book. If I were an anthropologist digging up books instead of bones and found this book, I would most likely consider it a new subspecies. Here is a non-fiction book written about genetic influence, yet carries no references within. The citations are located at a separate web site, In the book, Burnham and Phelan did mention that the citations would outweigh the book and placing the citations online thus saves space and weight, which in turn lowers the cost to the reader. It is also reader convenient; by that I mean its small overall dimensions, 5.6 X 8.45 inches, make it easily held in one hand and hence, less formal and more friendly. And lastly, the paragraphs are in business letter format with a space between each paragraph with no indentation at the beginning of the sentence. What this does is to allow you to easily relocate your place if distracted in a busy environment, like an airport waiting room. And who is not busy these days? It will be interesting to see if the new subspecies survives.

This is an important book in our progress toward spreading the understanding of human nature to the vast pool of common people who are constantly seeking answers to the meaning of life. They finally have a book that makes common sense of their internal feelings, behaviors, desires, and wishes and does not derogate their lack of education in the biological or psychological sciences. I predict that this book will endure the test of time because of its appeal to the common person and that after the paperback edition arrives, editions in audio and digital will follow and perhaps spread to several languages. I highly recommend the book for its depth, lessons, vision, and style.

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