Friday, August 07, 2009

Book Review: Evil Genes

If you watch Dexter and enjoy his inner monologue, then you would probably enjoy Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend by Dr. Barbara Oakley. If Amazon rating terms, I would give it 4/5 stars.

The focus of EG is a very particular type of sociopath that Oakley terms "Machiavellian," after the famous author of The Prince. Despite representing a fantastically small portion of the population, these high functioning psychopaths are supremely successful at making their way to the most prestigious positions of society: Stalin, Mao, Milosevic, and Hitler. Machiavellians simply seem to derive pleasure from the success of manipulating others, and while they do not feel compassion or empathy for the emotions of others, they are supremely gifted at recognizing emotional ques. There is no ideological guide for them, the purpose is only to manipulate.

Oakley's book covers the genetic and environmental mechanisms that seem to be necessary for both the development and success of Machiavellians. For instance, neurologically the area of the brain that allows us to recognize the emotional ques of others is considerably larger than in a normal person. This allows them to recognize and quickly decipher ways to appeal to and manipulate our emotional responses. This allows them to move successfully through society, and likely is a contributing factor to just how successful they appear to be in politics.

The most brilliant aspect of this book from a story-telling standpoint is the way Oakley wraps the narrative in with her late sister, whom she identifies as being one of these individuals. At the beginning, she introduces her sister with a heart-wrenching story of how her sister stole her mother's (much older) boyfriend so that she could take her mother's place on a trip to France. Throughout the book, Oakley tries to unravel her sister's identity and make sense of her outlandish behavior, and it makes for an extremely interesting narrative.

Some other reviews I have read found the story of Oakley's sister to be the most troubling, since she is dead she can't defend herself, and I can see where that comes from after trolling through her diaries. However, I actually became more sympathetic to her sister as the book progressed, to see how truly miserable these people are, and while people have differing predispositions to Machiavellianism, the story of her sister seems to have a strong environmental component in her polio treatment as a child. By the end, I felt sorry for her sister, as most of us might once we learn the personal histories of individuals with psychopathy.

What Progressives will like about this book: Machiavellians have been particularly adept in communist systems. Classical liberals frequently argue that socialism fails not because they didn't get good leaders, but because socialist institutions have poor incentives and constraints. The historical popularity of communist Machiavellians provide a rejoinder, in part it was that there were really bad people running the system.

What Conservatives will like about this book: You get a sense of hopelessness about the possibility of reforming these people. Tough on crime conservatives that prefer the death penalty would probably find supporting material to justify their punishments in this book.

What Libertarians will like about this book: The fascinating inspection of the way Machiavellians move through politics, particularly in communist societies. It is all ready recognized that politics has a tendency to self select people with Machiavellian traits, but the review of the damage these people are capable of doing in a centrally planned system is incredible.

What can be skipped: Chapters 3 & 4, while interesting, are mostly a primer in neuroscience and reading brain scans. While the book discusses neurotransmitters and examines brain scans in every chapter, I suspect that the underlying motivation for these chapters is to nail home the point that this book does not serve as an argument for genetic screening or eugenics.

Random Fact I Learned: The language(s) you learn reorganizes your neurphsiology. Native speakers of Chinese literally see the world differently from native English speakers. Visually, an English speaker initially focuses on individual objects and the background fills in to support it. Chinese speakers see the big picture first, and eventually grasp sight of the individual objects.

Somewhat Related: Search the archives of the DOL blog for Ed Lopez's series of posts discussing The Prince. They were very interesting dives into select passages of Machiavelli's work.


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