Mean Genes: From Sex To Money To Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts

Mean Genes: From Sex To Money To Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts

by Terry Burnham, Jay Phelan

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Why do we want—and why do we do—so many things that are bad for us? And how can we stop? In Mean Genes economist Terry Burnham and biologist Jay Phelan offer advice on how to conquer our own worst enemy—our survival-minded genes. Having evolved in a time of scarcity, when our ancestors struggled to survive in the wild, our genes are poorly adapted to the convenience of modern society. They compel us to overeat, spend our whole paycheck, and cheat on our spouses. But knowing how they work, Burnham and Phelan show that we can trick these "mean genes" into submission and cultivate behaviors that will help us lead better lives. A lively, humorous guide to our evolutionary heritage, Mean Genes illuminates how we can use an understanding of our biology to beat our instincts—before they beat us.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780465046980
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 10/02/2012
Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 459,715
File size: 495 KB
Age Range: 13 - 18 Years

About the Author

Terry Burnham is associate professor of finance at Chapman University. He lives in Orange County, California.

Jay Phelan is a professor of biology at UCLA. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

Read an Excerpt

Thin Wallets and Fat Bodies

Why do we have such a hard time saving money? Take the following quiz: First, how much money would you like to save each month? Write down your answer as a percentage of your income. Second, how much money are you saving? Look at the last few months of your actual savings behavior, not your dreams about next year after you pay off your credit card debt. Write down your actual savings as a percentage of income. Now compare the two figures. The unpleasant reality is that most of us save far less than we want to.

Average Americans want to save 10% of their income and claim to save about 3%. If only that were true. We set a record low in February 2000, with a 0.8% savings rate. In other words, if you took home $2,000 after taxes and you saved like an average American, you spent every cent except a measly sixteen bucks.

The result is that Americans have little or no cash to spare. Enticed to spend by urgings everywhere we turn - from the Internet to billboards to crafty product placements on TV and in movies - we are a nation of spenders, rushing to deposit paychecks into minuscule bank accounts to cover the checks we have written.

To understand our spending behavior, let's visit some of the world's most accomplished savers by taking a trip to northern Europe. There we find forests where autumn arrives much as it does throughout the temperate parts of the world. Leaves change their color, temperatures plummet, and winds pick up.

Look down as you walk through the forest and you'll see a feverish acknowledgment of the oncoming winter. Red squirrels shift into overdrive each September, forsaking their summer life of leisure. In the course of twomonths, each squirrel will hide more than three thousand acorns, pinecones, and beechnuts throughout the several acres of their home range. It's hard being a squirrel.

Come winter, however, diligence pays off. With little food to be found on the bare trees, some squirrels are still living large. Each day they methodically move from one storage spot to the next as they ultimately recover more than 80% of their stashed snacks, enough to keep them alive until spring.

Hoarding for the future isn't restricted to rodents with big cheeks. It's a common response throughout the animal kingdom when lean times are ahead. Many bird species also store food in the fall. Nutcrackers, for example, bury seeds from pine trees and, like squirrels, show remarkable memory in finding their savings.

If there were a Savings Hall of Fame, it would contain dozens of animal species but certainly not the average American. How can humans (at least most Americans) be so much worse at preparing for lean times than squirrels, birds, and an ark full of other dim-witted creatures?

As described in the fable of the grasshopper and the ant, there are two strategies for dealing with abundance. The grasshopper plays all summer long while the ant works relentlessly to store food. When winter comes, the ant survives and the grasshopper dies.

Similarly, squirrels that work hard to store nuts survive the winter to have babies in the spring. When those babies grow up, they have the genes of their parents, genes that tell them to start burying nuts when fall comes. Animals are accomplished savers because natural selection favors the appropriately thrifty. Shouldn't the same forces have produced frugal humans? To understand the answer, we can learn by observing the behavior of people who live as foragers, as our ancestors did until recently.

The !Kung San live in the deserts of southern Africa. Until the 1960s they lived off this harsh land as nomads, gathering plants and hunting animals much as their ancestors had for ten thousand years or more. Because some San were still hunting and gathering into the 1960s, we have detailed records of their behavior in circumstances similar to those of our ancestors.

The !Kung San perpetually faced uncertain supplies of water and food. Building up reserves for the future would certainly help buffer those risks. Did the !Kung San save? Absolutely. The best opportunity for this saving came in times of windfall, usually after the killing of a large animal like a giraffe. With hundreds of pounds of edible giraffe meat, a hunter with a good savings system could live for months...

Table of Contents

Introduction Our toughest battles are with ourselves1
Debt Laughing all the way to the Darwinian bank15
bankruptcy · savings · big business
Fat Please don't feed the humans35
dieting · laziness · liposuction
Drugs Hijacking the pleasure pathway59
caffeine · alcohol · prozac · addiction · hope
Risk Thrill-seeking genes taking us for a ride83
casinos · jalapeño peppers · roller-coasters · rewards
Greed Running fast on the happiness treadmill105
money · happiness · materialism · progress · joy
Gender Girls against the boys131
mars & venus · hormones · homosexuality, culture
Beauty It's more than skin deep153
attraction · desire · fads
Infidelity Our cheating hearts173
marriage · cheaters · love · lust ·promise
Family The ties that bind199
blood · siblings · conflict · motherhood
Friends and Foes Keep friends close and enemies closer213
warfare · race · gossip · road rage · loyalty
Conclusion Surviving desire245

What People are Saying About This

Richard Wrangham

"In Mean Genes, Charles Darwin meets Dear Abby. Humorous, startling and provocative, Mean Genes offers expert behavioral science and a radical view of the meaning of life."

Robert Frank

"Hip, fun, and packed with attitude, Mean Genes is a laser-guided surgical strike in the self-control battles we fight every day. Burnham and Phelan not only unmask the devil inside us, they hand us the tools to disarm him."

Irven Devore

"Warning! You will not be able to put this book down! It will change your life. A witty, wise, and irreverent work by two highly regarded scholars."

Customer Reviews

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Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food, Taming Our Primal Instincts 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
woodge on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although this book¿s subject is based on evolutionary biology and is written by a couple of Ph. D.s, it¿s anything but dry and stuffy. This slim book is written with a chatty flair and is a quick and fascinating read. ¿Mean Genes reveals that our struggles for self-improvement are, in fact, battles against our own genes¿genes that helped our distant ancestors flourish, but are selfish and out of place in the modern world.¿ Using countless quirky examples, the authors illustrate their point that we are genetically programmed to do things that are bad for us... over-eating, infidelity, gambling, etc. ... they are all influenced by our genes. They also offer some tips on how to successfully outsmart our own programming. This book was a lot of fun and filled with interesting trivia.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Sexy stuff, even if it is science. If you've never read it, now's the time...right before the holidays, when you're going to be uncomfortably close to lots of fatty food. The Mean Genes Guys explain in simple (and sometimes sexy) language why you can't say no to the turkey with dressing, the pumpkin pie, or the hot thing sitting next to you at The Nutcracker.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book has really struck a nerve with readers. It has tickled their funny bone as well as given insight into human nature, and most importantly to us, our own behaviors. Mean Genes is a very unique book in that it provides important information on an intellectual topic but is written in such a manner that it is easily readable by the general reading public. This one aspect has most impressed me with this book ¿ It is not only informative, but it is also so damn entertaining! If for no other reason, this book deserves 5 stars! I am an avid reader of science books and am accustomed to reading complicated and dry material. Unfortunately, most readers will put down such a book before they actually learn anything. Mean Genes breaks this mold. These authors have used considerable skill to create a book that is a joy to read and still leaves one feeling that they have learned something useful. This is not a ¿self-help book¿ in the normal sense. It does give us insight into our own behaviors and why it is almost impossible to change some of those behaviors. Our only hope is our understanding of why things are the way they are. This offers us an opportunity to overcome our own genetic programming to some degree. And if not, we at least know why it is that way. But most importantly, this book makes the reader think. It helps us to take a second look at our own prejudices and assumptions. It provides a useful framework for examining behaviors. We get to think for ourselves about why things are the way they are and to reach insightful conclusions. A word of warning! Once you pick up this book, you will find it almost impossible to put it down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although there are many fine books about evolutionary biology (such as The Selfish Gene), Mean Genes exceeds them in one element. It takes those observations, and crafts potential solutions for overcoming our genetic predilections. The book has a smart, sassy style that makes what would otherwise be heavy material feel light as a feather. I found that the scientific references were accurate based on my reading of more extensive books that consider aspects of what is covered here. The suggestions for self-improvement in many cases were new to me, and potentially very helpful. I suspect that whether you would like to have some fun reading about science or would actually like new insights for overcoming key limitations you will find this book to be a rewarding, fun read. The book starts from the perspective of what it took for humans to flourish in the past when food was scarce and life was very dangerous. Under those trying conditions, certain genetic tendencies would have aided survival. The authors argue that much of our behavior is still driven to reflect that environment, rather than this modern one. They cite scientific studies about humans and animals to support these points. My only complaint about the book is that they write as though genes have brains and 'plot' their survival. As I understand evolutionary biology, actually genes survive automatically that happen to best fit the person for the environment that exists. The picture that is presented is of people who were normally operating close to starvation, but occasionally had huge windfalls of food that they could not preserve. What was reasonable behavior? Eat all you could, and share the rest hoping that someone would do the same for you in the future. The authors see this as the basis of much of our overeating, and our tendency to do reciprocal favors for one another. The book looks at sexual attraction, mating, and marriage from the perspective of ways that the next generation will have the most genes reproduced from one parent with the least effort. Abuse of substances is related to the pleasure centers in the brain that we cannot apparently stimulate enough to satisfy ourselves. Problems with gambling are related to poor calculation skills and the desire for a hit from the brain's pleasure center. Those who like to see us as reasoning, ethical, social beings will probably find the arguments skewed . . . as they are. That does not mean, however, that they are irrelevant. It just means that they are incomplete. The basic advice is to create circumstances that will make it difficult to work against your own best interests. For example, control your spending by keeping a stack of green cash for what you can afford to spend each month for each purpose. Cut up the credit cards, and forget borrowing for most purposes. Pay yourself first, and make it hard to get access to those savings. Lots of finance books offer this advice, but Mean Genes will give you a better sense of why it often works. For overeating, the book basically suggests being sure that you never enter a situation where you could overeat without being somewhat full. On the way to the big feast, the authors suggest eating three bagels. Or if desserts get you, spread something awful on them at the beginning of the meal (mayonnaise is suggested for airline desserts). For drugs (whether nicotine or heroin), the only alternative seems to be never to try them or to use a less harmful substitute (a nicotine patch or methadone). A lot of overwork comes from insatiable greed. That can be overcome by finding other activities (other than work and making money) that make you feel constantly more successful. Perhaps writing book reviews here could be one such substitute. By now, I suspect you get the idea. The book investigates debt, fat, drugs, risk, greed, gender differences, beauty, infidelity, family, and friends/enemies in very revealing ways. Personally, I found the
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mean Genes gives many good explanations of why men do the things women hate and love! The book contains many great stories and descriptions which are easy to read and very entertaining. Mean Genes is very comical and witty. I highly recommend the book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is great and pretty amusing as well. I'm not a science person, but that didn't matter. It's all about human behavior and why we are programmed for certain bad habits. Great stuff to talk about. Truly insightful.
Guest More than 1 year ago
E.O Wilson says on the cover of Mean Genes that it is 'brilliant', and it is. Mean Genes runs the gamut of topics that we could all use some help with-- from sex, to food, to money, to risk taking and gambling and dealing with our families and friends'--it's all there, for the taking in Mean Genes. This is the sort of book that you will pick up and not be able to put down. Burnham and Phelan have perfected the art of the perfect mix of science, advice and personal experience that we can all learn from and have a ball reading. Mean Genes is sensational and I recommend that you buy several copies--you will want to share them with all your friends.