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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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"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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Love this book!
With the advent of fMRIs, the brain is being literally opened up to the world and Oakley does a credible job in providing the lay readership with recent research. Most troubling for us, however, is the potential that psychopathic/sociopathic behavior might actually be a function of cranial predisposition, allowing such individuals to legitimately claim, "I can control my actions!" Along the way, the book examines all the great human monsters of our time--from Hitler and Stalin through Slobodan Milosevic et al. This book is definitely a worthy read.
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.
While I found her discussion of the history of Machiavellian research fascinating and the historical examples of Mao, Milosevic, Hitler and Stalin illuminating, the book hit close to home when she discussed the sub-clinical Machiavellian's that we all have to interact with. Often these people are very successful and quite friendly but underneath the surface there is a more sinister programming going on. This sinister program has stayed in the gene pool, because at low-levels of the population, these social cheaters could have their way without fear of reciprocation. In our anonymous urban societies, these personalities can flourish much stronger than in our historical evolution, when maintaining the trust of your social group was literally a matter of life and death. It is in these sections where I could make sense of some people that I have met in my life and prepare for dealing with them in the future. In a sense this is the journey that the author went through. It appears that she had an overpowering urge to understand the source of her sister's troubled behavior. Along the way, she uncovered some very interesting facts and the readers get to enjoy the results.