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Next Time You Pig Out, Blame It on the Genes

Two authors say a lot of our bad traits were determined eons ago but explain how we can overcome them.

October 19, 2000|ROSIE MESTEL | TIMES MEDICAL WRITER

Human behavior is endlessly fascinating to us humans, and scholarly research on the topic abounds. Our foibles, some scientists say, are rooted in our deep and distant past--in days long ago when Homo sapiens eked out tough livings in small tribes, gathering nuts and fruits and hunting game.

That past, the scholars reason, can explain all kinds of behaviors we exhibit today: why we like to drive fast cars; why men seem more prone to promiscuity than women; why women find men with symmetrical faces that much more dashing.

Probably the most famous books on the topic were written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard biologist-author E.O. Wilson in the 1970s.

In hundreds of pages describing the antics of ants and other animals, Wilson reasoned that it made sense that behavior--just like limb shape or fur color--would influence survival and come to be embedded in our genes. Ants are one thing, but Wilson's suggestion that human behavior was also rooted in genes outraged some scientists. On one occasion, a protester dumped a pitcher of water over him at a meeting.

Times have changed, and today the idea that genes influence our actions--without carving them in stone--is much more accepted.

Why do men worldwide seem to find curvy women attractive? Because, the scholars reason, women thus shaped are of childbearing age and not pregnant--at least yet.

Why so often is "blood thicker than water"? Because our kin share our genes--so we care more for their welfare.

And why do we pig out at buffets? Because like our Stone Age predecessors, we rely on a wide variety of foods for a balanced diet. We react the same way, say the scholars, when faced with 15 different kinds of canapes at a cocktail party.

How do we deal with this legacy--and make the best choices we can--when our genes are coaxing us to behave in less than stellar fashion? Here, the scholars are largely silent.

Not so economist Terry Burnham and geneticist Jay Phelan in their book "Mean Genes" (2000, Perseus Publishing), which is billed in a book blurb as a sort of Charles Darwin meets Dear Abby. The 252 pages are stuffed with Hints From Heloise-style tips for besting primal urges in love, friendship, leisure and work.

Phelan, 38, formerly of Harvard University and now a biology professor at UCLA, and Burnham, 41, a research scholar at Harvard , spoke with The Times' Mestel about their book.

Question: What are "mean genes"?

Burnham: There's this tension inside of all of us, stemming from how and where we evolved. We've got these genes that push us toward selfishness, fatty food, polygamy and more. And then we've got this other part of ourselves that's saying, "I don't want to be that way."

Q: Why did you write "Mean Genes"? There are a lot of other books covering the evolutionary reasons for human behaviors.

Burnham: One big difference between our book and others--and there's a zillion of 'em--is we're giving advice. We're crossing the "should" barrier. More typically, you'll have 600 pages of why you're built the way you are and not one sentence on how this can make your life happier. What we do--using the lens of evolutionary biology--is sift through that haystack of advice that is out there already, to find the needle of the few things that are right.

Phelan: We've had people tell us: "I don't need a couple of Harvard guys to tell me to eat before I go to the grocery store or give gifts to my wife." Then we ask, do you give gifts to your wife? "No, but I don't need a couple of Harvard guys to tell me." Well, who should tell you?

Q: Give an example of a problem behavior that's in "our nature" and how to deal with it.

Phelan: The problem of debt--which is related to our ancestral problems with food.

As humans, we evolved as hunter-gatherers in a world where food was limited. A good day was when you killed some big game. That meat was your insurance policy for the future. So you ate it as quickly as possible--before it went bad--perhaps sharing it with other people so they'd return the favor. In all our long evolutionary history, you saved for the future by storing your winnings as fat.

Fast-forward thousands of years. You've still got this brain that instinctively thinks: "When times are good, consume any surplus before it rots." So today, when times are good, I get rewarded by a paycheck. And what do I do? Every paycheck--always--I spend every last cent.

Q: How do you get around that?

Phelan: The trick is understanding I'm going to want to consume it, and my willpower will never be very good at resisting. So I need to think my check is smaller than it is. In one big moment of willpower, when I tell them how much money to take out of my paycheck, I tell them: "Take a bunch of extra money out every month. Send it somewhere I can't see it." I still have these instincts to consume, and I still spend all my check. But I've got this other stuff accumulating that I don't really view as my money.

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