The Banality of Evil Genes

Evil_Genes_CoverEvil Genes: How Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend, by Barbara Oakley. Prometheus Books. 459 pages.

One might be forgiven for assuming that the nature versus nurture argument had been quietly settled long ago, with credit and spoils agreeably distributed among all parties. But apparently that’s not what most of us want to hear, as the continuing supply of sociobiology books championing the near-irrelevance of culture would suggest. In psychology, the sociobology banner-carriers are Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate) and Judith Rich Harris (The Nurture Assumption), both of whom have now favorably blurbed a book by a new footsoldier, Barbara Oakley, professor of electrical engineering at Oakland University. To the cause Oakley’s book contributes, at the very least, a way of encapsulating human nature that everyone can understand. It’s called Evil Genes.

Evil Genes is half personal anecdote, half survey of recent science on the biochemical underpinnings of mood and emotion (Oakley would go further, to say underpinnings of human behavior, but this is exactly the connection the studies do not show). Indeed there is some interesting science in Evil Genes, mostly in the areas of genomics, brain chemistry, and neural imaging. But when you extract what is actually pertinent to Oakley’s thesis, you are left with very little. Certain genes, as we might expect, influence the production of certain neurotransmitters, and the growth of certain areas of the brain. There are studies that suggest that some genetic profiles can sufficiently impact mood, emotion and cognition to dispose a person to psychopathy. Evil Genes cites several such studies.

But here we need to be careful. Genomes are not blueprints. Complex organisms have a profound level of variation available in their genes. Some traits are, admittedly, highly determined by our genes–Mendel’s famous wrinkled and smooth peas, for example, or our own eye and hair color. A handful of diseases, like Huntington’s, are almost inevitable in those carrying the right genes, and in some cases the onset of these diseases can be predicted with considerable accuracy.

But these are misleading examples, and because of them the deterministic aspect of genetic influence is given far more importance, in the popular mind, than is due. For a century, scientists have spoken of genes “for” various traits, though for at least half of that time we’ve known that gene activity is regulated by non-heritable factors, either in the “outside” environment, or within the cell. Though we still talk of programs, blueprints and “hard-wiring,” genetic influences are much more similar to a library of possible texts. In short, genetic determinism, though so eminently compelling to our imaginations, is a scientific model that has outlived its usefulness.

Most genetic determinists give abundant lip service to the complexity of gene regulation in the cell, and to the important role of environments in expressing genetic tendencies. But when the time comes to put it all in everyday terms, these caveats are swept aside. Thus we have Richard Dawkins’ oft-quoted comments about genes as “master programmers” exerting “ultimate power” over behavior. He knows, or should know, the falsity of this, but it helps sell books.

Oakley, too, is careful to emphasize that traits arise from interactions between genes and environments*. To this extent her book is a helpful contribution to our understanding of the genetics of human behavior. But this subtlety falls away where it matters most. We look to the title to distill for us the most important part of a book’s argument. Evil Genes does little, unfortunately, to dispel the common misunderstanding of the genome as a deterministic program, and it’s hard to see how this could be anything but deliberate.

Titles matter, because we are bound to connect even the most complicated explanations of things to basic understandable ideas. In the case of Evil Genes the idea is an old one; it’s the myth of the “bad seed,” the notion that evil is born, not made. The mark of Cain. There’s another, less explicit myth in there too, the myth of the Svengali, wherein evil always manages to get the better of good, through trickery and exploitation. Evil, in this tale, is endowed with a powerful inner magnetism which Goodness does not have the resources to resist.

There’s a certain value to these stories, but it’s not the one that Oakley seizes upon. The lesson of these cautionary archetypes is not about the Evil Other, it is about ourselves. It is about the tension between, in Blake’s proposition, Innocence and Experience. The primary confusion running through Evil Genes is Oakley’s implicit association of “good” with “innocent.” She is trying to combat the naive misconception that people are born “good.” But is this conception really all that widely held? A much more prevalent notion is that humans are born innocent, which is not at all the same. Ironically, the conflation of innocence and goodness falls prey to the same naiveté Oakley sets out to remediate: to identify innocence with goodness is itself innocent. To the extent we can talk about good and evil in any meaningful way, they must be informed by our experience.

A newborn baby can do neither good nor evil. He or she is utterly self absorbed, by nature, in a way that is entirely beyond reproach. We allocate proportionally more responsibility to children as they develop, until we release them as free agents into the world, at around 18. But this is not a process of reactively doling out greater and greater hunks of adulthood until the child’s development it complete. It is an interactive and creative venture. These 18 years are set aside, in our culture, not just to wait for development to be completed, but to build a psyche, an identity (as opposed to a personality, which we can be more comfortable calling “inborn”) that can function in a healthy way. And we spend an enormous amount of energy and money on this process, through rearing, schooling, media, and various other organized activities. A visitor from another planet would have to conclude that we consider that enculturation of children a pretty important activity.

Oakley’s book completely ignores the function of culture and socialization in the development process. The extent of her interest in the social aspect of psychology is expressed in a single sentence:

Psychology, with explanations founded on “defense mechanisms,” “countertransference” and “acting out” can only go so far.

We are not told how far is “so far,” nor are we treated to any explication of the merits (or demerits) of the psychological paradigm. She unnecessarily dismisses the behaviorist “blank slate” model of human nature, which has been out of favor in clinical psychology for half a century.

I mentioned earlier that the book is half personal narrative, focusing mostly on Oakley’s effort to understand her sister, Carolyn, who she calls a “Machiavellian” personality type, after the classification developed by Christie and Geis in the 1950s. On the one hand the fact that Oakley has written her personal motivation for pursuing this interest right into the through-line of her book is an act of admirable transparency. But making the venture explicitly personal demonstrates a conflict of interest that deeply mars Oakley’s argument. Though she briefly touches upon some of the recent challenges in the literature, such as identical twin studies, to prevailing nurture-based theories of psychology, when it comes to her own family the topic is (understandably) off limits. By failing to seriously investigate (or even consider) the possibility that Carolyn (who died in 2004) might have suffered some kind of transgressional event in her childhood, Oakley cleanses her sister’s history of any illuminatory potential regarding interpersonal causes of psychopathology. Excerpts from Carolyn’s diary throughout the book give the appearance of contributing, somehow, to Oakley’s evil-genes thesis. But since Oakley only considers as possibilities that Carolyn had “Machiavellian”** genes, or (in a half-hearted investigation) that her personality was altered by childhood polio, the diary entries serve only a circular, tautological role.

Whatever happened or didn’t happen to Oakley’s sister, the fact remains that most morally and emotionally damaged people have a history of some kind of childhood abuse or neglect. The pattern is demonstrable. It’s possible that some people are born with a more robust genome, and are able to thrive after an upbringing that would have twisted the psyche of many another into Gordian knots. It’s not clear to me why we should call the latter a genetic defect instead of calling the former a genetic cushion. In either case, most children raised in healthy homes don’t end up “sinister.” As a culture, we are able to profoundly influence the nurture side of the equation. Why not focus on what is possible, instead encouraging the kind of fatalism that extends from considering human nature as set in stone, out of our hands? Why devote large portions of our discourse to the things we can’t have any influence on? At the very least, scary bedtime stories about monsters go down a lot easier (and result in much better dreams) when the hero or heroine is given something interesting or useful to do.

 


* In a comment to me she wrote: “There is little doubt that some very rare individuals are born without the capacity to feel empathy, and take great pleasure in the sufferings of others. Often this results in what many people would agree is deeply antisocial, harmful, and even “evil” behavior. But for most other people who grow up with a pattern of harming others, environment plays as profound a role as genetics.” I don’t know how to read this as anything but a refutation of her main thesis. It all hinges on how rare is “rare,” of course, but the implication is that the number of people born “evil” is statistically insignificant. And if we’re going to preclude any study of what environmental factors might have affected the pathology, such as it was, of Mao, Stalin, or Paris Hilton, I don’t see what possible value the “evil gene” theory can provide us.

 

**We use the word “Machiavellian” today to indicate personal opportunism, but this is not the philosophy Machiavelli espsoused; his counsel of deception and cruelty was meant not for everyman, but for Kings, and not because he wanted Kings to have special privileges for their own sake, but for the greater stability of the state. When we talk about ends justifying means, we rarely remember that to make any sense at all, the ends would have to be something other than whatever might be gratifying at the time–i.e. short-term personal gain.

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One thought on “The Banality of Evil Genes

  1. [I’ve re-posted the comments to the original post in a single comment here.]

    At 8:38 AM, Blogger Barbara said…

    Hi Christopher,

    When you point out that the nature-nurture argument has been settled long ago, with the obvious answer being both, it implies that nature and nuture generally have 50/50 contributions. But that’s not necessarily true. The abandoned Romanian orphans, for example, grew up to be deeply dysfunctional. In that case, it didn’t matter what their genes were—environment trumped all. On the other hand, researcher Essi Viding has shown that traits of psychopathy appear, at least on occasion, to be strongly heritable. In that case, it doesn’t matter what the environment was, genes seem to have overridden everything. It is this latter case, where genes can play an important role in troubled personalities, that I discussed in “Evil Genes.”

    Genes can be deterministic in how tall we are, what color hair we have, what diseases we are prone to, and even in our musicality and ability to dance. Why shouldn’t they also be deterministic in forming aspects of our personality? There is a mountain of evidence—often dismissed in the popular literature—that this is so.

    This doesn’t mean that certain aspects of our personalities are not fungible. It’s just that some aspects appear to be harder for a person to change than others. In particular, if a person is not able to realize that they have something wrong with themselves, they would have no impetus to try to change their character.

    When you say that research studies do not show the relationship between mood, emotion, and human behavior, I would beg to differ. When you say “[Oakley] is trying to combat the naive misconception that people are born good. But is this really all that widely held?” I would recommend in response that you read Pinker’s “The Blank Slate,” which provides ample evidence of the widespread nature of the idea that people are born good.

    You also say “Oakley’s book completely ignores the function of culture and socialization in the development process.” That’s not at all true—I’m not sure how you missed the many references I made. For example, I discussed the effect of Ceauşescu’s policies on the attitudes of Romanians who lived under his rule. I also discussed Mao’s upbringing, and the possible effect of the ruthless public punishments that he witnessed; the effect of environment on the killings by the Japanese of the civilians at the Rape of Nanking; as well as the profound effects of the ostracization my sister must have received from her peers as a result of her polio. There are many other instances, if you look. I would argue instead that most books about personality development pay lip service—if that—to the important effect of genes. My book is an attempt to provide a more balanced account that includes the effects of both genes and environment.

    I’m not sure why you are so insistent that my sister must have suffered some unnamed instance or instances of child abuse, with the implication being that it must have been from a family member. As I explained at length in the book, she suffered enormously from the social and physical effects of being paralyzed by polio.

    When you say, “But from the start, Carolyn is presumed to have, a priori, “Machiavellian”** genes,” that is simply incorrect. Here’s what I actually conclude in the book: “Was [Carolyn’s tragic character] due to neural damage from the poliovirus itself? Or trauma related to the horrific experience of having polio? Or genetic predisposition? All of the above, it seems.”

    You conclude by saying “Why devote large portions of our discourse to the things we can’t have any influence on?” But do you really want to advocate a policy that amounts to an unwitting return to the 1950s, when diseases such as autism and schizophrenia were blamed on “cold parenting” rather than genetics? We are certainly in that situation today, where families are often inappropriately blamed for dysfunctional behavior by a child that may well have its roots in genetics.

    Barb Oakley

    At 3:02 PM, Blogger underverse said…

    Barbara,

    There is a difference between being “strongly heritable” and “overriding everything.” Dr. Viding doesn’t come to so absolute a conclusion about her own study, writing “Any behaviour is influenced by multiple genes and an unlucky combination of genes may increase vulnerability to a disorder. However, strong heritability does not mean that nothing can be done. Children are open to protective environmental influences early in life and these influences
    can buffer the effect of genetic vulnerability.”

    If by “deterministic” you mean “contributive” then I don’t disagree that genes can also be deterministic of behavior. But if you mean something more akin to programmatic, I can’t agree, either in the case of behavior, or for physical traits such as height or disease, the expression of which rely upon innumerable environmental factors.

    I did not write that studies do not show a relationship between mood, emotion and behavior. What I wrote was that these studies do not demonstrate the rigid causal chain between biology and behavior that you ascribe to them. It is fashionable to try to find a way to say that humans are a sort of automaton, because it relieves the burden of having to describe objectively just what sort of a thing a psyche is, since it doesn’t show up on scans. But there are plenty of things that don’t physically exist that we can talk about in great detail: economics, law, aesthetics, freedom, pain, happiness. The “self” may be a cultural invention, but that doesn’t make it any less an important influence on our behavior.

    I’m not very impressed by Pinker’s treatment of the Noble Savage myth. I think he makes the same conflation of goodness and innocence that I find in your work. They are not the same. And while it is fine for Pinker to attribute our culture’s growing interest in things “natural” to a Rousseauian romanticism, that’s ideology, not argument. The counterfactuals are abudant, to say the least.

    Ironically, Rousseau and Pinker labor under the same category error. For Rousseau, there was no corrupting cultural influence among “savages” (literally “men of the wild”). He confused a relatively direct relationship with nature among these cultures with an idealized unsullied “state of nature,” in which culture played no part. Modernism makes the same error on the other end, maintaining that a finally objective science has arrived, obviating the need for culture to understand the world.

    Of course both are impossible. To be human is to have language and culture, and this will always preclude direct knowledge of nature; there’s no way out of that. But in some sense the Noble Savage myth is a valuable one. Corruption, such as it is, is a function of time. To varying degrees, we are all subject to it–rust never sleeps. But, obviously, the earlier you go in the life cycle (of a person, or a culture), greater is the proportion of potential, or innocence.

    You’re right that I should not have used the phrase “Oakley completely ignores” cultural and social influences. I had something more specific in mind when I wrote that (namely, the science of what is damaged by childhood abuse, and what is nurtured by good rearing). But I did not mean to suggest you provide no examples of how environmental factors of development.

    However, this goes back to the fence-straddling I spoke of earlier. Your book is about “evil genes,” whose impact is so absolute that some significant proportion of humanity is born irredeemably “sinister.” This is a very bold hypothesis, and it is not backed up by the science that you make reference to. A certain level of responsibility attends to the accusation that some people are born monsters. Professor Richards wrote that your book was deficient of caution in this regard, and I have to agree.

    I also did not write that your sister “must have suffered” child abuse. What I wrote was that you don’t investigate the possibility one way or another. You make a good argument that her polio was a possible factor in the development of her personality–and of course that would be an environmental, not a biological factor. But the number one positive indicator for personality disorders is childhood abuse, usually by a parent. I’m not saying it happened in your family, but your narrative loses a great deal of credibility by your neglecting to seriously explore the greatest known predictor of personality disorders.

    The question is not one of blame, in the sense of revenge or retribution. Abusive parents are usually re-enacting their own childhood dramas, without much adult perspective or insight. But contemporary psychology has gone a long way to establishing with certainty that methods and customs of childrearing make a difference in a child’s development (as though proof was needed). If we know that they do, we can direct our efforts as parents, educators, and health providers towards increasingly healthy generations.

    At 5:46 PM, Blogger Barbara said…

    Hi Christopher,

    Essi Viding first became interested in studying children with psychopathic-like traits because she found that there was no therapy or treatment of any kind that seemed to be able to help these children. Certainly sometimes environmental influences *can* buffer genetic effects—but in the children that inspired Essi, that was not the case, and it is not the other case with many other children who display psychopathic like-traits. I corresponded with Paul Frick, a child psychologist who is a leader in this area—he rued the fact that really, there is currently no treatment for these types of children.

    It sounds nice to conclude, as you do, “But contemporary psychology has gone a long way to establishing with certainty that methods and customs of childrearing make a difference in a child’s development (as though proof was needed). If we know that they do, we can direct our efforts as parents, educators, and health providers towards increasingly healthy generations.” Such proof is most emphatically *not* available for the children Viding or Frick are studying, and the verdict is out on how significant a difference can be made with other deeply emotionally disturbed children. Certainly the Virginia Tech killer had access to a great deal of mental health care, but it was of no help whatsoever in ultimately saving lives. In fact, if mental health professionals had been more willing to admit that they were not able to help Cho Seung-Hui, (the Virginia Tech killer), more students might be alive today.

    I am not a determinist—I do feel people have varying degrees of free will in changing their personalities. I indicated this throughout the book. But if people are given a decent environment, they’ll grow to largely the same set point, whether you are speaking of the physical body or the personality. Again, environment can and does play a role here. But adoption studies, for example, have shown that temperament of children is determined by the child itself, not by the family the child is adopted into. (I’m not talking of cases involving something like a pathologically abusive family.) Humans are clearly not automatons—but they just as clearly are far more shaped by their innate “wiring” than has been previously understood to be the case.

    I disagree with your summarization of Pinker’s work, and do not agree that goodness and innocence are being conflated. You said “But, obviously, the earlier you go in the life cycle (of a person, or a culture), greater is the proportion of potential, or innocence.” That may be true for some people. But I do not believe it is true for others, who receive a heavier emotionally problematic genetic load. Truly some children create emotional difficulties for their parents and others from the moment they are born. (William Shockley is a good example of this.)

    You wrote “Your book is about “evil genes,” whose impact is so absolute that some significant proportion of humanity is born irredeemably “sinister.” This is a very bold hypothesis, and it is not backed up by the science that you make reference to.” Of course I didn’t back your statement up with science—because your sentence doesn’t describe my book. What I actually wrote was “People simply aren’t generally raised and educated to understand that small percentages of the population—some of whom are outwardly very successful—are quite capable of masking deeply disturbed personalities.” And for that, I provided ample evidence.

    The entire title of the book is “Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend.” If that’s not a tongue-in-cheek title, I don’t know what is. As the final chapter reveals, the “evil genes” of the title relate as well to those that predisposed my father to Alzheimer’s, and my sister to polio. Yes—my book is about evil genes—but it is also mocking precisely that concept. As I make clear—the very genes that make for some of our most problematic behavior can also, in slightly different admixtures, make for our very best behavior.

    You wrote: “I also did not write that your sister “must have suffered” child abuse.” But then you circled right back around to imply again that it was an important possibility. You go on to say that “…the number one positive indicator for personality disorders is childhood abuse, usually by a parent.” Umm—that’s only if you ignore genetics. In fact, your assumptions here are precisely the kind of thing I am talking about—the immediate presumption on your part that it is probably the parents who is at fault when a child grows up with dysfunctional traits.

    In fact, my sibling and I questioned deeply over the years what had happened to my sister. We knew our parents intimately, over a period of many, many years. It is impossible to prove that there was no child abuse, but knowing my parents as well as my sibling and I knew them, and knowing my parents’ many friends and their opinions of my parents, and also knowing my parents many profound efforts to do everything they could over the years to help my sister, I believe it is reasonable to conclude that my parents were the decent, caring parents to my sister that they were to my brother and myself. Look, Chris, “Evil Genes” is a book meant for the general public to read, not a research paper for a few isolated academicians. I attempted to allude to all of that experiential knowledge about my parents by writing the following: “There’s my father, holding the infant Carolyn. He looks almost surly, but I know what that look really means: he’s sneaking into an easy grin. And my mother stands shyly on a porch, toddler Carolyn smiling in the foreground. Two parents who obviously loved my sister deeply, who were at that point in their lives, and for many years to come, a loving, stable couple.”

    It’s pretty clear where you are coming from, especially when you write things like “Why not focus on what is possible, instead encouraging the kind of fatalism that extends from considering human nature as set in stone, out of our hands? Why devote large portions of our discourse to the things we can’t have any influence on?” It’s still appropriate to have discourse about things that appear set in stone. That’s the first step towards moving that stone. Just because we can’t help these people today doesn’t mean in the future we won’t be able to. Or, in similar fashion, just because we can’t help some people today does not mean we should not be wary of them now.

    At 9:42 PM, Anonymous Vicki Baker said…

    Wow, what a very interesting exchange!

    I guess what I see missing from this debate are what Mark Liberman over at Language calls “2 simple numbers’:

    “When there’s a claim that some genomic variant is associated with some phenotypic trait — whether it’s breast cancer or homosexuality or conservatism or stuttering — we need to know four simple numbers. Specifically: (A) the number of “case subjects” in the study (people with the trait in question); (B) the number of “control subjects” in the study; (C) the proportion of the case subjects with the genomic variant in question; and (D) the proportion of the controls with the genomic variant in question.

    If four numbers are too many, leave out (A) and (B), as long as they’re not really small. But stick with (C) and (D) — they’re the medicine that really does the work here.”

    If you google “language log genetics 2 numbers” you can get the rest of the article.

    Barbara, you quite rightly point out that parents (especially mothers) have been blamed for causing conditions such as schizophrenia and autism that now clearly seem to be the result of organic brain dysfunction unrelated to parenting.

    But like Chris, I’m also disturbed when science journalism hooks into mythology in a way that I see as particularly harmful. I’m really not that reassured by your disclaimer that your title was “tongue-in-cheek”. I’m sure that many won’t take it that way. I think you are taking the perspective “this is what I wrote” – quite reasonably – and Chris is envisioning how what you wrote is going to be read, and I think he’s quite right that it is going to be taken as confirmation that some people are just irredeemably evil.

    Obviously, there are children who have serious brain dysfunction that lead to anti-social behavior- whether a so-called “Machiavellian” personality disorder is one of them seems speculative. It seems that the more we can do to remove any stigma, any sense that there is punishment to be meted out, rather than treatment to be given, the better. That treatment might include setting very firm limits on behavior of course, but why bring “evil” into it? Because a catchy title moves the merchandise? Sorry, not buying it.

    Barbara, you are right in saying that some children “create emotional difficulties for their parents and others from the moment they are born.” But this is exactly where the concept of the “good” and “bad” baby creep in insiduously. Obviously, the fussy baby, the wakeful baby, is not doing anything *on purpose* to annoy his or her parents. But the downside of our ability to have such intense personal relationships with babies is that we can attribute intention where there is none. The more we can help parents get beyond this very natural tendency, and to see more clearly what is going on, the better, I think.

    There’s also the matter of emphasis. What percentage of children display these “psychopathic” tendencies the researchers cite? How does their condition inform the ordinary difficulties that we have with the children we deal with in our daily lives, or who are caught up in the foster care and juvenile justice systems which I believe we are responsible to make as humane and redemptive as possible?

    At 7:34 AM, Blogger Barbara said…

    Hi Vicki,

    What a nice set of insights! Yes—I do think “this is what I wrote,” where Chris wrote about what he believed would be perceived. (Mind you though, what Chris believes would be perceived is based, I think, on his own desires to avoid discussion of the effects of genetics on personality. It is not what many other people have perceived about the book. I still can’t get over the five star Amazon.com review that said “I have a lot of the ‘Evil’ part of the deal and this helped me understand a lot more my own nature and stuff. Excellent book.”)

    You said, “It seems that the more we can do to remove any stigma, any sense that there is punishment to be meted out, rather than treatment to be given, the better. That treatment might include setting very firm limits on behavior of course, but why bring “evil” into it?” When I look at pictures of Cho brandishing guns and planning his murders, I am not worried about semantic issues related to whether it’s evil versus bad versus antisocial, or on setting firm limits.

    It is a statement of fact to say that some people are, with the limitations of current technology, simply irredeemably evil (or bad, or antisocial, or pick your label–someone will disagree with whatever label you pick. 😉 ). Certainly by not being willing to look at some people as irredeemable, we release savage murderers who we *know* are just going to go out and kill again. And we do things like negotiate in good faith with people like Hitler who are not wired to even understand good faith. Mind you, I worked hard to understand and even sympathize with those with this type of brain dysfunction. It’s just that I also recognize that the brain dysfunction makes these people quite dangerous—that’s why I used the word “evil.” I’m not worrying about punishment—I’m worrying about getting dangerous people put away somewhere where they can’t hurt others.

    I can see where you are coming from–you want to keep the door open for people to have hope that some deeply disturbed people can be cured or helped. And certainly it’s true that people can be misdiagnosed, or are capable of changing. But I think it’s also important to recognize that this approach has very real drawbacks that can result in the deaths of many people, as with Cho at Virginia Tech; or the priests who were released again and again into new congregations, to molest tens of thousands of children. Either approach has detrimental tradeoffs. It’s a matter of which tradeoffs are worse.

    You raise good points about the subtleties involving the “successfully sinister.” As you said: “Obviously, there are children who have serious brain dysfunction that lead to anti-social behavior- whether a so-called ‘Machiavellian’ personality disorder is one of them seems speculative.” I did speculate in the book, because I figured it was time to start speculating about it. But I made clear where I was speculating, and what those speculations were based on. Nobody that I could see was putting all the pieces of research together in a coherent, “big picture” way that others could understand and also begin puzzling over and doing further research on—that’s why I wrote the book.

    At 3:29 PM, Anonymous Vicki Baker said…

    Barbara writes
    “It is a statement of fact to say that some people are, with the limitations of current technology, simply irredeemably evil (or bad, or antisocial, or pick your label–someone will disagree with whatever label you pick. 😉 ).”

    Evil, schmeevil, whatever, winky smileyface? I don’t think so. Some words are more accurate than others, regardless of who disagrees with you. Chris has pointed out why, so I don’t feel I have to do that again.

    We live in a country where the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled are put to death. We have a government that doesn’t want to put any limits on what it may do people deemed to be “evil.”

    As a writer, you can choose words that help people see more clearly, or you can choose to sensationalize in order to sell more books. c

    At 3:41 PM, Anonymous Vicki Baker said…

    Also, one more point – I don’t think either of you have taken into consideration research like the Stanford Prison Experiment or the Milgram Experiment, how situational factors extrinsic to individual psychology can affect behavior. This is what Philip Zimbardo talks about in “The Lucifer Effect.” Reinforcing the idea that certain people are intrinsically, irredeemably evil could in my mind contribute to the process of dehumanization that is the situational breeding ground for evil.

    At 4:05 PM, Blogger underverse said…

    Vicki,

    I agree completely re: Milgram & Stanford. I am not trying to promote the “irredeemable” model per se, just trying to convey that the notion that severe personality disorders are intractable is nothing new.

    Thanks for mentioning this, and the Zimbardo book, which I hadn’t heard of.

    At 4:19 PM, Blogger underverse said…

    Also, on autism, the jury is still out on that one.

    http://www.autismvox.com/nature-nurture-and-brain-development/

    At 6:48 PM, Blogger Barbara said…

    As Barbara Mertz, author of “Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphics,” has pointed out: “Few academic subjects are improved by being approached in a spirit of deadly seriousness.” Sorry, but I enjoy gallows humor, and few people would ever read a book about evil for entertainment as well as enlightment unless the author did leaven it with a little humor. (Unless they’re masochists, of course.) I do enjoy my winkies, thanks.

    Zimbardo makes not a single mention of any neurological feature whatsoever. He could have written the book thirty years ago and you wouldn’t know the difference. There are many, many fundamental problems with his non-replicated study that have been pointed out in the literature. Zimbardo’s response to his critics of late has simply been–you can’t criticize my study because you can’t duplicate the atmosphere of the 1970s.

    At any rate, Christopher, I really appreciate your initial posting, that you’ve allowed me to post in return, and that you’ve replied thoughtfully and carefully. You are a marvelous host.

    At 10:33 AM, Anonymous Vicki Baker said…

    Barbara,

    I don’t think a good writer needs to be deadly serious to unpack the baggage of a phrase like “irredeemably evil,” with the help of some solid research. Humor is a great tool to help us see things in new ways.
    But to pretend that words like “irredeemable” don’t carry a huge weight of mythological baggage seems like a copout. I’m not objecting to smiley faces per se, just the “whatever” attitude.

    At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Vicki Baker said…

    Also, re: Zimbardo, it certainly is impossible to re-create the looser regulations on experiments with human subjects which made the Milgram and Stanford experiments possible. The Milgram experiment was replicated several times though I believe.

    At 7:01 PM, Anonymous Namit said…

    Absorbing exchange. For Oakley’s claim that genes are responsible for the “fact … that some people are … simply irredeemably evil,” I expect hard scientific evidence. Perhaps Oakley has provided it (I haven’t read her book). If so, she has utterly revolutionized the field, for there has been little more than circumstantial evidence thus far. However, I’m discouraged when I read such passages:

    [Oakley:] “Certainly by not being willing to look at some people as irredeemable, we release savage murderers who we *know* are just going to go out and kill again. And we do things like negotiate in good faith with people like Hitler who are not wired to even understand good faith … the brain dysfunction makes these people quite dangerous—that’s why I used the word “evil.” I’m not worrying about punishment—I’m worrying about getting dangerous people put away somewhere where they can’t hurt others.”

    What is this, the science of putting people away “somewhere”? I see more fear/politics than science in this way of thinking. One might object that my singling out a paragraph is unfair but I find this symptomatic of her words here, not singular. The choice of “evil” in the title in irresponsible at best, made worse by her apparent disinterest in its semantic nuances. Her applauding Pinker, and Pinker’s favorable quote on her book, are red flags to me. Read, for instance, this lucid review of Pinker’s The Blank Slate by evolutionary geneticist H Allen Orr (or, my own post on Pinker’s forays into human morality). Here is an excerpt from Orr’s review:

    [Orr:] “A Darwinian approach to mind may be no more impossible than a Darwinian approach to mammaries, and an evolutionary psychology might well reveal something about human nature. Indeed any or all of Pinker’s adaptive tales could be true. But there are grounds for worry. One is that, despite Pinker’s confident tone, the evidence for his stories varies wildly and some of his tales are sheer speculation. There is, for example, little or no evidence that either human neonaticide or self-deception is genetic. These cases are in fact symptomatic of a serious problem with evolutionary psychology: its research program shows a curious tendency to invert itself. You might think that convincing evidence that a particular form of behavior is inherited usually leads to attempts to explain how and why it evolved. But often what happens is the reverse: the fact that we can conceive of an adaptive tale about why a behavior should evolve becomes the chief reason for suspecting it’s genetic. Why, after all, does Pinker think human neonaticide might be genetic? Where are the twin studies, chromosome locations, and DNA sequences supporting such a claim? The answer is we don’t have any.

    [Orr:] “… evolutionary psychologists sometimes forget a hard truth: a Darwinian story is not Mendelian evidence. A Darwinian story is a story. And the accumulation of such stories has an important consequence. The slate may seem to get less and less blank in part because evolutionary psychologists keep scribbling more and more tales on it.”

    At 2:20 PM, Blogger underverse said…

    Namit,

    You’ve honed in on the very objections that got me interested in Oakley’s book in the first place. Her work is of a piece with the Steve Sailer/Charles Murray “science” of letting black people know they should stop getting their hopes up about equality because it’s not in the genetic hand they’ve been dealt.

    It’s really a sad comment on the steady erosion of our self-knowledge that Pinker is taken so seriously within the sciences. There’s a quote by Bruce Lincoln I’ve used before, and probably will have several occasions to call upon again:

    “The misrepresentation of culture as nature is an ideological move characteristic of myth, as is the projection of the narrator’s ideals, desires and favored ranking of categories into a fictive prehistory that purportedly establishes how things are and must be.”

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