Authors Burnham and Phelan have composed a nifty little book that combines the rigorous truths of evolutionary biology with the chatty style of a self-help book. None other than the great entomologist/sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, who is not known to critique self-help books. has called Mean Genes "brilliant."
And, in a way, it is.
Ardent Darwinians like Burnham, an economics professor at Harvard who studied chimpanzees in Africa, and Phelan, a Harvard and Yale-educated biology professor specializing in evolutionary genetics at UCLA, believe in the power of genes like New Age Christians believe in the power of angels. Of course, Darwinists would say (and I'd agree), that while the angels require a major suspension of disbelief, our genes stand up to tests of science, even when unzipped.
"Even in areas where we feel we act purely of our own free will, our dramas are played out on a genetic stage," write Phelan and Burnham. This wouldn't be such a problem except that, for the most part, our "genetic stage" was pretty much set many thousands of years ago in our gatherer/hunter past, long before the emergence of college boards, fast food and 50th wedding anniversaries. "Genetically, we are still cavemen and cavewomen despite our living in ultramodern homes," continue Burnham and Phelan.
Does this mean we are helpless pawns shackled into perpetual bondage to our dictatorial genes? Yes, for the most part, we are. As Phelan and Burnham point out, "Our brain is not an obedient servant." But sometimes, with a pinch of knowledge and a ton of effort, we can channel and even trick our genetic impulses into behaving the way we'd like them to behave.
Trick our genetic imperative? How? You can't fool Mother Nature, can you? Of course, you can. Sometimes. Because though our genes provide us with our lawless passions, they also give us our thirst for knowledge. Understanding our genes helps us to control them, at least to a degree. Knowing why you occasionally desire a harem-full of exotic sex partners instead of being totally satisfied with your beloved spouse alone can help you to create an exciting-or, at least, bearable--monogamous sex life.
brings us to the Self-Help part of Mean
Genes, which is high on self, low on help. Advice
falls into two basic categories:
Not many specifics here on how to keep those cheating genes from wreaking the usual havoc upon your long-term, monogamous marriage. You might have to reread your copy of The 10 Commandments of Pleasure for that kind of help.
Nevertheless, Mean Genes does contain wonderful sex factoids from the Animal Kingdom such as "when a male bush cricket ejaculates, he loses about a quarter of his body weight-contributing a massive ejaculate that the female hungrily gobbles down as food. For an average human male, this would be about fifty pounds of semen." Burnham and Phelan use this spunky sample to demonstrate exactly why human males are less likely to make a commitment to any given female they're having sex with than bush crickets. Mean Genes is filled with these enlightening little analogies that help us to understand why we do what we do through observing the behavior of other animals.
Burnham and Phelan hint at being neo-moralists ("Pornography takes advantage of our sexual interests" they complain). But they're hardly in Dr. Laura's camp. In fact, they have some interesting things to say to Dr. "Gays are Biological Errors" Schlessinger about homosexuality and genes in their chapter on "Gender." Giving yet another example of how nature--not nurture--is the key to understanding ourselves, the authors tell a story that seems to show that performing oral sex on men doesn't make a guy gay. In Sambia, an area of New Guinea called 'The Semen Belt,' all young boys are expected to orally gratify older men; the boys are taught that swallowing sperm builds strong bodies and big penises. "In fact," the authors write, "despite the childhood indoctrination, the prevalence of adult homosexuality among the Sambia is lower than that in the United States." Sounds Greek to me
Seriously, provocative tales from the worlds of biology and anthropology are what separate Mean Genes from the rest of the overflowing self-help pack. Mean Genes brings up our beloved kissin' cousins, the bonobos, albeit too briefly for a hardcore bonobophile like me. I was hoping the authors would discuss how bonobos use different types of sex to reduce violent tensions in their communities. Instead, they just write about how bonobos, like humans, are essentially bisexual and use sex for recreation more often than procreation.
Mean Genes makes some intriguing points about the elements of risk and caution. Why do they wreak havoc with human sexuality and other aspects of life? As Burnham and Phelan tell it, our genes wire us to take risks with our material things, but not our social relationships. Risking stuff often paid off at a time when we were hunters and gatherers, constantly on the move, and losing some possessions would only lighten your load. Risking making a fool of yourself in front of people who would probably be in your circle of friends for the rest of your life was much more serious. This is why many of us will fearlessly blow all our money in Vegas, but we're too timid .to speak up to someone we're attracted to at a party, afraid of a humiliation that isn't likely to last more than a few minutes. Now, say the authors, in these times of banks and bars, things have reversed themselves, and most of us need to force or trick our genetic selves into being more careful with our money and more courageous in approaching that intriguing stranger.
"The key to a satisfying life is finding a middle ground that combines free-flowing pleasure, iron willpower, and the crafty manipulation of ourselves and our situations," sum up Burnham and Phelan. The key to creating a good nonfiction book is to make it fast-paced, witty and packed with facts. Mean Genes may not make for Sweet Dreams, but it's an entertaining and occasionally enlightening read.
Now I think I'll go find that brownie. Yum!
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