Gene Expression

i-b9cbeea3b0b9aee436080d626771c9d1-boakley-210-Evil_genes_cove.jpgThough Barbara Oakley’s Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend is ostensibly about Machiavellian behavior, it is also a testament to her intellectual ambition. The subheading is a clear pointer to this. Oakley attempts to synthesize a wide range of fields, behavior genetics, cognitive neuroscience, clinical psychology, diplomatic history, evolutionary psychology, economic history, along with heavy dollops of political and personal biography, to produce a portrait of how Machiavellian intelligence emerges from its biological substrate, develops, and impacts us on a personal and social level. With any such project there is bound to be some disappointment due to the limitations of what one can communicate and construct in about 400 pages of narrative. But the attempt still produces something of definite worth and intellectual value.

A minor, but perhaps not trivial, observation is that the subheading itself is somewhat deceptive as to the substance of the book. There really isn’t much on Rome, and relatively little on Hitler. I think from a historical perspective what is said about Rome and Late Antiquity is actually rather contentious, but as it is all of a few paragraphs that is of little note. On the other hand, Evil Genes does explore Hitler’s psychology, but the author puts more energy into deconstructing the lives of Mao and Slobodan Milošević, to whom she devotes a chapter each. From a publisher’s perspective the rationale for highlighting Hitler, and not Mao, let alone Slobodan Milošević, is rather obvious, but be warned. I was a little disappointed by the macrohistorical scope of the book which might be implied by a reference to the “Fall of Rome,” but with that accounted for one can shift to the strengths of Evil Genes.

The encyclopedic narrative gumbo is hinged ultimately around behavior genetics; the discipline which attempts to extract the proportion of variation in behavior due to variation of genes. This means that focusing on one individual can be problematic, but so long as we keep in mind that they may serve as illustrations for the general principle, which deals in population level analysis, they can still illuminate. This is where the author’s sister, Carolyn, comes to the fore. The subheading delivers on the money as the author recounts in vivid detail the peculiar ticks which her sister exhibited,. These seemed to manifest in an almost amoral selfishness whereby other humans were means to Carolyn’s ends. In an interesting twist it seems that her behavioral characteristics might have been due to a childhood bout of polio which shocked cognitive development and shifted it off its typical channel. In the alphabet soup of genes, neurotransmitters & cortexes, Oakley is careful to emphasize that a great deal of behavioral variation is due to the vicissitudes of the environment, and focusing on the genetic component of variation does not entail ignorance or discounting of environmental variation.

But the heart of the book are the welter of new research at the interface of behavior genetics and cognitive neuroscience. Much of this work on loci such as MAOA, COMT and the various genes which control dopamine receptors, is very provisional. With that in in mind, Oakley constructs a story where the genes serve as knobs which modulate the mix within the “mental soup.” This soup, sensitive to outside inputs, shifts the probability of a given set of behaviors conditioned upon certain inputs. The author’s sister represents the case of an individual who seemed relatively thin on the essential need for reciprocity and empathy in human relations, even in the case of her close family members. Tracing her psychological development is aided by the fact that Carolyn kept detailed diaries, which are now in the possession of the author after her death. Therefore, one notes that on the day she found out her father died Carolyn’s diary was extremely banal and selfish, noting what implications the event might have had upon her need for dental work. In fact, her father was on some level terrified of her amorality, and as an individual with Alzheimers he was frightened of the prospect that his care would ever be delegated to her, as opposed to his more psychologically normal daughter.

Of course Carolyn was never truly evil, even if she was inconsiderate and selfish. Though the author’s analysis of the psychological profile of tyrants of history might titillate, I think a more important point is that a small proportion of humans seem to lack the universal moral sense which we as a species share. These psychopaths are pure Machiavellians, who become expert at manipulating the expectations of other human beings. For example, some murderers can claim their innocence, and convince many because of their manner, only later be found to have been guilty all along due to DNA evidence. Oakley points out that the reason that this occurs is that most humans simply extrapolate a basic sense of decency to other human beings, and are not equipped to detect the “cheaters” who ride along the wave of accumulated social capital. And it may be that at some point in the near future various neuroscientific techniques such as fMRI along with genetic profiling can allow us to adduce with a high degree of certitude who these individuals are. Explicit in Evil Genes is the idea that in the future these sorts of diagnostic techniques could forestall the emergence of psychopathic demagogues who drag whole nations along their amoral and insane track. But I think at the end of the day these new tools will have a bigger impact in terms of a broad-based campaign to understand the psychological predilections of humans as a whole. Can you imagine genetic and neuroscientific clues as to time preference being more important than a credit rating? Perhaps.

But the flip side of these “pathological” variations in biopsychology is that there is likely an evolutionary reason that these types persist at particular frequencies. The very mental signatures which might make one a high credit risk might also mean that they are a better athlete or foot soldier. The egotism which might make someone a difficult wife or husband might make them an efficient captain of industry. Evil Genes‘ ultimate morality has less to do with evil and genes than it does with mapping out the what and why of how humans vary, and how that might help us constructing a society which is just to all.

Related: Author’s website.


  1. #1 J-Dog
    December 3, 2008

    Thanks for the review and the insights; it looks like the old “nature vs. nurture” discussion might get a lot more play in the future…

  2. #2 John Emerson
    December 3, 2008

    Perhaps the political-historical parts were suggested by an editor. The explanation of history by individual psychology is essentially bogus. We have a fair idea what Hitler would have been in a prosperous Germany: a moderately successful commercial or academic artist, or perhaps a middle-level functionary or some kind of technician. He went to a quality HS (the same one Wittgenstein went to) but he was thrown into destitution and chaos when Germany collapsed. To my knowledge Hitler was in the normal range before that happened.

    Likewise, neither Milosevic not Mao caused the social chaos that allowed them to gain power. Yugoslavia had been doomed to disintegrate for a decade or more, and China had no stable government after 1911.

    Aggregate behavior is not an expression of individual behaviors, and hostory and society have to be studied as such.

  3. #3 Kosmo
    December 3, 2008

    That was brilliantly written.

  4. #4 Emory K.
    December 3, 2008

    Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend.

    This sounds like an unusually erudite country-and-western tune.

  5. #5 gillt
    December 3, 2008

    To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, you keep using that word, Machiavellian. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

    See here:

    Why are you certain that pathological variations have an evolutionary justification? What supports this? The limiting factor even for phenotype altering mutations is that they don’t decrease fitness. There’s nothing I know that says they must increase fitness across a population.

  6. #6 scicurious
    December 3, 2008

    Dangit! You finished the book before I did. I’ll be next! And I do agree, I kind of wish she’d changed the title to “Evil Genes: why Mao took charge, Milosevic shocked the world, Enron failed, and my sister stole my mother’s boyfriend”

    And John, the author does go in to some detail on the idea that Machiavellians have a much higher chance of becoming what they are when societal or economic collapse provides room for movement up the ladder. Without the societal decline that preceeded their rise to power, many of these leaders may just have been third rate artists.

  7. #7 razib
    December 3, 2008

    gillt, 1) you should read the book, 2) DON’T FUCKING PUT WORDS IN MY MOUTH, ok? 3) see here

  8. #8 TJF
    December 3, 2008

    Razib, Just an excellent, excellent review, and then one regarding a very interesting book. I was particularly glad to see that you well appreciate the larger “philosophical” significance of this sort of thing (if that doesn’t sound too terribly pompous). This is why you’re always great, good fun to read on so many subjects. In any case, if friend gillt or anyone else is interested, there has been some effort to explain how evolutionary theory might account for the prevalence of such Machiavellian personality types, though as Razib says its frequency dependent. For details, start with the late Linda Mealey here:
    It’s an oldie-but-goodie. I was glad to see that Oakley referenced her work. BTW, if anyone has anything better, other than what Oakley cites, let us all know. Best, TJF

  9. #9 Barbara Oakley
    December 4, 2008

    Wow, Razib reviewed my book. That is so cool–I’ve always enjoyed his writing!

  10. #10 toto
    December 4, 2008

    I don’t get the last paragraph. Do we really need to look for reasons why selfishness exists? From my limited knowledge I thought the problem of interest was the persistence of widespread altruism. Once this exists, the emergence of cheaters (psychopaths) who free-ride on general altruism is an expected outcome, no?

    Can you imagine genetic and neuroscientific clues as to time preference being more important than a credit rating? Perhaps

    Yeah, I suspect some PHBs might be interested in that kind of silliness. “Hey, instead of looking at people’s actual behaviour, why not look at factors that only show mild correlation with said behaviour?” 😉

  11. #11 gillt
    December 4, 2008

    Razib, I interpreted your claim and asked for an explanation. But I liked the dramatic flare–really brings that little kid with a frown and bad haircut to life. TJF’s link was nice but typical of the field: big on speculation short on genes.

  12. #12 John Emerson
    December 4, 2008

    What the book may explain is “Why Hitler became Hitler, and various other people didn’t”. Most people weren’t in the Hitler pool, and of the people in the Hitler pool, only one could be Hitler. It’s just a misleading title; I can’t critique a book I haven’t read.

    There’s a general recognition in history that the best soldier might not be the best worker or the best neighbor. Historically peoples needed a certain number of warrior types in order to maintain themselves. During peaceful periods they didn’t need them but still had them. The Chinese had a saying: “A bandit in times of peace, a hero in times of war.”

  13. #13 Lucian
    December 23, 2008

    “I don’t get the last paragraph. Do we really need to look for reasons why selfishness exists? From my limited knowledge I thought the problem of interest was the persistence of widespread altruism. Once this exists, the emergence of cheaters (psychopaths) who free-ride on general altruism is an expected outcome, no?”

    What many people do not realize is that psychopaths and sociopaths are just as prone to manipulation as everyone else.

    An individual who is prone to greed is weak to bribes and to put them as captain of industry also means you’ll have corrupt leaders of industry which is precisely why our economy is in the state it is in now. A person who only cares about themselves wont be hard to bribe and manipulate, this sort of person is easier to manipulate than any other kinda person, you just offer a big reward for the desired behavior and you can be fairly sure that they’ll take the reward.

    Bounty hunters are a perfect example. Offer a big enough bounty and you can get a sociopath to do anything, no matter how stupid it would seem to some of us. Knowledge of personality traits will lead to greater manipulation.

    And thats not always a bad thing, but don’t assume that all manipulation is done by sociopaths because thats never been true.

  14. #14 Lucian
    January 26, 2009

    “Do we really need to look for reasons why selfishness exists? From my limited knowledge I thought the problem of interest was the persistence of widespread altruism. Once this exists, the emergence of cheaters (psychopaths) who free-ride on general altruism is an expected outcome, no?”

    Toto the solution is simple, energy efficiency should be introduced to altruism. Nobody says you should help random people, why not instead focus on helping the people who are most likely to help others? Paying it forward is one example of this, another example would be the traditional barter system where I choose to do favors for people who have good reputations/credit and wont choose to do favors for people who have bad reputations/credit.

    Altruism probably was developed under tribal systems where barter was the common form of trade, and it probably applied to small communities where everyone knew each other. Thanks to the internet we are reaching a point where once again everyone will be able to know each other, so rather than help complete strangers you just have to be careful when you make investments. Altruism itself is rational only when done on small scales with people you know because it’s an investment.

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