“Evil Genes”

Evil is real, and so are evil genes.

Today I stumbled on a C-SPAN presentation by Barbara Oakley about her book Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend. I haven’t read the book, but it evidently overlaps with many things I’ve long thought and written myself, in The Tangled Wing and elsewhere.

According to her website, she has been called “a female Indiana Jones.” She was a U.S. Army Captain and Distinguished Military Scholar (having started as Private Oakley), a translator on a Russian fishing trawler, and a radio operator at the South Pole. Now she’s a professor of bioengineering, working on electromagnetic field effects and antenna designs.

On top of all that, she has plunged into evolutionary psychology-a lot of people are doing that these days-and proposed a theory of evil that may not be new exactly, but makes a lot of sense.

In essence, day-by-day evil is done by people with certain severe personality disorders, and large-scale evil is done by those who fill that bill but also have great gifts that enable them to climb up political hierarchies. For example, they may have uncanny memories for names and faces of people they meet during the climb, helping them to control those people and others. A good memory also helps you to keep your stories straight.

And those folks do tell a lot of stories, to themselves and those around them. The two main components of this are diagnoses in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual–DSM-IV-TR in the last revision: Antisocial Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder.

Anti-social personalities (who used to be called psychopaths or sociopaths) are people who deliberately do destructive things to others without remorse, or even with enjoyment. As children, they sometimes exhibit the classic triad of fire-setting, torturing animals, and, interestingly, bed-wetting. Most of them are boys and men.

Borderlines are more complicated and interesting. They feel a lot of things intensely, not simply cruelty. The cruelty they do is usually unplanned and thoughtless, rather than deliberate. And they may or may not have remorse, but if they do it doesn’t seem to last or change their behavior.

The thing about them though, is that they often love intensely and inspire the love of others. That’s what makes them powerful and what makes the people around them vulnerable. Their love is intense, controlling, unreliable, and toxic. Psychotherapists who deal with them quickly learn to be wary of them. One excellent book about them for their loved ones is called Stop Walking on Eggshells. Most of them are women.

Oakley believes-correctly in my view–that these people have special brains. They may, like her sister, have brain damage from environmental causes-her sister, she thinks, got it as a post-polio syndrome, but there are many other possibilities. Weaker inhibition of the limbic system by the frontal lobes may be a factor, but that is an oversimplification.

However, as she says, most of those who got to be sociopaths or borderlines did so the honest way-by having bad genes. She quoted heritability estimates for both disorders that I would not accept, but there is no doubt that personality disorders are quite heritable, as is personality generally.

She uses the term “malignant narcissism,” to describe the kind of people she is talking about, although she didn’t mention Narcissistic Personality Disorder, another DSM label that seems relevant. She thinks that malignant narcissism is expressed in different ways in different people-men and women do it differently for example-but that the category is a combination of anti-social and borderline personalities. Add the obvious Narcissistic Personality Disorder and I would agree.

There is little doubt that people like Hitler and Stalin have special brains, and probably special genes. How do they perpetuate them? By doing what comes naturally. Sociopathic men are often charming enough, and are certainly ruthless enough, to lie their way into and through many women’s beds. And of course, if they have the other gifts needed to run a nation, there is practically no end to the number of offspring men can have.

Laura Betzig, over twenty years ago, wrote a book called Despotism and Differential Reproduction, in which she showed that real historical tyrants had reproductive opportunities and successes beyond most men’s wildest dreams. Betzig was resoundingly vindicated a few years ago when it was found that millions of Asian men today have a Y chromosome bequeathed to them originally by a contemporary of Genghis Khan–in all likelihood, Khan himself.

Oakley cited this finding, and she understands the implications. What kinds of genes do we think were bequeathed to us by despots? And what happens when they aren’t combined with positive genes that can somehow balance them or turn them to better use?

It may be pop sociobiology, but that doesn’t make it unimportant or wrong. Of course, what counts in the end is how the rest of us react to the people who carry them. Which is why we should listen to what Oakley has to say.

One comment

  1. Jack Davis says:

    I thought the book was very good, particularly her portrayal of Mao–who was a fascinating character. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

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