• Applicable


While human genes haven’t changed much in tens of thousands of years, humanity’s environment has. This mismatch, argue Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan in this witty, fun tour of sociobiology, causes self-defeating behaviors like profligacy, gluttony, infidelity and addiction. You only need to look at the midsections of most Americans to see what happens when hunter-gatherer minds find themselves living in a "fast food nation." Thankfully, there is hope. Using research on humans and animals, Burnham (an economist) and Phelan (a biologist) enumerate the vices "mean genes" predispose people to pursue and suggest clever ways to outsmart them. Many books discuss the features of humanity’s Stone Age minds, but this is the first sociobiological self-help manual. getAbstract recommends this light but scientifically sound "owner’s manual for the brain" to anyone who ever wondered why saving money is hard while overeating is easy. Your genes may be mean, but you can tame them.



Many people find saving difficult. Just look at the United States’ 0.8% consumer savings rate. Why do people consume when they should save? Probably because, for humanity’s ancestors, consumption was saving. To understand this paradox, consider the !Kung San peoples of southern Africa, whose lifestyle closely resembles that of human beings thousands of years ago. Like early humans, the !Kung San don’t have refrigerators. When they kill a large animal, they consume all of it, storing the surplus in a handy place - on their bodies as fat. This is what most animals do. Elephant seals save up to 2,000 pounds of food as body blubber to prepare for their three-month fast during the mating season. It isn’t pretty, but it works.

So by default your mean genes are telling you to consume any surplus before it spoils. Are you then fated to do so? Not at all. Just because you have a bias toward a certain behavior doesn’t mean you can’t retrain yourself. For instance, human beings (like many mammals) have an instinctive fear of snakes - a genetically encoded bias that was crucial to the human species’ survival in the ancestral environment. But the native peoples living...

About the Authors

Terry Burnham, Ph.D., is a visiting scholar at Harvard Business School and a former professor of economics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Jay Phelan, Ph.D., is a professor of biology at UCLA.

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