Review of "Mean Genes"

By Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan
Perseus, 2000
Review by Antonio Casado da Rocha, Ph.D. on Jan 31st 2001
Mean GenesThis book argues that because our psyches have been 'designed' by genetic evolution, in order to understand ourselves and our world 'we need to look not to Sigmund Freud but rather to Charles Darwin' (4). The authors, an economist and a biologist, think our evolutionary inheritance-what they mean by 'genes'-guides much of our subconscious choices. However, they hardly say more about the genes themselves, or how they work. Mean Genes is not a book on the quickly growing discipline of genetics, or about the exciting ethical controversies dealing with the emergence of genomics.

Mean Genes is both a book aimed to change the reader's habits and an explanation of everyday life in terms of evolutionary biology. Unlike many other self-help books, it claims to be scientific in its diagnosis and treatment of human ails. As a book about biology, it is one amongst the many other recent titles dealing in some way or another with genes-books filling the popular science shelves in every bookshop since 2000, the year when the first human genome draft was (said to have been) completed.

Promises of a gene-based therapy and medicine have created an enormous expectation in the general public. The book tries to reach such a wide audience, and therefore all the technical details have been expunged. Its sources, along with quotes and figures, are to be found in a helpful web site specifically set up as a companion for the book ( Everything is designed to make a light and entertaining read: written in short sentences and paragraphs, with every title as bold as it could be, the book is packed with riddles, jokes, and references to pop culture.

Most of Mean Genes consists in a presentation of examples and illustrations taken from the natural world, but there is only one main theme: our own inability to act on our best judgment, as caused by our 'mean' genetic inheritance. Animals solve problems common in their natural environment, and some of their adaptive solutions may be transmitted to their descendants, thus shaping their instinctive behavior. Our ancestors were not an exception: they were those who took risks and won the survival game; those who did not simply die, 'and their genes die with them' (50).

The argument, then, is based upon the long period of human history spent as hunter-gatherers in order to explain why now we 'instinctually' tend to spend rather than to save, to eat more than we need, to enjoy so much certain drugs, to indulge in risk, or to allow our greed and sexual desire to put ourselves in trouble. All this happens because our environment has dramatically changed, and our instinctive solutions do not work anymore in a world of effort-saving machinery, fast-food and small families. In such a world there is not much future for the hunter-gatherer way of life, and therefore we fight those very drives towards aggressive and selfish behavior that helped our ancestors to survive. It is a tough battle, for 'our genes will always fight to keep our own genetic interests first' (209).

But, what they mean by 'we' and 'our'? The book is written in a rather personal and direct style, so the reader gets to know how the authors apply their advice to their own lives. Look, for instance, at their way of solving our 'genetic' compulsion to waste money: juggling with credit cards and being 'realistic' about our ability to resist temptation. Their solutions to typical problems with food in parties and supermarkets include common-sense answers such as destroying junk food or doing the shopping after lunch. Other solutions-which they apply to addictions to alcohol, tobacco and other drugs-are high-tech substitutes, surgery and pills: the Promethean promise of changing, by means of medicine and chemistry, the biochemical balance that pushes us towards our 'mean' behavior.

Of course, the authors repeat every once in a while that genes are not the whole story; they do not ignore that environmental factors have to be considered. We may each inherit a particular genetic risk for a disease or behavioral problem, but lifestyle decisions affect dramatically the actual ability of the problem to appear. However, as this book is precisely focused on how 'genes' affect those very 'lifestyle decisions' (dealing with diet, exercise, home economics, or relationships), the reader is likely to hear only the genetic determinism message: namely, that everything is created by genes-not only our physical traits, but also more complex psychological phenomena such as 'willpower', 'integrity', or 'the ability to control behavior consciously' (5).

The conclusion is quite skeptical about the possibility of a 'selfless' human organization oriented to the common good (207-9). But this is hardly news. In his Second Discourse, Rousseau argued that Hobbes' political system was based on a confusion of parochial traits that were the product of seventeenth-century English life with enduring features of the human condition. In Rousseau's view, Hobbes wrongly thought the impulse toward self-preservation was incompatible with a desire to preserve others 'because of [his] having improperly included in the savage man's care of self-preservation the need to satisfy a multitude of passions which are the product of society'. Rousseau's own account of the state of nature has been criticized on analogous grounds, and so could Mean Genes: its depiction of human nature resembles too much its authors' society.

Moreover, it has been noted that a theory which purports to explain the ethical traditions which characterize different societies as the result of natural selection can easily become rationalizations for the status quo. In this sense, such a theory might serve as an intellectual obstacle to change those very ethical traditions. Mean Genes often looks like a re-enactment of the old protestant ethic with a new 'scientific' disguise-a disguise that condemns us to believe that the source of social and psychological problems is not to be found in society, but rather inside each one of us.

Antonio Casado da Rocha, PhD, is a researcher at the University of Iceland, Reykjavík. His main interests are bioethics and political philosophy.


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