Sunday, November 25, 2007

Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend

As I traveled over the Thanksgiving holiday, I was fortunate to have a copy of Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend by Barbara Oakley. I have always found travel to be both rewarding and stressful. A good book always helps to make the experience more rewarding.

I ordered Evil Genes through the interlibrary loan department of my academic library. The subtitle of the book lead me to believe this book might not be that great as it is stuffed with keywords and obviously dealt with personal family gossip. Much to my surprise and delight, I was wrong. This book is worth buying and I shall be doing so after I return my borrowed copy!

A Publishers Weekly review of the book gives a good summary. It notes, "Born out of a quest to understand her sister Carolyn's lifelong sinister behavior (which, systems engineer Oakley suggests, may have been compounded by childhood polio), the author sets out on an exploration of evil, or Machiavellian, individuals. Drawing on the advances in brain imaging that have illuminated the relationship of emotions, genetics and the brain (with accompanying imaging scans), Oakley collects detailed case histories of famed evil geniuses such as Slobodan Milosevic and Mao Zedong, interspersed with a memoir of Carolyn's life. Oakley posits that they all had borderline personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder, a claim she supports with evidence from scientists' genetic and neurological research. All the people she considers, Oakley notes, are charming on the surface but capable of deeply malign behavior (traits similar to those found in some personality disorders), and her analysis attributes these traits to narcissism combined with cognitive and emotional disturbances that lead them to believe they are behaving in a genuinely altruistic way. Disturbing, for sure, but with her own personal story informing her study, Oakley offers an accessible account of a group of psychiatric disorders and those affected by them."

I think Oakley has done a good job presenting a strong case that much of human behavior that is deemed to be evil has a biological connection that can be explained by biology and DNA. She acknowledges the social impact on human behavior as it develops in children but makes a good case that the genetics plays a stronger role. Every other species on earth has behavior influenced by DNA so why not humanity? Yes, that leads to many tricky legal, moral, and religious questions but it does not change anything if it is true. It certainly puts the study of historical figures under a different lens.

One problem I have with Oakley is that she does not understand the philosophy of Machiavelli. She equates Machiavellian behavior with psychopathic behavior throughout the book. This is clearly wrong to anyone who has studied Machiavelli and The Prince. Machiavelli did advocate bad behavior in some circumstances to avoid a greater evil. He postulated the concept of entering into evil. At times, a leader must commit evil acts for the common good. Further, failing to do this will actually result in a greater evil. He believed good men were best suited to this and actually wrote his book aimed at educating good men on the rules of power evil men already knew. Ledeen (1999) wrote in summary, “The problem is to find a suitable leader, a good man willing to enter into evil to accomplish good ends. Such men are in short supply; good men shy from evil, and evil men are not interested in good ends” (p. 178). We may find Machiavelli's message questionable today but he was not advocating psychopathic behavior.

I can hardly fault Oakley. Most people have never read The Prince or have actually spent anytime learning what Machiavelli really meant. Machiavelli means intelligent evil in popular culture and she is just repeating the general perception of Machiavelli's work. I hope she spends some time in the future perusing his work and studying his biography. A future edition of her work may well modify her description of Machiavelli.

Oakley also writes about how "evil" genes may actually benefit the human race. After all, if these genes did not aid in natural selection and human survival, they would not be around in great quantities today. Narcissism and ambition help people advance both good ideas and bad ones. Those with attitude are often the most successful in making an impact on society. Have you noticed how those in academia who trumpet their own horn tend to get ahead? Do "evil" genes help humanity as a whole more than they help? Those obnoxious scientists and politicians who leave behind positive legacies may be worth the damage done by their more sinister counterparts...

Again, this is a good book. Disagree or agree with Oakley, this book will make you think. And it is a joy to read to boot.


Ledeen, M. A. (1999). Machiavelli on modern leadership. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.


Barbara said...

What a nice posting! I think your comments about Machiavellianism are well-taken. I've read the Prince, and am aware that Machiavelli's conception of a Machiavellian (if it can be put thus), was different than the one I settled on in the book. But I was sort of stuck for a word for the successfully sinister individuals that the book discusses. I finally settled on the word "Machiavellian," with the meaning being that which is used in popular language, even though I knew it really wasn't a proper use of the term from a historical perspective. It's tough writing a book about a set of personality characteristics that doesn't really have a name in English...

Barb Oakley

M said...


Thanks for the note. I appreciate your clarification on Machiavelli. I may be one of the few people who actually gets bothered when Machiavelli is misinterpreted. Thanks again for such a great book. I will be quoting it in the future.


Anonymous said...

mmmm this looks like an interesting book. Wonder if it will get good reviews! Comments? Thoughts?