Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriendby Published 31 Oct 2007
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Have you ever heard of a person who left you wondering, "How could someone be so twisted? So evil?" Prompted by clues in her sister’s diary after her mysterious death, author Barbara Oakley takes the reader inside the head of the kinds of malevolent people you know, perhaps all too well, but could never understand.
Starting with psychology as a frame of reference, Oakley uses cutting-edge images of the working brain to provide startling support for the idea that "evil" people act the way they do mainly as the result of a dysfunction. In fact, some deceitful, manipulative, and even sadistic behavior appears to be programmed genetically—suggesting that some people really are born to be bad. But there are unexpected fringe benefits to "evil genes." We may not like them—but we literally can’t live without them. Oakley deftly ties together the big picture implications of revolutionary neuroscientific and genetic discoveries, showing the eerily similar behavioral tics of Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and Slobodan Milosevic. The dramatic recent scientific findings presented in Evil Genes shed light not only on dictators far afield, but on politics at home, as well as business, religion, and everyday life. In fact, history has been shaped by the strange confluence of genes and environment that science is just now beginning to understand.
Oakley links the latest findings of molecular research to a wide array of seemingly unrelated historical and current phenomena, from the harems of the Ottomans and the chummy jokes of "Uncle Joe" Stalin, to the remarkable memory of investor Warren Buffet. Throughout, she never loses sight of the personal cost of evil genes as she unravels the mystery surrounding her sister’s enigmatic life—and death. Evil Genes is a tour-de-force of popular science writing that brilliantly melds scientific research with intriguing family history and puts both a human and scientific face to evil.
Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend Reviews
A year or so after finishing Evil Genes, I've come to believe this may be one of the most important and helpful nonfiction books I've ever read. I say this because it has clarified my understanding of human behavior that defies explanation or any sense of empathy or humanity. We have an estimated 12 million sociopaths running around in American society, and the system, in a bizarre, dehumanized sort of way, favors their unlimited capacity for money, attention, power, success and adulation. Perhaps the most important take-away from this fascinating, important book is this: sociopaths are charming! They have a way of winning us over! But watch how these chaos creators and machiavells manipulate and control the boundaries of common sense, transforming their "noble causes" and "beliefs" into greedy, self-serving nonsense. No one dares call out these so-called leaders (politicians, CEOs, etc.) as the personality types their actions and behavior suggest, and yet, if everyone took the time to read Evil Genes and other books like this one, we might actually have a fighting chance against human beings who are wired so differently from the rest of us. These sociopaths cannot change their capacity for chaos and destruction. They will always have followers. They will never stop fighting for and fueling their own narcissistic impulses. We owe it to ourselves to be more aware of their charming, luring, destructive behavior. This book helps pinpoint such deceptive, frightening behavior. Thank you, Barbara Oakley, for bringing the tendencies of these personality types to light.
I ate this book. It has been a while since I've read a "page-turner", but this unlikely candidate was just that - I could scarcely put it down, much to the annoyance of my neglected husband and children.
Part science writing, part historical analysis, part sociological study, and part personal narrative, this compelling read attempts to answer the questions:
1. Why are some people so cruel and self-serving, apparently devoid of conscience or empathy?
2. How do such people rise to the top in every walk of life and hold sway over their "followers"?
My only criticism of the book is the story of the author's sister - it was hard for me, obviously removed from the situation, to lump Carolyn in with the likes of Hitler, Milosevic, or Chairman Mao - all of the author's anecdotes make her come off as a rather sad, mentally unbalanced woman rather than a force of evil. But then, Carolyn did not have a personal effect upon me or my family and perhaps if she had I would think of her differently.
If you have an interest in psychology, neuroscience, history, or if your life has been touched by an a**hole, you might enjoy this book as much as I did.
If you've ever had first-hand experience with a family member, spouse, boy/girl friend, or boss who was so two-faced or manipulative that it left your head spinning in wonder as to how a person could behave like that and still manage to sleep at night, this book goes an awful long way to explaining the how and why of it.
It's very readable, and very enlightening when it comes to explaining Borderline Personality Disorder, and Machiavellian personality types. The character studies of people like Mao, Hitler, and Stalin are really fascinating, but there are a couple of chapters which deal with the technical minutia of the physiology, brain chemistry, and genetics behind these disorders, and it might be a bit much for a lot of readers. But the book is written in such a way that you can skip over those bits and still come away without missing anything beyond which alleles do what in which combination, so no worries.
Dealing with people with BPD, or one of its sister disorders, can range from maddening to world shattering. If you're one of the many whose lives have been affected by it, you're definitely going to want to read this book.
One might be forgiven for assuming that the nature versus nurture argument had been quietly settled long ago, with the obvious winner being "both." But apparently that's not what most of us want to hear, as the continuing supply of sociobiology books championing the near-irrelevance of culture seems to show. On the human psychology front, the big names are Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate) and Judith Rich Harris (The Nurture Assumption), both of whom have now favorably blurbed a book by a new footsoldier, Barbara Oakley, a professor of electrical engineering at Oakland University. To the cause Oakley's book contributes, at the very least, a way of encapsulating human nature that everyone can understand. It's called Evil Genes.
Evil Genes is half personal anecdote, half survey of recent science on the biochemical underpinnings of mood and emotion (Oakley would go further, to say underpinnings of human behavior, but this is exactly the connection the studies do not show). Indeed there is some interesting science in Evil Genes, mostly in the areas of genomics, brain chemistry, and neural imaging. But when you extract what is pertinent to Oakley's case, you are left with very little. Certain genes, as we might expect, influence the production of certain neurotransmitters, and the growth of certain areas of the brain. There are studies that suggest that some genetic profiles can sufficiently impact mood, emotion and cognition to dispose a person to psychopathy. Evil Genes cites several such studies.
But here we need to be careful. Genomes are not blueprints. Complex organisms have a profound level of variation available in their genes. Some traits are, admittedly, highly determined by our genes--Mendel's famous wrinkled and smooth peas, for example, or our own eye and hair color. A handful of diseases, like Huntington's, are almost inevitable in those carrying the right genes, and in some cases the onset of these diseases can be predicted with considerable accuracy.
But these are misleading examples, and in the popular mind the deterministic aspect of genetic influence is given far more importance than is due. For a century, scientists have spoken of genes "for" various traits, though for at least half of that time we've known that gene activity is regulated by non-heritable factors, either in the "outside" environment, or within the cell. Though we still talk of programs, blueprints and "hard-wiring," genetic influences are much more similar to a library of possible texts. In short, genetic determinism, though so eminently compelling to our imaginations, is a scientific model that has outlived its usefulness.
Most genetic determinists give abundant lip service to the complexity of gene regulation in the cell, and to the important role of environments in expressing genetic tendencies. But when the time comes to put it all in everyday terms, these caveats are swept aside. Thus we have Richard Dawkins' oft-quoted comments about genes as "master programmers" exerting "ultimate power" over behavior. He knows, or should know, the falsity of this, but it helps sell books.
Oakley, too, is careful to emphasize that traits arise from interactions between genes and environments*. To this extent her book is a helpful contribution to our understanding of the genetics of human behavior. But this subtlety falls away where it matters most. We look to the title to distill for us the most important part of a book's argument. Evil Genes does little, unfortunately, to dispel the common misunderstanding of the genome as a deterministic program, and it's hard to see how this could be anything but deliberate.
(This is the same gambit, as I alluded to earlier, used by Jonah Goldberg in his book Liberal Fascism. Deep in the guts of his text he makes weird disclaimers to the effect of "just because I'm calling liberals 'fascists' doesn't mean they're always diabolical; in fact liberal fascism is often quite benign." That's a supreme act of bad faith, and a pretty big insult to all the people who suffered at the hands of real, non-benign fascism last century.)
Titles matter, because we need to connect even the most complicated explanations of things to basic understandable ideas. In the case of Evil Genes the idea is an old one; it's the myth of the "bad seed," the notion that evil is born, not made. The mark of Cain. There's another, less explicit myth in there too, the myth of the Svengali, wherein evil always manages to get the better of good, through trickery and exploitation. Evil, in this tale, is endowed with a powerful inner magnetism which Goodness does not have the resources to resist.
There's a certain value to these stories, but it's not the one that Oakley seizes upon. The lesson of these cautionary archetypes is not about the Evil Other, it is about ourselves. It is about the tension between, in Blake's proposition, Innocence and Experience. The primary confusion running through Evil Genes is Oakley's implicit association of "good" with "innocent." She is trying to combat the naive misconception that people are born good. But is this really all that widely held? It seems to me the much more prevalent conception is that humans are born innocent, which is not at all the same. Ironically, the conflation of innocence and goodness falls prey to the same naiveté Oakley sets out to remediate: to identify innocence with goodness is itself innocent. To the extent we can talk about good and evil in any meaningful way, they must be informed by our experience.
A newborn baby can do neither good nor evil. He or she is utterly self absorbed, by nature, in a way that is entirely beyond reproach. We allocate proportionally more responsibility to children as they develop, until we release them as free agents into the world, at around 18. But this is not a process of reactively doling out greater and greater hunks of adulthood until the child's development it complete. It is an interactive and creative venture. These 18 years are set aside, in our culture, not just to wait for development to be completed, but to build a psyche, an identity (as opposed to a personality, which we can be more comfortable calling "inborn") that can function in a healthy way. And we spend an enormous amount of energy and money on this process, through rearing, schooling, media, and various other organized activities. A visitor from another planet would have to conclude that we consider that enculturation of children a pretty important activity.
Oakley's book completely ignores the function of culture and socialization in the development process. The extent of her interest in the social aspect of psychology is expressed in a single sentence:
"Psychology, with explanations founded on "defense mechanisms," "countertransference" and "acting out" can only go so far."
We are not told how far is "so far," nor are we treated to any explication of the merits (or demerits) of the psychological paradigm. She unnecessarily dismisses the behaviorist "blank slate" model of human nature, which has been out of favor in clinical psychology for half a century. Again, it is an irony Oakley fails to recognize that without the important work the behaviorists did eliminating conceptual structures as a legitimate course of psychological study, the mechanistic view of humanity she favors, along with luminaries like Steven Pinker and Judith Rich Harris, would not be possible.
I mentioned earlier that the book is half personal narrative, focusing mostly on Oakley's effort to understand her sister, Carolyn, who she calls a "Machiavellian" personality type, after the classification developed by Christie and Geis in the 1950s. On the one hand the fact that Oakley has written her personal motivation for pursuing this interest right into the through line of her book is an admirable transparency. But making the venture explicitly personal demonstrates a conflict of interest that deeply mars Oakley's argument. Though she briefly touches upon some of the recent challenges in the literature, such as identical twin studies, to prevailing nurture-based theories of psychology, when it comes to her own family the topic is (understandably) off limits. By failing to seriously investigate (or even consider) the possibility that Carolyn (who died in 2004) might have suffered some kind of transgressional event in her childhood, Oakley obviates her sister's history of any illuminatory potential. Excerpts from Carolyn's diary throughout the book give the appearance of contributing, somehow, to Oakley's evil genes thesis. But from the start, Carolyn is presumed to have, a priori, "Machiavellian"** genes. So it is unclear how this personal history contributes to Oakley's argument, except perhaps to make it appear more sympathetic.
Whatever happened or didn't happen to Oakley's sister, most morally and emotionally damaged people have a history of childhood abuse. The pattern is demonstrable. It's possible that some people are born with a more robust genome, and able to thrive after an upbringing that would have twisted the psyche of many another into Gordian knots. It's not clear to me why we should call the latter a genetic defect instead of calling the former a genetic cushion. In either case, most children raised in healthy homes don't end up "sinister." As a culture, we are able to profoundly influence the nurture side of the equation. Why not focus on what is possible, instead encouraging the kind of fatalism that extends from considering human nature as set in stone, out of our hands? Why devote large portions of our discourse to the things we can't have any influence on? At the very least, scary bedtime stories about monsters go down a lot easier (and result in much better dreams) when the hero or heroine is given something interesting or useful to do.
Oakley argues that a good part of the population has Machiavellian* or “evil” genes, which means, generally, those people who operate fairly much without regard to the interest of others. This, she says, runs across a range of expression, from indifference to the feelings of others, toward the use and manipulation of others, to the psychopaths who are dangers to others and society.
The value of this book is that the author proposes a genetic basis for “anti-social” behavior.** Some of this behavior is more deterministic (hard-wired) than others. Some of it is a predisposition to act in certain ways, and all of it in varying degrees is affected by environmental circumstance. Yet, there is a troubling side to Oakley’s argument. She relies heavily on genetic-based brain disorders as the basis for four main “anti-social” behaviors as defined by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), and relates these to specific areas of the brain that are malfunctioning (hence, the reason for the anti-social behavior). The presumption is that normal people don’t behave in an anti-social way and that’s why such behavior is characterized as a “disorder.” She then examines Stalin, Mao, Milosevic and others, along with her sister, Carolyn,*** in more than a bit of armchair psychology about how this works.
An alternative perspective is that Oakley is conflating different phenomena: genetic-based neurological disorders that create socially negative behaviors on the one hand and, on the other, an inborn predisposition to promote the interest of the self at the expense of others if that’s what it takes.**** The latter version of the “anti-social” individual may be a better description of the Machiavellian personality than the disorders she sees as defined by the DSM. She frequently describes this individual as “the successfully sinister,” which is an apt description for those who consistently put their interests ahead of the interests of others, and use deceit, manipulation, violence and power to achieve their ends. We see these individuals in everyday life and they stand in stark contrast to those who are other-regarding and altruistic.***** But from an evolutionary perspective, is this a disorder? These types of individuals may have these “anti-social” genes because they have worked so well in our evolutionary history. They advance the self at the expense of others. Oakley appears to suggest this herself when, in reference to another’s research, she writes “that psychopaths or Machiavellians can obtain long-term benefits by acting in me-first fashion that hurts others. In fact, the more sinister among us can reproduce and live quite nicely by taking advantage of others, thereby perpetuating any genes that might have played a role in their Machiavellian characteristics.”******
This stands in contrast to the other-regarding pole, which also leads to evolutionary success as the interest of these individuals is intimately tied to the interest of the group. This then sets up two poles within human nature (Stalin, Hitler, Mao, etc. on one end, versus Mother Teresa and Albert Schweitzer on the other), with most of us falling someplace in between.
*Oakley is using the lay understanding of Machiavelli. Some political theorists would argue that Machiavelli’s real politick requires the use of “evil” behavior in order to achieve and protect a broader social good: public order.
**“A new field is that of systems biology, the ‘science of everything’ – everything living, at least. This new discipline looks at the piecemeal information that has been found related to genes and knits it together with other research to form a big picture describing how cells signal each other and how neurons interconnect. Ultimately, this helps us to understand how slight molecular and genetic differences can result in dramatic changes, not only in how a person looks, but in his or her temperament. This, then, is where we need to look to ultimately understand Machiavellian – unscrupulous, self-serving, often deeply malign – behavior.”
***Her older sister, who had no problems using others, had polio when young and Oakley believes that this affected areas of Carolyn’s brain to explain, in some degree, her anti-social behavior.
****More specifically, Oakley equates psychopaths with Machiavellians, whereas there might be a fundamental difference. To be fair to Oakley, she concedes there’s a continuum of underlying disorders when she writes that “psychopaths, borderlines, Machiavellians, and the ‘successfully sinister’ are often alluded to in virtually synonymous fashion. To some, this may seem an unfair blurring of phenotypes. To clarify matters, it might help if you were to think of psychopaths and borderlines as extreme examples….”
Where she refers to Mao, Stalin and Milosovic as psychopaths, with specific neurological disorders (she states for example that Mao was afflicted with a serious mental illness), it could be that they are, rather, extreme versions of highly motivated, power-hungry (i.e., alpha) individuals. From an overall social welfare perspective, where the common good is valued, these individuals are fairly characterized as “disordered” but from the perspective of biological evolution, these individuals are highly successful and not disordered at all.
*****Oakley uses empathy in the strict, socially good, sense of feeling another’s pain. Others see a broader, and more sinister, capacity, i.e., to know how another is feeling, an ability to transport oneself into the head of another to know what they are seeing and feeling. In this sense, it is quite similar to Oakley’s argument that the Machiavellian personality is able to take advantage of one’s altruistic traits and use others to his (or her) advantage. She writes, for example, that “psychopaths and Machiavellians have found their evolutionary niche in taking advantage of the natural altruism of other humans. Such variation in human emotional outlook is bred into our very genes.”
******Along the same lines, Oakley writes that “highly successful Machiavellians appear to lurk in every human population. With their extraordinary ability to stack any deck in their favor, their relentless need for control, and their self-serving ruthlessness, those with at least a modicum of talent, looks, and assertiveness are more likely to be found in positions of power….the larger the social structure and the bigger the payoff, the more Machiavellians eventually seem to find a way to creep to the top in numbers all out of proportion to their underlying percentage in society.”