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Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend Paperback – October 21, 2008

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From Publishers Weekly

Borne out of a quest to understand her sister Carolyn's lifelong sinister behavior (which, systems engineer Oakley suggests, may have been compounded by childhood polio), the author sets out on an exploration of evil, or Machiavellian, individuals. Drawing on the advances in brain imaging that have illuminated the relationship of emotions, genetics and the brain (with accompanying imaging scans), Oakley collects detailed case histories of famed evil geniuses such as Slobodan Milosevic and Mao Zedong, interspersed with a memoir of Carolyn's life. Oakley posits that they all had borderline personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder, a claim she supports with evidence from scientists' genetic and neurological research. All the people she considers, Oakley notes, are charming on the surface but capable of deeply malign behavior (traits similar to those found in some personality disorders), and her analysis attributes these traits to narcissism combined with cognitive and emotional disturbances that lead them to believe they are behaving in a genuinely altruistic way. Disturbing, for sure, but with her own personal story informing her study, Oakley offers an accessible account of a group of psychiatric disorders and those affected by them. Illus. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"A fascinating scientific and personal exploration of the roots of evil, filled with human insight and telling detail."
--Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor, Harvard University, and author of
The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Stuff of Thought

"'Scientific non-fiction' and 'page turner' aren’t two phrases I’d expect in the same sentence, but for the remarkable Evil Genes, they fit."
--William A. Wulf, President Emeritus, National Academy of Engineering

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 473 pages
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books (October 21, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1591026652
  • ISBN-13: 978-1591026655
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #114,318 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I work at Oakland University as a professor of engineering. I started studying engineering much later than many engineering students, because my original intention had been to become a linguist. I enlisted in the U.S. Army right after high school and spent a year studying Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey California. The Army eventually sent me to the University of Washington, where I received my first degree'a B.A. in Slavic Languages and Literature. Eventually, I served four years in Germany as a Signal Officer, and rose to become a Captain.

After my Army commitment ended, I decided to leave the Army and study engineering so that I could better understand the communications equipment I had been working with. Five years later I received a second degree: a B.S. in Electrical Engineering. In the meantime, I worked several fishing seasons as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers up in the Bering Sea. I wrote a book about that experience in 'Hair of the Dog: Tales from a Russian Trawler.' I also spent a season as the radio operator at the South Pole Station, where Philip and I met. (We were married as soon as we got 'off the ice,' in New Zealand.) With the B.S.E.E. degree in hand I settled down and spent three years working as a instrumentation and controls engineer at a laser research and development firm near Seattle.

We moved to the Detroit area in 1989. I worked for Ford briefly, and then began doing consulting and attending Oakland University part time while our children were small. I received a M.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering in 1995, and a Ph.D. in Systems Engineering in 1998. I was hired after my graduation to continue on as a professor at Oakland University.

Since then, I've become interested in learning about people and places using an out-side-the box perspective--as you can tell from my books. I feel compelled to explore ideas and concepts in writing--thank goodness I have a family that's forgiving of my compulsion!

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

144 of 151 people found the following review helpful By William Holmes VINE VOICE on December 9, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Oakley's "Evil Genes" is a compelling mix of science, history and personal experience. The catalyst for Oakley's book is the sudden death of her sister, Carolyn, an attractive woman who often acted with shocking disregard for the people around her. When Carolyn learned that her mother's boy friend was planning to take her mother on the "trip of a lifetime" to Europe, Carolyn quickly "came to visit" and ended up being the replacement girl friend who actually made the trip. Her mother died not too long after that disappointment. When Carolyn came home to vist her family after a long estrangement amid seemingly heartfelt pleas for forgiveness and reconciliation, she went to town to run some errands and wasn't seen again for five years. It later turned out she had decided to go home with a man she had met at a store. Carolyn's diary entry on the occasion of her father's death sandwiched the family's tragedy in the midst of the mundane: "cleaned up the dried parsley I acccidentally spilled. Barb called--Dad died. My request for periodontal care seemed self-serving; but apparently this will be handled through a trust fund."

Clearly, Carolyn was different from other people in her sense of the importance (or unimportance) of those around her. But why? Was it because of her upbringing? Because of a genetic predisposition toward a borderline personality disorder? Because of the polio she had suffered as a child? Or was it some combination of these factors? These are the questions that Oakley explores and struggles to answer in her highly readable book.
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64 of 70 people found the following review helpful By Angie Boyter VINE VOICE on May 10, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Three or four times a year I come across a book so compelling that I bubble over telling friends about it and impulsively read passages aloud to my long-suffering husband. Evil Genes is such a book.
As the book description says, Barbara Oakley began getting really interested in what makes people evil when she read her dead sister's diaries. For many people this would be the end of the story, but, being an engineer, and therefore analytically inclined, and a linguist, and therefore verbally inclined, Ms. Oakley delved into what the latest in psychology and brain science can tell us about what goes on in the brains of really evil people. And then she wrote about it in a way that laymen like me can understand.
I probably learned more about brains and mental pathology in this book than in any single other book I have read. I can now impress my friends with terms like "polygeny" and "gaslighting." The information provided is sufficiently advanced that I even told a psychiatrist friend things he didn't know!
In addition to the pure science, however, the book contains fascinating analyses of the minds of leaders like Chairman Mao and Winston Churchill (not that she implies Sir Winston was evil) and concludes that a touch of deviance might be helpful for personal success.
Anyone with an interest in science or history is likely to find Evil Genes an unusual and fascinating read. Let me warn, however, that this IS a book of science and presents what is known at the present level of the science; it does not offer uninformed speculation. Some other reviewers seem disappointed at the lack of conclusions; they will just have to wait until science catches up with our desire for answers.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Lynn A. Weber on May 29, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book has so much promise but is marred by a preoccupation about the exact psychological and DSM terminology for the various versions of psychopathy. The science and social science research is important, but dominate the book to an unfortunate extent. I found myself skipping page after page of detailed parsing of borderline versus antisocial disorder. Maybe the author will come out with a revised edition that is better organized or edited for the general reader. For the general reader, The Sociopath Next Door is a good option.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Craig Hyatt on October 8, 2009
Format: Paperback
I give Evil Genes an A+. First off, forget the whole nature-versus-nurture debate and all the baggage about eugenics and whatnot: that's just not the *point* of this book. Oakley isn't preaching here, she's presenting the reasonable point of view that inheritable faults in brain development can, together with environmental influences, result in personality disorders and other processing problems that may, in turn, lead to inexplicably and gratuitously evil and destructive behavior. However, I read the book cover to cover, and I never got the impression she was making the case that there's a "schizophrenia gene" or a "rapist gene" or anything like that, and I certainly didn't get the feeling she was arguing that we ought to excuse criminal behavior because "my evil genes made me do it." What Oakley does is present a well-founded case that genes and combinations of genes can ultimately cause brains to get wired wrong or to develop chemical imbalances that result in faulty processing. Oakley's case seems reasonable to me. If you pick up Gray's Anatomy, you see there are loads of physical variations in the construction of our bodies... an extra bone here... an extra nerve or artery there... and I see no reason why brain construction shouldn't have similar physical and chemical variations resulting in a spectrum of psychological dispositions. Oakley isn't writing a PhD thesis here. What she's doing is mixing a goodish dose of interesting and accessible science with some fascinating inside stuff about public menaces interwoven with Oakley's memories of the trail of destruction left by her own erratic older sister Carolyn. I just couldn't put the book down.Read more ›
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