Phelan, Jay

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PERSONAL: Male. Education: University of California, Los Angeles, B.A.; Yale University, M.A.; Harvard University, Ph.D. (biology), 1995.

ADDRESSES: Home—Box 951606, Los Angeles, CA 90095. Office—Biology Department, 405 Hilgard Avenue, Box 951361, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1361. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER: University of California, Los Angeles, biology professor.


(With Terry Burnham) Mean Genes: From Sex toMoney to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts, Perseus Publishing (Cambridge, MA), 2000.

SIDELIGHTS: At the University of California, Los Angeles Web site of faculty members, where students rate their professors, Jay Phelan earns a solid 8.5 out of a possible score of ten. Overall opinion is that, as teachers go, Phelan is great, but his exams are grueling. With graduate degrees from both Yale and Harvard, and research interests in the genetic roots of human behavior, the evolutionary genetics of aging, and the relationship between heterozygosity and developmental stability, attractiveness, and physical symmetry, Phelan may have earned the right to give tough final exams, no matter how much his students complain.

If Phelan's students are disappointed in their grades at the end of a semester, and they try to allay their woes by going to the nearest bar, they might want to read Phelan's book, first. Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming our Primal Instincts offers an underlying explanation of feelings and primal motivations. According to Phelan's study, the human brain evolved in an environment much different from that of modern society. We are, therefore, predisposed to actions that are inappropriate in many contemporary contexts. For example, the scarcity of food that characterized many ancient settings promoted a certain type of eating behavior that, though genetically present in modern man or woman, may be inappropriate to the environment of modern America, in which food is more than abundantly available during all seasons of the year. In other words, the tendency of people to eat too much, Phelan suggests, may be traceable to ancient peoples' adaptations to harsh winters, which often meant long periods without food.

In this book, Phelan examines issues that confront most modern populations: money, violence, addictions, physical appearance, and the search for abstract things such as love and happiness. He and coauthor Terry Burnham provide a means for people to examine their own lives, in order to be more aware of the conflicts between behavior the brain might direct and behavior that is more appropriate. In other words, Phelan believes that if people understand their own genetically-motivated behavioral drives they can offset such drives through corrective action.

Why do people overeat? Why do they drink too much? Why do they gamble? Why can't they save money? And where does their image of physical beauty come from? These are some of the more interesting questions that Mean Genes attempts to answer. Whatever the modern dilemma, Phelan continually offers the same suggestion: learn about your genes. Learn how alcohol affects the brain; why caffeine affects your energy level; why hope makes everything seem endlessly possible.

A reviewer for Skeptical Inquirer, Daniel Grassam found Mean Genes to be "both enjoyable and educational." Grassam acknowledged the scientific study that informs Phelan and Burnham's book and commended the authors for translating these findings into "a book for the general reader." Fiona Cowie also enjoyed the book, and, in her review for American Scientist, she stated her reasons. "Unlike much pop sociobiological fare, these speculations about our psyches' evolutionary trajectories are well-peppered with interesting cross-cultural and cross-species comparisons." Cowie also praised the authors for their well-documented research, which, although not included in the book, is available at their Web site,



American Scientist, January, 2001, Fiona Cowie, "Ask Darwin's Grandma," p. 72.

Booklist, August, 2000, Gilbert Taylor, review of MeanGenes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts, p. 2078.

Choice, April, 2001, M. Pilati, review of Mean Genes:From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts, p. 1535.

Library Journal, October 1, 2000, Elizabeth Goeters, review of Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts, p. 126.

Los Angeles Times, October 19, 2000, Rosie Mestel, "Next Time You Pig out, Blame It on the Genes."

New York Times Books, December 31, 2000, Erica Goode, "Back to the Stone Age."

Publishers Weekly, August 14, 2000, review of MeanGenes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts, p. 334.

Skeptical Inquirer, May 2001, Daniel Grassam, "Self Help from Science," p. 61.


Book Page, (September 15, 2001), Clay Stafford, "Academic Authors Are Comfortable in Their Genes."

Evolution's Voyage, (March 1, 2002).

Gene Watch, (March 1, 2002).

Mean Genes Web site, (September 15, 2001).

Perseus Books Group Web site, (March 1, 2002).*