Book Review: Mean Genes

The featured audio book is ‘Mean Genes’ by Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan and narrated by Pat Woodruff. I think that the authors are using evolutionary psychology as the central theme in this book. The authors have covered a vast amount of material which is brought together in an entertaining way to try to give us insights into ourselves.  The use of evolutionary psychology to offer us these insights is both a strength and weakness. This is a strength in that it gives us a perspective on biologically plausible traits that might determine human behaviour. Thus throughout the book, the authors give us plausible explanations of commonly seen behaviours and support this with frequent forays into the animal kingdom to see how such traits appear to be conserved across species. On the other hand, the central theme of evolutionary psychology is also a weakness in that our species has evolved from our nearest relatives over millions of years. This period of evolution has taken place in many different environments under singular circumstances. Since natural selection operates in the environment, we would need to know something about the environments in which traits have been selected in order to be confident that our current behaviours have such an historic significance. Even a small period of time with strenuous circumstances can be sufficient to vastly influence natural selection. Given the great uncertainty that exists over climate or environmental conditions in even recent times, the often quoted hunter-gatherer paradigm can quickly become meaningless. As an example, what impact did the ice age have on evolution or the conditions under which populations are thought to have become separated within Africa for a period as long as 100,000 years? Such circumstances offer us specific questions to ask with perhaps more valuable answers than generalisations about hunter-gatherer and settler societies.

So bearing this in mind, the authors do present us with a number of biologically plausible explanations of why we behave in the way that we do. What I found particularly interesting was their suggestion that we conserve resources for a later date – for instance foods or gifts to others. With regards to the latter, the authors seem at first to be quite sceptical about altruism arguing that such acts are performed in expectation of receiving at a later date. So for instance they talk about gifts being given to others as form of account which can be repaid when it is needed. However they do also make allowances for the ability of the person to inhibit their instincts in this regards. The authors focus on biological reward mechanisms and how they influence behaviours under various circumstances. What is useful here though is that they offer the reader methods for challenging these innate mechanisms in order to gain better control over behaviour. For instance, they make the suggestion to eat before going shopping or to secure finances in a relatively innaccesible account to overcome the impulse to utilise resources in the prsent.

Regardless of the criticisms that can and have been levelled at evolutionary psychology, this subject offers us the possibility of constructing a sensible group of traits which would have implications in many different fields including psychiatry. Indeed much work has already taken place in this regards. For the reader with a more casual interest in people’s behaviour this audiobook is entertaining, the concepts are clearly explained and easy to understand and to put in context. The authors have a deep understanding of the subject area and on the basis of this I would look forward to other works they collaborate on.


Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan. Mean Genes. Random House Audible. 2000. Narrated by Pat Woodruff.


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The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.


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