Evil Genes

As I was strolling through town a few weeks ago, I saw a flyer advertising a talk on campus by Prof. Barbara Oakley, talking about her book "Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend"

I couldn't go to the talk, due to a conflicting engagement, but the book was in my review pile, so I popped it up to the top and plowed through it.

The book is quite a fun read.
It starts off as a personal story, with the death of the author's sister, and her reflection on the life of her sister, and why she was as she was: was it genetic, environmental, due to neurological changes from severe viral illness, or some mix if all of the above.

The author leans to the genetic explanation as a root cause, with enviroment and contingent events considered as triggers or suppressors of genetic propensities.
There is some interesting discussion of brain structure, and a lot of reliance of functional MRI studies, which the author is clearly familiar with. There is also some good discussion of allele variations and correlations with various clinical syndromes, as well as the game theoretic aspect of why such propensities would persist in a population despite their apparent low fitness in many cases.

From there, the book takes two uneasy and parallel courses: on the one hand it goes through a variety of psychological syndromes, which the author initially puts under the umbrella of "Machiavellian" and later refers to a "Borderpath" - the terms cover a wide variety clinical and sub-clinical psychological syndromes, generally short of outright sociopathy, but covering a range of symptoms.
Broadly speaking, she is talking about unempathetic, manipulative and irrational personalities - most people have encountered them, and the discussion of their tactics, and how people deal with them or fail to deal with them is interesting and potentially useful should you ever encounter, and recognise such.

On the other hand, the author uses a series of examples from history, and in her personal life, her sister; and argues for how people ranging from Mao through to Enron executives are such borderpaths, and how this explains much. She also contrasts examples of "good" strong personalities - people who were ruthless, short tempered and often unpleasant, but were not borderpaths. She explores how borderpaths can rise to power in social structures, and the effects they have on other people and the functioning of the structures they manipulate. In particular the heritability of the genetic vulnerability to such syndromes is interesting and could explain much.

It is a good read, and provides a good set of "just so" stories; but the whole book left me slightly unconvinced, despite the abundant footnotes and references.

First, too much of the evidence is sparse and anecdotal. I am not entirely convinced that all her examples were actually borderpaths, by her definition, nor that some of her counterexamples were not borderpaths, again, by her definition. But the clinical evidence is lacking either way.

The flaws of the book can be illustrated by two examples: in chapter 9, discussing Mao, there is a figure (9.5) a photograph of a particularly tortuous mass execution in China.
The problem is, that the photo is from 1915, at which time Mao was 22 and a student teacher, not generally going around ordering mass executions and torture. So it proves nothing except that there was some systematic general nastiness in the general vicinity of where Mao spent some formative years.
The second example is in the last chapter, where the author suddenly mentions how untalented Machiavellians, who have inserted themselves into the high echelons in the monolithic American educational system, might explain the poor performance of the educational system.

Except, the America educational system is not monolithic at any level, some states exsert some control over the local K-12 system, but even there most control is local and dispersed.
Further, the author provides no actual evidence that there are any peculiar abundances of Machivellians, talented, or not, within the educational system. Not in comparison with other social structures, nor in comparison with other, apparently better performing, educational systems.
In fact, the poor performance of the American educational system is not explained, in so much as how it is poor, how poor it is, or which bits of it are poor.

So, I'm picking a little bit here, but this is also illustrative of the general flaw. There are an awful lot of assertions providing explanation for some assorted badnesses, but the chain of reasoning is often lacking. Too much anecdote, too many poorly justified examples and too little evidence for actual clinical syndrome being an underlying cause.

And, the book really does not explain, at all, why Rome fell.

Evil Genes
Barbara Oakley
Prometheus Books
ISBN 978-1-59102-665-5 (ppb)


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