"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Evil Genes: making sense of our evil species (book review)

I'm just finishing a great book, Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend by Barbara Oakley. I sent for this after seeing the author on C-span Book TV a while back and it's taken me a while to absorb it (reading in pieces) but it's wonderfully encouraging to see that science is finally starting to get an understanding of evil human behavior. Highly readable, entertaining, yet full of good information on genetics and psychology. Can't recommend this one highly enough!

I've been trying to figure out this stuff for a very long time (looking for scientific studies of evil starting in the eighties, when I was scapegoated at work - and there was almost nothing to be found) and when I get around to it I'll add some other books to this blog but if you haven't already read stuff like Nasty People, People of the Lie, Charles Pellegrino (who brings up the subject in more than one book - a highly moral guy he is), or Tyranny of Malice, you can skip straight to this one as Oakley updates it all and pulls it all together.

I love how her title shows the fractal nature of evil behaviors because one of her main points is that these people are in every level of society from great to intimate, and many of us have been victimized by them in our families, our workplaces, our churches, or wherever societal structures exist. I certainly have. She also shows how isolated we "victims" (harmless people) usually are, because other people simply can't believe it of the bad ones.

Oh, lots and lots of other good, sane-making information. Alas, there's no single gene that we can go after, because she also shows how complicated it all is. And that we're all on the spectrum somewhere, with very few unmitigated evildoers at one end or total innocents at the other. And that there are gradations from sociopathy to psychopathy and the profession that deals with psychology is in no way in one mind about how to view it all. Which is NOT to say that we have to tolerate evil behavior. And to say that it is becoming increasingly possible to understand it, through new imaging techniques and genetic discoveries.

Here's Oakley's website- I think I'll be following her career, and I'm very grateful for her work! And here's a video of Oakley talking about her book, on C-Span:


millie said...

my first set of comments on this got lost it seems. I'm testing it out on this section to see if it works. Millie

Christine Menefee said...

It worked!

Craig said...

This sounds like the kind of generalist science writing that Isaac Asimov was so good at, not to mention the columnists at Analog and the other SF magazines. Evil gene, selfish gene, outlaw gene - most writers who take that tack seem to interpret self-centered behavior in evolutionary terms. Those procreate best who stand on other people's necks, so to speak.

Calvin got it right, then, and evil is predestined? Except that Calvin thought the whole failed creation pissed off the designer, who would then punish his failed designs like an engineer kicking a broken invention around the room for eternity, thus demonstrating who REALLY has the loose screw.

I guess making genetics causal can be seen as exculpatory. But at least genetics provides a more nuanced understanding of human behavior than the old good-vs-evil linear view. And it doesn't sink into conceptual quicksand, like existentialism and other more or less disguised moral philosophies.

Pardon my meandering. Your review was thought-provoking. Thanks for iviting me. Hmm. Your preview button doesn't work. Guess I'll just post this warts and all.

Christine Menefee said...

Great warts, I mean comments! What I like about the book is that it sort of maps the complex territory of behaviors in relation to both where they are being found on genes (and in triggering "junk" DNA) and in imaged brain functioning. She looks for why these behaviors persist and looks at altruism as well as "selfish" behaviors. She reports that we're now able to actually measure the development of the area of the brain that handles moral decision-making, for example, and see if it's working in an individual. And in asking why "selfish" behaviors are there, asks the perfectly valid question, what is the evolutionary advantage. And the answer is way more complex than "we procreate by standing on someone else's neck" - in fact it's a crap shoot what combination an individual comes out as. Complexity - now that we're beginning to understand (measure, quantify, see the relationships) evil better, in several previously unconnected scientific perspectives, it really does make sense - and will probably point, eventually, to being able to head off seriously bad behaviors at the pass because it's already being measured how environment triggers the expression of the "bad genes". Also, she makes some wonderful points about true morality vis a vis leadership. And I like that she takes all these ethical issues out of the territory of religion.