Book Review: Lousy Title, Great Execution

June 5, 2008 - 6:51 pm
Irradiated by LabRat
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The most recent work of nonfiction to go through the Kill My Boredom Machine here was Barbara Oakley’s Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend. Although it lingered in the to-read pile for quite awhile before it looked like the most interesting thing to pull out next, it turned out to be a lot more engaging than I expected.

The title, as I said, sucks. “Evil Genes” is eye-grabbing but misleading about both the research the book is rooted in and the book’s own point, Rome and Enron are relatively small supporting parts of later chapters while characters like Mao Zedong and Slobodan Milosevic have long, meaty chapters all to themselves, and the sister whose murky behavior and past tie the book together is far from the most interesting feature of the book.

If The Lucifer Effect is all about the influence of social structure, setting, and environmental cues on the way human morality plays out, this book is all about the biological side of the argument. (Indeed, there’s one or two indirect shots at Zimbardo- and one straight amidships- in Oakley’s book.) The central thesis of the book is not that evil people are simply born evil- as might be fairly concluded from the title- but that the patterns of behavior ranging from mere unscrupulousness to full-blown personality disorders have genetic, neurological, and even evolutionary roots. Your genes won’t make you evil, but various genetic markers and switches can influence impulsivity, how excitable you are just as a ground state and how well you can exert top-down control over your emotions, how readily you can read other people’s emotional states, and more- no “evil” genes, but certainly genetic combinations that can result in more problems (and occasional downright brilliant results) than others. As any sensible approach to the massively complex morass that is genetics and behavior must include, there’s also plenty of discussions of the environmental influences and how drastically they can shape outcome- proteins don’t code for actions, but they can certainly set the neurochemical stage in a way that weights the probabilities for reactions.

Psychology is far from a complete science and the genome sequencing and neuroimaging that this book relies heavily upon are both very new tools, so there are far fewer sweeping conclusions than there are tantalizing breadcrumb trails- although a few old beliefs are trashed by the new tools. If you’re wanting a Complete Theory of Biological Personality, look elsewhere, or better yet, wait. There isn’t one yet and there isn’t enough information for there to BE one. Instead, we get extensive (and remarkably honest) discussions of the artificial psychological constructs for personality disorders like “psychopath” and “borderline” and what kinds of real and political influences have shaped them, with some speculation on how their existence may have shaped history. Better yet, more than merely explaining how such disordered personalities operate, how they might have formed in the first place, and why (and where) they exist with the prevalence they do, it also provides explanations for the chronic human failure to recognize such characters for what they are- the psychology and neurology of appeasement, historical revisionism in the face of massive evidence, and head-in-the-sand behavior. The section for citations of research is longer than some of the chapters- just the way I like it.

Best of all, the author has perspective, broad historical literacy, and wit. I’m pretty sure she won me over from this footnote on page 28:

Robert Conquest’s monumental work on Stalinist horrors, The Great Terror, earned enormous animosity on its initial release in 1968- its graphic depictions of the horrors perpetrated in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s direction were felt by many to be false in nearly every particular. The opening of the Soviet archives, and later verification by a host of Russian historians not only supported Conquest’s findings, but showed that Stalin’s “model state” had been even worse than Conquest had originally outlined. When The Great Terror was re-released in a 1992 post-Glasnost edition, Conquest was asked if he would like to give it a new title. His terse response was: “How about, I Told You So, You Fucking Fools“.

The first few chapters drag a bit, by necessity; the dry subject material of genetics and neurobiology are necessary to understanding the later chapters, though Oakley does her best with them. Persevere: payoff is coming. Perhaps most tantalizing is the increasing body of evidence pointing to all humans using the same set of neural hardware- parts of which are quite ancient- to process moral questions; thus suggesting that human morality is neither an airy-fairy matter of pure socialization nor something so delicate and ephemeral as the grace of God alone.

If you’ve got the time, for best effect, read both Zimbardo and Oakley. Either read is richer for the other.

No Responses to “Book Review: Lousy Title, Great Execution”

  1. daddyquatro Says:

    So can we call it by its real name yet? Evil exists.
    Whether it’s from nature or nuture or a combination; there are people who are (and act) evil.

  2. FabioC. Says:

    So it seems that the answer to the old “nature or nurture” question is “both of them, in variable proportions”.

    I’ve been thinking that for quite a while.

  3. Regolith Says:

    “How about, I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.“

    Best. Response. Ever.

  4. LabRat Says:

    D4- I’ve never had a problem with it. People forget what a thing was before they took it apart to analyze at their own peril.

    Fabio- It turns out to be the answer to many questions… one of the other nice features of the book is an analysis of the collapse of the all-nurture paradigm of psychology.

    Regolith- I KNOW.