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Sep 3, 2011           

About "Evil Genes"

"Evil Genes" is a book by a linguist-turned-engineer called
Barbara Oakley, that I haven't read, but that sounds quite interesting, and that indeed articulates an idea that I also had, as indeed quite a few others did, if not in quite the same terms, as I will explain.

To start with, here is part of one of the reviews of the book at Amazon, written by William Holmes, whom I quote because he gives a succinct and clear statement of the idea:

The science in "Evil Genes" reveals that the "successfully sinister" (also known as Machiavellians) don't just act differently from most other people--sophisticated brain scanning techniques show that their brains process information and emotions in a completely different way. Oakley weaves these fascinating findings with historical evidence to study several famous "successfully sinister" personalities like Adolph Hitler, Chairman Mao, Slobodan Milosevic, and Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling. The subtext is that people like this are all around us and that, while some are failures because of their personality defects, others manage to combine their Machiavellian personalities with valuable skills to become very prominent--and very dangerous. They are all the more dangerous because they are firmly convinced of the righteousness of their narcissistic and self-serving causes: Oakley suggests that despite the millions of deaths and other cruelties he inflicted, Chairman Mao probably believed until his dying day that he was a deeply moral and essentially good man. The fact that evil people often don't grasp that they are in fact evil is a cold comfort for the rest of us.

As I said, the idea is not new, since it can be found - for example - in Machiavelli; in De la Boetie (16th Century); in Shakespeare, or so I think (Iago, Richard III); in several biographers of Hitler, Stalin and Mao; and indeed also in older psychiatric handbooks, some of which defined "psychopath" in terms of "a better than normal intelligence joined with an innate lack of conscience" (see e.g. the crime novel "The talented Mr. Ripley", by Patricia Highsmith, for the manner of man I'm talking about).

Indeed, as to psychopathy: Here is the first paragraph of the Wikipedia on the subject, that corresponds to my own first meeting with the idea, in a handbook of psychiatry I read in the late 1960ies, that also mentioned the lack of conscience explicitly, which is not explicit in the part of the - quite long - Wikipedia lemma I quote:

Psychopathy (..) is a mental disorder characterized primarily by a lack of empathy and remorse, shallow emotions, egocentricity, and deceptiveness. Psychopaths are highly prone to antisocial behavior and abusive treatment of others, and are very disproportionately responsible for violent crime. Though lacking empathy and emotional depth, they often manage to pass themselves off as normal people by feigning emotions and lying about their pasts.

See also the Wikipedia's "Fictional portraits of psychopaths", that does describe "
The talented Mr. Ripley" specifically "as devoid of conscience" and also mentions quite a few other fictional characters who suit the definition, including Harry Lime in "The third man".

Indeed, here is most of the first two paragraphs of Wikipedia's
"Fictional portraits of psychopaths":

Psychopaths in popular fiction and movies generally possess a number of standard characteristics which are not necessarily as common among real-life psychopaths. The traditional "Hollywood psychopath" is likely to exhibit some or all of the following traits which make them ideal villains.

  • High intelligence, and a preference for intellectual stimulation (music, fine art etc.)
  • A somewhat vain, stylish, almost "cat-like" demeanor
  • Prestige, or a successful career or position
  • Highly skilled in the arts of deception and manipulation
  • A calm, calculating and always-in-control attitude
I will turn below to the type, that indeed may not be quite like the common or garden variety of psychopaths, but which does seem to be quite apt when applied to many successful politicians, and also to quite a few religious and business leaders, and to prominent con artists in psychobabble, alternative guruship and/or the media.

What seems new in Ms. Oakley's book - so far as I can judge: I review this review of it because I find the thesis of Oakley interesting, though I have not read her book as I write - is especially the evidence there now is for it from neuroscience, which is what Barbara Oakley does research in, as a (n associate) professor of engineering, while her personal take on the theme is also interesting, for she had a sister who was thus blighted, stricken or blessed (all depending on one's moral point of view and one's respect for succesful careerists and such).

Now to another paragraph of William Holmes's review of Barbara Oakley's book - and incidentally I don't quite agree with the statement of his that I last quoted: "
The fact that evil people often don't grasp that they are in fact evil is a cold comfort for the rest of us", for I think most of them, and especially the more intelligent ones, grasp this quite well: They just don't care. (This also emerges from biographies of well-known psychopaths, like Hitler, Stalin and Mao, for indeed this is what they were, and an important part of the cause why they could become so powerful.)

The following answers - sort of - how such people, that I prefer to call psychopaths, but that Ms. Oakley seems to call "borderline personalities" (*) can arise in a human society:

From a genetic and evolutionary perspective, where do these people come from? According to Oakley, borderline personalities seem to be rare in hunter-gatherer societies--accidents happen to those who are conspicuously self-serving. Oakley suggests that settled society allows the successfully sinister to prosper and multiply--historically, for example, polygyny favors the Machiavellian, both the men who ruthlessly use their power to eliminate rivals and control harems and the women who rise to the top in the resulting competition.

Possibly so, though I don't have much knowledge of "
hunter-gatherer societies", while also, as I indicated, it seems to me that especially the more intelligent psychopaths have a much better chance than more normal persons, with a functioning conscience, to make a career, and also have historically various prominent pathways for this, especially in politics and religion.

Indeed, my main reason to quote from
"Fictional portraits of psychopaths" is that I have seen the type described by the dotted list quite often in successful politicians (**), where again it is quite plausible that intelligent psychopaths would be quite interested in becoming politicians and also would plausibly be rather more successful, on average, than those with non-psychopathic motives and genes, however much inclined to dishonesty and careerism.

A final paragraph of William Holmes's review, that gives another reason to mention the book and the review without having read the book:
Oakley does a great job of exploring the "successfully sinister" personality. An equally interesting question, and one to which she devotes comparatively little attention, is why the rest of us put up with such monsters. Hitler was able to take and maintain power because the people around him were, for the most part, willing to keep him there; likewise with Mao, Stalin, Milosevic, Castro, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Ladin, and a seemingly endless list of others. And these people were loved and admired by many who simply turned a blind eye to their evil. What is it about the successfully sinister that often lulls the rest into complacency? Their charm? Their willingness to eradicate all opposition? Something else, perhaps a felt need for such people in certain times of crisis?

My answer is - in part, but then that is the important part - in what I wrote in
on Ordinary men: Ordinary men are for the most part followers, who admire their leaders because they are their leaders; who believe the ideological tales of their leaders; and who also often simply lack the knowledge to judge them adequately, and certainly usually lack the motive for doing so, since "our community" always abounds with praise for "our leaders", and insists on behaving reverently to them, at least as long as they have not fallen from grace, which usually only happens after a revolution, or after they are safely dead; while in general leaders are not judged by their proven abilities or by such things as they did or failed to do, but by their promises and by wishful thinking on the part of their followers.

Finally, having grown up myself in a - locally, fairly though not very - prominent communist family, an important part of what made me give up that political faith when I was 20, in 1970, precisely at the time that many of my generation who were students turned to it, was that I quite clearly saw the type in leading communists - Stalin, Mao, Castro - and in leading student "revolutionaries" of the late Sixties, and didn't like it at all, and much prefered real science as the means to emancipate mankind.

And indeed, it seems to me now that not only the political left but a considerable part of all of politics and indeed of the wellknown political leaders is blighted this way, as are other careers that depend not primarily on one's real personal merit but on how one can influence people, mostly by promises, deception and tales.

Whether this is necessarily due to their having "Evil Genes" I don't know, though it is likely to be part of it, in many cases, and is also is an interesting hypothesis (***), while it furthermore seems to me that - especially - political parties are both magnets for this psychopathic - as I prefer to say - personality type, and filters where the arrived types moral misfits sort out their fellows, enforcers and henchmen to be.

This is also one of the reasons I never voted since 1971: I have seen far too many succesful liars, impostures, careerists, and phoneys in politics, and I have a strong distaste for the type.


(*) I suppose Ms Oakley's terms - if Mr. Holmes reports correctly - correspond to such usage as the DSM IV would support, but then (1) I am no fan of the DSM in any shape or form that I know of and (2) I am a psychologist, and such use as is made in Holland of terms like "borderliners" does not fit well with what I call "psychopaths", since the term is in Holland mostly used for people with psychological problems that do not fit easily under another label. (And I am not criticizing here, but merely explaining why I use the terms I do use, and not others.)

(**) And religious leaders, such as Catholic priests, with a fondness for choirboys, and psychiatrists, with something like pseudologia fantastica, as in Freud, Jung, Ranke, Wessely, and quite a few more "doctors of the soul". From the Wikipedia lemma on pseudologia fantastica:

The defining characteristics of pseudologia fantastica are that, first, the stories told are not entirely improbable and often have some element of truth. They are not a manifestation of delusion or some more intense type of psychosis: upon confrontation, the teller can admit them to be untrue, even if unwillingly. Second, the fabricative tendency is long lasting; it is not provoked by the immediate situation or social pressure as much as it is an innate trait of the personality.

Third, a definitely internal, not an external, motive for the behavior can be discerned clinically e.g. long lasting extortion or habitual spousal battery might cause a person to lie repeatedly, without the lying being a pathological symptom. Fourth, the stories told tend toward presenting the liar favorably. For example, the person might be presented as being fantastically brave, knowing or being related to many famous people.

Of course, there may be - so called - "professional reasons" to have these kind of characteristics, as in the professions of politicians, priests and psychiatrists: A system of lies and deceptions, possibly in part delusions, that forms the foundation of one's career constitutes  certainly a good reason to engage in it.

(***) Namely because if it is genetical there is at least the chance, if mankind survives that long, being led by moral misfits as leaders in many cases, to repair it, eventually.

P.S. Corrections, if any are necessary, have to be made later.

As to ME/CFS (that I prefer to call ME):

1.  Anthony Komaroff Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS (pdf)
3.  Hillary Johnson The Why
4.  Consensus of M.D.s Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf)
5.   Eleanor Stein Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)
6.  William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
7.  Paul Lutus

Is Psychology a Science?

8.  Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)
 Maarten Maartensz
ME in Amsterdam - surviving in Amsterdam with ME (Dutch)
 Maarten Maartensz Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

Short descriptions of the above:                

1. Ten reasons why ME/CFS is a real disease by a professor of medicine of Harvard.
2. Long essay by a professor emeritus of medical chemistry about maltreatment of ME.
3. Explanation of what's happening around ME by an investigative journalist.
4. Report to Canadian Government on ME, by many medical experts.
5. Advice to psychiatrist by a psychiatrist who understands ME is an organic disease
6. English mathematical genius on one's responsibilities in the matter of one's beliefs:

7. A space- and computer-scientist takes a look at psychology.
8. Malcolm Hooper puts things together status 2010.
9. I tell my story of surviving (so far) in Amsterdam with ME.
10. The directory on my site about ME.

See also: ME -Documentation and ME - Resources
The last has many files, all on my site to keep them accessible.

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