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Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food, Taming Our Primal Instincts

by Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan


    Who is on your side? Not corporations. Not politicians. Not nature. Not interest groups. Not pundits. Maybe this book helps.


     Two major messages reappear throughout this book: First, humans are easy to manipulate with a careful combination of wrong things and difficult to influence with right things. Second, your genes are not on your side. Evolution—survival of the best adapted—applies to genes, not individuals. What is good for you the person and what will propagate your genes are at serious odds. Modern societies make the conflict between individuals and genes more important. Inherited predispositions are easy prey for sharpies, predispositions urging us toward paths of self-destruction.


     Humans pursue short-term indulgences because the genes for indulgence succeeded in the environment humans evolved in. In the hunter-gatherer world the best way to store food is as fat, which means we have an inherited interest in pigging out. There was no canning, or freezing. Saving for the future had less utility when money did not exist.


     The authors recommend environmental changes and binding precommitments to help us. Evading temptation is better than constantly fighting it. They recommend cutting up credit cards, having paychecks automatically deposited, exercising with a friend, and throwing out excess food. (Studies also suggest that thinking about one positive and one negative consequence of overeating or losing weight seven times each day causes people to lose more weight than many other approaches.) Individuals should be taught to believe they are not at the mercy of environments, yet they should also be taught to work at making their environments more helpful. Find and set up environments so that doing wrong things requires an extreme act of thoughtlessness or willfulness.


     Big changes accomplish much more than lots of little changes. Sometimes cutting a tenth of a pound in a hundred places from a racecar is inadequate. Sometimes you need a to try making a car from new stuff.


     We should take more risks in our social lives, they argue. We evolved in small groups where social mistakes can haunt you for a lifetime or end your lifetime. Getting turned down for a date now is no major loss. Being thrown out of a tribe 50,000 years ago could have meant death.


     Risk delivers dopamine. And dopamine is more fun than ennui. That means pursue many high-benefit, trivial harm risks and challenges. It does not mean get drunk and test yourself as a race car driver. “To be happy, we should structure our lives to be on the upslope as much as possible.”  Build environments and expectations that provide many surprises, most of them positive. For example, Ivan Denisovitch expects a cold, brutal day, but manages to obtain a little tobacco, and he is happy.


     Progress moves us. Progress is enjoyable and happiness is a gift of progress. The expected interests us less. Total resources have a small affect on happiness. Acquiring is fun, having is less fun.


     The authors recommend giving lots of small gifts to others when they least expect it rather than on birthdays. Of course, if you want others to hate you, tell them you are giving gifts because gift giving is a technique you learned in a

book written by a horny biologist and economist.


     Pour more effort in exercise. Keep going when you feel like quitting, except when injury will occur. “Spend as much time as possible in the zone of rapid progress.”


     Wallowing after mistakes and coasting after successes are errors. Emotions are designed to pass. The excruciating pain you felt yesterday will be hard to recall in a decade. Humans recover from failure well so take more social chances. “Happiness and sadness derive from the difference between what we predict and what we get.” You are more likely to be disappointed at a play if you go in with high expectations. Larger than expected gifts delight us. “Satisfaction equals performance minus [predictions].”


   Those mean old genes have much to do with sex, too. Research suggests women with lots of money are not satisfied. They want men with even more money, even women already married. The authors carefully narrowed cuckoldry rates down to somewhere between one and 30 percent. The authors report that studies suggest women prefer ugly men wearing Rolexes to handsome men wearing Burger King Uniforms. Women prefer kindness, humor, understanding, confidence, money, power, affection, commitment, height, honesty, consideration, and dependability—things easy to fake for several months.


Good left-right symmetry is popular with both sexes, though they mention nothing about poor anterior-posterior symmetry, as found in Quasimodo. If you want to know whether individuals are interested in you, look at their pupils. (And while you analyze pupils, you will not be able to think something to say, and you could get dumped for being a less than sterling conversationalist, but at least you will know you are about to get dumped.)


     Men prefer feminine faces: Thinner jaw, larger eyes, smaller noses, fuller lips, and a shorter distance from mouth to chin, at least when they are not having their preferences altered by advertisers. (If a bit on the X-Show that harks to Milgram counts for anything, many men do not seem to care about character. Several men were all to willing to help a beautiful woman load a full body bag lying in a pool of blood into a car trunk.)


     The authors suggest that we are easily attracted to those having different immune system markers from our own—the exotic from whatever you are. (The authors do not mention one exotic immune system marker I find not attractive: The needle-tracks-on-arms look.)


     For men wanting to increase their life spans, testicle removal beckons. The authors claim that this procedure will increase life expectancy by 15 years. Maybe I will give it a shot—when I am 114.


     We are easily manipulated by irrelevant charisma factors. Our intuitive perceptions of risk are terrible. A study of a 50-50 game of pure luck found that individuals bet 47 percent more when their opponent dressed poorly and acted in a bumbling manner. Humans, they write, are predisposed to overconfidence. Almost everyone thinks he is above average.


     The latter chapters of this work are weaker. The book has numerous irrelevant animal analogies, not to mention anthropomorphizing of genes and animals.


     The chapter on infidelity is weak. Their four F’s of divorce—”fertility, fidelity, funds, and [some other f-word]”—have little in common with John Gottman’s four horsemen of the apocalypse. The author’s state that the best gift a wife can give is enthusiastic sex. Opposite sex friends, they claim, are a road to marital ruin.


     The authors claim “[g]reed is neither good nor bad[.]” No, greed is bad. Greed is excessive self-interest, not legitimate self-interest. When economic problems that entail enormous losses get pronounced “not moral problems,” it gives greedy individuals another excuse to see greed as nothing more than natural or a taste issue. Evil economic policies

get accorded no more weight than “I prefer moose tracks ice cream to mint chocolate chip ice cream.”


     There is a moral world between “This is what your genes do. Here is how you counteract them,” and, “Here is what your genes do. Oh, well. Go with the flow. No point in fighting them. They must be right. It took evolution millions of years to design them.” This work is mostly the former. Recommended.


Book review by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 24, 2009.


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