Author(s): Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan
APA Style Citation
Brunham, T., & Phelan, J. (2001). Mean genes: from sex to money to food, taming our primal instincts. New York: Penguin Books.
Burnham and Phelan have written another book examining the cross over between economics and psychology. The book describes how our genes that may have helped us in in past may actual inhibit our natural behaviors in modern society in order to be more healthy and productive. Rather than use genes to excuse and limit our behavior, the book attempts to move us towards understanding how our genes impact behavior and then moving beyond our genes to lead a more effective life. Burnham describes the book as “The Nurture of Nature”. The recommendations in the book attempt to help readers lead a more active and healthy life.
The book describes Chantek an orangutan who has access to as much food as he wants and as a result, he grows to over 500 pounds. When placed on a diet, Chantek eats his crayons and will do nearly anything to find food. Because humans long lived as hunters and gatherers obtaining food took up a great deal of their time. Now we live in society in which high fat food is readily available but our sedentary genes still create a desire to limit activity in order to save our energy. The authors suggest that in order to eat better, one must create a plan. They recommend getting a bag of chips and splitting in in half upon opening the bag and immediately disposing of the second half so that you are not tempted to eat the second pile once you have finished the first. They describe having a brownie snack on an airplane in which there is no distraction and one might be tempted to eat an entire brownie. In order to not eat at least part of the brownie, they recommend spreading the mayonnaise provided in the lunch on half of the brownie so that they will not be tempted to eat it later. Although many diets deprive people of desirable foods, the most successful ones involve having individuals be vigilant about what they eat by focusing on portion control rather than complete deprivation. In this way it is easier for people to maintain good eating habits and continue to keep weight off for a longer period of time.
Because humans have a desire for immediate reward and often want to spend our money as soon as we have it to spend, the authors recommend creating a savings plan with one’s employer to have money removed from a paycheck before ever seeing it. In this way the temptation to spend he money is removed and the savings account will continue to grow.
Caffeine as well as illicit drugs activate dopamine pathways in the brain and become nearly instantly addictive. The “Just say no” campaign” has generally been unsuccessful because the desire to feel the “high” out weighs the desire to quit the drug. Using drugs such as Antabuse can act as counterconditioning and diminish the desire for alcohol and cause nausea when alcohol is ingested. Similarly nicotine patches have found that nearly 40% of individuals are successful in quitting smoking when using a patch versus 5% when trying to quit on their own. Methadone has been used in a similar way to help heroin addicts to stop using the drug.
Cross cultural studies of attractiveness have found that generally, people agree on what is beautiful. Clear-skin, symmetrical faces and a .7 hip to waist ratio which seems to suggest the likelihood for reproduction are preferred by men. Women seem to place more emphasis on status, which from an evolutionary perspective can help with the rearing on children . The authors suggest that by remaining physically fit we can be more attractive to potential or current mates in which case one might want to re-read their section on food.
The benefit of this book is helping to better understand our behaviors and try to modify those behaviors that are prohibiting us from reaching our goals. The book is full of recommendations for living a healthier and more productive life. For the high school instructor, much information can be used in the social unit regarding attractiveness, Consciousness for drug use and abuse and cognition for risk taking behaviors. Motivation is covered in the chapters on food and the theme of evolutionary psychology run throughout the book.
Other Related Resources
Mean Genes book website
Video interview with the authors of Mean Genes
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Competition vs. cooperation
Dopamine reward pathways
Facial symmetry and attraction
Hip to waist ratio and attraction
Human genome project