Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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I have lived and worked with people whom I have decided, in retrospect, were more than merely hateful and mean-spirited, they were just plain evil. So when Barbara Oakley asked me to read and review her book, Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend (Prometheus Books; 2008), I readily agreed. This well-written and very readable book is an exploration of evil people who exhibit an extreme form of Borderline Personality Disorder, which profoundly damages the lives of so many people, including the author. But we are not alone: some of history’s most evil dictators, bankers, corporate CEOs and murderers apparently suffered from sociopathy, which is the extreme form of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

But instead of just talking about people with horrible manners, the book makes an interesting argument: personality disorders may have a genetic cause. This topic was interesting to the author because she was trying to make sense of the astonishingly selfish and destructive behavior of her mentally-ill sister, Carolyn. To do this, the author takes an unusual approach: she combines genetics and modern psychology with personal memoir and historical biography. The result is a scientific — and surprisingly humane — look at the idea that some people are genetically predisposed to be “evil” — a hypothesis that is made more compelling because the author weaves personal anecdotes about the life and death of her sister throughout her book.

The author begins by explaining her own background and education and by naming who her informational sources were. Then she explores the basics of her premise and develops some of the descriptive terms she uses throughout the book, such as “successfuly sinister.” The book then moves on to explore those early thinkers who were influenced by Niccolò Machiavelli’s 1532 book, The Prince. That slim but though-provoking book, which is often required reading in many high school and entry-level college literature or humanities courses in the United States, is an in-depth exploration of the manipulative and deceitful behaviors typically exhibited by politicians and others in a position of power, which are intended to cement the leader’s position of power within the existing political structure. These behaviors are often referred to as “Machiavellianism” by social psychologists, as “sociopathy” by sociologists, and as “psychopathy” by clinical psychologists and biologists.

In the following few chapters, the relationship between traditional Machiavellian behaviors and several personality disorders is explored, starting with the American Psychiatric Association’s formal definitions published in their “Bible”; the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4 (DSM-IV). In a series of particularly well-written chapters, the author begins her discussion by describing the structure of DNA and genes, the relationship between genes and neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, and the connection between the various serotonin receptors and transporters and how they influence neurobiology. After the reader understands this information, the author moves on to explore the relationship between brain imaging studies and observed behavior, contrasting differences in several brain regions for specific emotional and behavioral states between “normal” people and psychopaths.

The next few chapters go into depth about borderline personality disorder; including writings from those psychiatrists who investigate the disorder most carefully and sprinkling quotes from her sister’s diary throughout. The author then launches into detailed analyses of the reported personality and documented behaviors of Slobodan Milosevic, “The Butcher of the Balkans,” Chairman Mao, and Stalin, alternating between historical writings about their personalities and behaviors, and her sister’s letters and diaries and behaviors, and relying on the DSM-IV as a touchstone throughout. The conclusion? A touch of deviance is often helpful for political success. Since most people with BPD are not bloodthirsty world leaders but instead, are our colleagues, relatives and even our friends, the author then provides the reader with signs for identifying a borderline when we encounter one, along with coping strategies and referring to additional useful books on the subject.

This 471-page book is well-written and organized and carefully researched, although it might confuse some readers because of the author’s combination several writing strategies. It ends with more than 100 pages of endnotes, a glossary of terms and a user-friendly index. Even though it includes some fairly complex scientific explanations, these sections are well-written and understandable, although some of the accompanying diagrams are less than satisfactory. I recommend this insightful and helpful book to anyone who deals with “difficult people” in their work or in their personal relationships.

Barbara Oakley, is an Associate Professor of Engineering at Oakland University in Detroit and her research focuses on the effects of electromagnetic fields on biological cells. She holds degrees in systems engineering, electrical engineering and in Slavic languages and literature, was a Russian translator on a trawler and was an officer in the United States Army for four years. She and her husband, Philip, whom she met in Antarctica, reside in Detroit, Michigan, with their four children.

Comments

  1. #1 stillwaggon
    March 27, 2009

    Sounds interesting. I wonder if it would explain my aunt and the damage done to my mother (her younger sister) and her children. I used to say of her that if she’d been born male, she’d have been Idi Amin. She became for me the definition of evil. If I believed in Satan, I’d say they had a lot in common. However, I believe that there is a range of possible characters in our species. We we never have survived as a species if such sociopathy was a usual characteristic. Of course, I don’t believe in saints either. Most of us are somewhere in between and somehow we muddle through.

  2. #2 Ian
    March 27, 2009

    I don’t know if it’s a good idea to tag a blog “evil genes”: the creationists will be all over it! Great blog though. This book is definitely one that needs to be read.

  3. #3 Frasque
    March 27, 2009

    Sounds like a must-read. I’ve got an unusual number of criminals and murderers in my ancestry . . .