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.