Mean Genes, From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts By Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan
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.
- Genetics heavily influence human psychology.
- The human mind is adapted to a natural environment that, for most people, no longer exists.
- Human beings are genetically programmed to consume too many resources and to discount the future radically.
- Various drugs can trick the brain’s reward center.
- Modern human beings evolved from risk-taking ancestors who were adapted to a primitive environment. This is why people love risk and are terrible at assessing it.
- Material accumulation does not make people happy, although the active pursuit of material things does.
- Men and women are physically and psychologically different.
- Standards of human beauty are the same all over the world.
- People (and their genes) are selfish and what appears to be altruism is disguised self-interest at the genetic level. The genes’ primary drive is to reproduce.
- People cooperate readily if cheaters are punished and favors are paid back.
Mean Genes Book Summary
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.
“Our brain, for better or worse, is not an obedient servant. It has a mind of its own.”
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 in the highlands of New Guinea don’t fear snakes. Are they genetically different from other human beings? Not in any important respect. Rather, they encounter snakes daily from childhood on and learn that only about a third of those snakes are poisonous. They know which ones to avoid and which ones they can safely eat. Same genes, different behavior.
“Like it or not, we are each engaged in a battle against our mean genes.”
Similarly, you can outsmart your profligate genes by hiding surpluses. Many pension schemes are funded with payroll deductions. Having never seen the money, you don’t consider it a surplus that you feel compelled to consume now. Putting your money into a house does the same thing. Your money is hidden as home equity, which makes you less likely to consume it. And money is not food; it won’t spoil. Treating money like food makes people ignore the future – for instance, taking out a loan that is interest-free for six months but then has a usurious rate. To combat this tendency, consider credit and loans in terms of after-tax interest rates. Once you know the rates, borrow at the lowest real rate and save at the highest. After you retrain your mean genes, you may be able to turn the tables on those who prey on your biases. Just take a loan for six months and pay it off before interest accrues. But heed Socrates’ admonition: “Know thyself.” Don’t take any offers that require you to become a different person overnight in order to benefit. Taming your mean genes takes time.
Losing weight is simple: just consume fewer calories than you burn. But like many things, something that seems simple is not easy, at least not for human beings. Once again, your mean genes push you in a direction you don’t want to go. Why? Human beings, like most animals, are built for a world of scarcity and so have a strong desire to consume any available food. Like lions that sleep some 20 hours a day, people avoid burning unnecessary calories. This combination of overeating and energy conservation (read laziness) results in obesity, by some measures an epidemic in the rich world. While the obvious solution is to reduce caloric consumption dramatically, this generally doesn’t work long-term. Lowering your caloric intake causes irritability (making it likely you’ll quit your diet) and slows your metabolism to preserve body mass (another genetically-coded feature), thus confounding your efforts.
“Don’t trust your instincts.”
What can you do? First, monitor your food intake, recording what you eat and how much it “costs” in caloric (or other) terms. Second, if you find counting calories difficult, monitor the types of food you eat instead. Merely eating low-fat foods may reduce your caloric consumption. Third, know your periods of weakness. Are you prone to midnight “sleep-snacking”? Toss out the cheesecake before bed. Fourth, control your portions. Have some potato chips, but take 10, not the whole bag. Since humans are built to consume what’s available, a full bag of chips begs to be emptied. Fifth, don’t buy foods that require extraordinary willpower to avoid and don’t shop hungry. Finally, give yourself incentives to exercise, whether you spend money on a gym membership (you’ll feel guilty if you don’t “consume” it), engineer peer pressure (join a group of walkers) or find another tactic that makes exercise a means to a worthy end (as well as a worthy rear-end).
“Deep, long-term happiness does not come from material circumstances. Although acquiring money, TVs and cars make us happy, having them does not.”
Drugs Whether it’s caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, heroin or cocaine, human beings love drugs. No wonder, since the brain is built to enjoy them. Drugs like cocaine increase the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine, creating a feeling of pleasure. Drugs like heroin mimic natural “happiness chemicals,” such as endorphins, causing a similar reaction. In either case, the human “do-it-again” center lights up and a habit is born. Is something wrong with human wiring? Not at all. The same system makes sex pleasurable, ensuring that people produce offspring and transmit genes into the next generation (the whole point of human life, from the genes’ point of view). How can people kick self-defeating addictions? The most effective means is the simplest: Don’t start. Too late? Then recognize that quitting will be extraordinarily hard and willpower may not be enough. The neurochemistry is just too powerful. What’s worse, some people are predisposed genetically to certain addictions. If willpower fails, try a substitute, such as nicotine gum or methadone. These compounds won’t prevent addiction, but they dodge some of the harmful side effects of the addictive substance (like the tar in cigarettes). Other, more effective treatments are being developed.
Human beings are terrible at analyzing probabilities. Each year, millions of people buy tickets for lotteries they have almost no chance of winning. What’s worse, if people are allowed to pick their lottery numbers, they conclude they are more likely to win, even though each number is equally likely. While other animals are excellent at calculating odds, human beings’ environment has changed radically over time, causing human instincts about probability to founder. After all, no lotteries existed in east Africa 40,000 years ago, when humanity’s risk-taking ancestors left and settled around the world. To outsmart your mean (and dumb) probability genes, forget instinct and do the math. For instance, if an extended iPod warranty costs $90, but the iPod itself only costs $300 and only one in 10,000 units break during the warranty period, the warranty is not a good deal. Also, remember that many areas of modern life, such as the social world, aren’t as risky as they feel. If you need a jolt of risk now and then, you can find many safe ways to be thrilled, such as roller coasters, spicy foods and low-stakes gambling.
In every human culture, people accumulate wealth and possessions hoping that the next car, house, sofa or antelope pelt will make them happier. It won’t. Human beings habituate rapidly to new circumstances. Highs don’t feel high for long (but neither do lows feel low). What’s more, people seem to have a “hedonic set point” or a baseline of happiness that they return to over time. So, why do people still strive like greyhounds chasing a plastic rabbit? Because modern humans are the descendents of people who tried to accumulate the most stuff so they could have the most children. Rather than cursing evolution for building you this way, do something about it. First, set goals but recognize that reaching them will not drastically increase your happiness. It’s about the journey. Second, realize that setbacks may feel permanent, but you’ll soon adjust, so take some risks. Third, expectations matter. Lower yours. Fourth, monitor progress toward your goals and try to finish on a high note. Human beings love to feel that they’re progressing. Do these things and instead of feeling flinty avariciousness, you’ll feel “flow,” a sense of challenging engagement people universally enjoy.
“As tough as our self-control battles are, we at least have a fighting chance.”
Sex You don’t need a Harvard Ph.D. to figure out that women and men are different. Men are bigger and more violent. They get aroused by anything resembling a female. Women are smaller and live longer. They are far choosier about their sexual partners. Is this just cultural conditioning? Probably not. Rather, these gender differences result from evolutionary pressures. Take size differences. A man’s investment in procreation is small – a few minutes of time and a few ounces of semen. A woman’s investment is huge – nine months of gestation and then childbirth, which was far riskier on the African savanna generations ago. Because of these different “costs,” women are choosy about mates and males compete to be chosen. Bigger, stronger males are generally more successful. With size comes a greater appetite for risk and for the same reason, because low-testosterone wimps don’t mate as often. Do gender differences mean women should stay barefoot and pregnant, and men should be louts? Clearly not. Just remember that male and female versions of happiness will differ somewhat.
Around the world in people and other animals, the standard of beauty is reproductive health. All animals want well-formed, disease-free, genetically diverse mates. In humans, this means a preference for clear skin, and facial and bodily symmetry. Each gender has its own special preferences. Men want a female waist-hip ratio of around 0.7 (a wide pelvis means an easier birth) and indicia of youth, like big eyes, small noses and chins, and puffy lips. Women want status, resources, height and maturity (but not too much, since older men get sick). Fortunately, “personality” plays a big role, too. Men and women rate “kindness and understanding” as the most desirable attributes in a mate, followed closely by honesty, dependability, consideration, adaptability and creativity. So, be nice, stay healthy and fit, and you’ll have a good chance of being attractive to the opposite sex.
One study reported that more than half of men and a quarter of women have extramarital affairs. Who’s to blame for this moral failure? You guessed it, those mean genes. Male and female human beings are born to cheat. This is clear from the size of men’s testicles. Animals with large testicles are built for a cheating environment. They produce more sperm to displace the “adulterous” sperm of other males that’s been deposited in their partners. Gorillas have tiny testes because the huge males monopolize females and enforce fidelity. Chimpanzees, by contrast, are wildly promiscuous and have the large testes to show for it. The good news is human testes are between these extremes and so, with effort, human monogamy can work. Monogamy is a deal. Each side gives up a few things (mating opportunities, resources) in exchange for others. To keep the deal sweet, do three things. First, do what you promised by spending time, money and attention (romantic and sexual) on your partner. Second, don’t do what you promised you wouldn’t. For women, this means no sex with other men; for men, it means don’t lavish attention on other women. Third, reinvent yourself so you’ll stay interesting to your partner. Do these things and you’ll outsmart your cheating heart (and genes).
Are people self-centered or “altruistic?” The answer is a resounding “Yes.” We are altruistic when it serves our genetic interests, as with “kin selection.” The strongest human bonds are familial. But a deeper look makes it clear that familial bonds are self-interested: Family members share more genetic material than strangers. By helping your niece you help yourself since the two of you share 25% of your DNA. While mothers “selflessly” care for their children, infanticide is not uncommon, especially when resources are scarce (better one child survives than all die). This ruthless self-interest extends beyond the family. People are expert at forming alliances and keeping track of favors (partly through gossiping) and they go out of their way to punish cheaters, even if it means foregoing a large benefit. Accordingly, favors need to be paid back and relationships need a future in which repayment will be made. Ceaseless conflict and cooperation are inevitable features of human life, so reach out to your enemies, be wary of your friends and make good on your promises. Someone is always keeping track. And if you really want to cement a relationship, remember that human beings evolved in a world without courts, so gifts can mean more than contracts.
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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