Evil Genes, by Barbara Oakley [Book Review]
If you've ever had to deal with somebody with a personality disorder you might, like me, develop a perverse sort of addiction to reading about them. You want to stop in order to preserve your better view of humankind, but seeing someone else navigate the the same incomprehensible swamp that swallowed you is just too fixating.
In Evil Genes, Barbara Oakley takes a look at what makes the world's greatest super-villains so destructive. One chapter each is dedicated to Mao, Milosevic, and of course, Hitler. But it isn't her revealing analysis of these dictators that makes Evil Genes worth reading. Rather, it is the story of her personal struggle to understand her sister, Carolyn, that really brings the book home. She reminds us of how you don't have to be a dictator to wreak havoc on other people's lives.
"Those who haven't [dealt with the successfully sinister] often simply don't believe they exist. Those who have usually know instantly what I'm talking about."
"The puzzle for everyone is how there could be people who can do bad--even horrendous--things to others without feeling guilt."
It was her experiences with Carolyn that took Oakley down the path that led to Evil Genes. She takes us through everything she learned along the way about the function and dysfunction of the brains of Machiavellian types. She discusses the genes and brain regions known to be involved and explains in detail how they function.
"People with slight problems in their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex appear to act normally, however, they may draw bizarre and irrational conclusions."
"A child needs the orbitofrontal cortex and related neurological features to have a feeling of compassion."
Throughout Evil Genes, Oakley regularly revisits the basic problem of defining and diagnosing personality disorders. Typically, everybody knows there is something wrong, but nobody can never be sure exactly what it is or even begin to imagine what is causing it.
"Others, like Carolyn, show a more puzzling mix of both psychopathic and empathetic characteristics--her easy ability to lie, for example, was coupled with absolute adoration for her cats."
"There was something captivating about her--something that allowed men, for a while at least, to think that she was the answer to their dreams."
"It can be difficult to know whether a leader is cognitively disturbed or instead an avant-garde visionary who sees the truth others are missing."
Oakley also wonders if Machiavellian behaviour should be considered as a disorder at all. Machiavellian traits are often well rewarded in the modern world, and a small section of the book includes a discussion on viewing personality disorders as adaptations. I think this perspective is key to understanding their persistence in the human population.
"Although people with borderline personality disorder can be apparently manipulative, they don't see their behavior as such. They're trying to meet their needs in the only way they know how."
"Just as the cuckoo has found an evolutionary niche laying its eggs in the nests of other birds, psychopaths and Machiavellians have found their evolutionary niche in taking advantage of the natural altruism of other humans."
I don't know how much Evil Genes ultimately contributes to the unravelling of personality disorders, but I do feel it makes a difference by showing us that they are real and destructive. Machiavellians are experts at manipulation and dealing with them can distort your reality. A book like Evil Genes can help bring you safely back to the shared reality of more healthy people. As Oakley says in the book, our best defence against Machiavellians may be simply to know they exist.
"Taking action against a Machiavellian is often a dangerous proposition, and no-one takes on such a task lightly."
"A true borderline's knee-jerk response [to being told she has a personality disorder] would be: *I don't have borderline personality disorder. YOU have borderline personality disorder."
Although there is a good deal of science in Evil Genes, I found that Oakley's personal story about her sister, who was most probably borderline, was what kept me interested in the book. You can study theory until your hair bleeds, but it's the real life examples that give the theory meaning.
All told, Evil Genes is an interesting mix of science and story that presents an extremely complex subject in a digestible form. I strongly recommend it to anybody who has (or has had) a Machiavellian in their life!
★★★★Evil Genes, by Barbara Oakley [Book Review]
Roger Keays is an artist, an engineer, and a student of life. Since he left Australia in 2009, he has been living as a digital nomad in over 40 different countries around the world. Roger is addicted to surfing. His other interests are music, psychology, languages, and finding good food.