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Mean Genes

I wish I could remember how I came across this book, but the genes which controlled the development of my memory have not been enticed by natural selection to provide a perfect memory. Oh well, I guess all my ancestors didn’t really need one either. Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts covers ten different (if vaguely overlapping) areas of human life and briefly describes how evolution has led us to particular behaviors today. Then the authors discuss approaches to overcoming the behaviors or overruling the mean genes.

On the up side, the book is an easy-to-read refresher about how for the majority of our existence as human beings we lived in a completely different environment compared to today’s world; and how the way we evolved to survive that environment has left us with some hard-wired behaviors that don’t serve us as well in today’s world. For example, the first two chapters are about how a lot of us are too much in debt and/or too fat. The authors go over how we have evolved to survive in a harsh world where there was no such thing as money and there was not much food most of the time. So to survive in that world, we needed no financial skills and we had to store up what energy we could by eating a lot when we could. Now here we are today with no ancient, evolved skills for saving money (and spending “feels” good for other evolutionary reasons) and the habit of eating all we can. So we’re in debt and fat. The authors offer some tips on how to deal with both problems, from the viewpoint of tricking or side-stepping the genes (yes, I’m skipping the whole issue of how genes actually affect our behavior, the authors do at least make a stab at it). This pattern of description, explanation and guidance is repeated for the areas of drugs, risk, greed, gender, beauty, infidelity, family, and friends and foes.

On the down side, the book does contain a lot of what Jennifer Michael Hecht calls “just-so stories” in her The Happiness Myth (see prior review here). Since we all really just got here to this new world, it’s hard to say exactly what was going on before and how that led to what we do today. Hecht points out that the sciences related to non-human areas are stable compared to the newer human sciences like evolutionary psychology. So noted. Applied to Mean Genes, the reader should deal with the risk that none of the explanations of how we got to where we are were documented by someone who watched the whole process. All of the explanations are our best guesses right now and some of them tend to change as we think about things more. Speaking of the explanations, there are no footnotes in Mean Genes, but you can reference most of their study citations at the authors’ website

I enjoyed reading this light book with heavy subjects. It does always catch me off guard to read scientists talking about very serious human behavior problems as if they were just describing other observed animal behaviors. I think it’s good to be caught off guard every now and then and the authors would probably say this is some naturally selected risk-seeking behavior.


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