Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Evil Genes

I recently had the pleasure of writing a blurb for a new book by Professor Barbara Oakley entitled Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend. Barbara has just informed me that the book is now out and up on Amazon.com. From the back cover:

Have you ever met a person who left you wondering, "How could someone be so twisted, so evil?" Prompted by clues in her sister's diary after her mysterious death, author Barbara Oakley takes the reader inside the head of the kinds of malevolent people you know, perhaps all too well, but could never understand.

Dr. Oakley suggests that some people really are born to be bad. She has first-hand experience with her sister who was personality-disordered and she ties in her life throughout the book with an analysis of the behavioral tics of Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and Slobodan Milosevic. My favorite chapter in the book was entitled, "The Perfect Borderpath" where she explores a new personality disorder, a combination of the Borderline and the Psychopath and uses Mao as an example of this dangerous combination.

I highly recommend taking a look at this book if you are interested in understanding the genetic component to why psychopaths and others who we think of as "evil" act as they do. It will be well worth your time.



Blogger John Doe said...

Experience has taught me that the difference between evil and illness is a matter of definition. The functional difference lies in how we react to them. Evil must be fought, and illness is treated. If you can't recognize the behavior as an illness, then it must be fought.

It is a phenomenon of our age that we increasingly identify "evils" as "illnesses", and with a strong gender bias, but some illnesses are no better treated by modern methods than they were or are by punishment. Likewise, I feel that we are not very good at recognizing evil, replacing the word with manipulable concepts like "political correctness". I am not particularly religious, but I sometimes mourn the loss of a certain moral certainty that came with it.

3:47 PM, October 02, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

Why, there are no evil people. How evil of you to suggest it!

There are only the "differently gooded".

6:17 PM, October 02, 2007  
Blogger Eowyn said...

Ha ha, good one, Dr. Ellen :o)

Or, perhaps, goodily-challenged.

8:38 PM, October 02, 2007  
Blogger Peregrine John said...

This could be one of the most disturbingly intriguing things (of the non-fiction variety) I've seen in a long time. Thanks for yet another excellent recommendation!

Now if I can only get "Born To Be Wild" out of my head...

11:15 AM, October 03, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can understand genetic 'evil' up to the point of someone naturally having low impulse control and a need for excess stimulation. Beyond that, it just seems like there must be a social element - like the only way they can get acknowledgement from other people is by hurting them. This might just be something they 'accidentally' learned in their interaction with others, rather than the result of inadequate socialization.

But what do I know?

3:07 PM, October 03, 2007  
Blogger # 56 said...

Terrible title, Enron? Nice eye grabber, completely lacking in factual context.

5:33 PM, October 03, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I don't get the jump from having a personality disorder to genes. Show me when you've isolated the gene(s) for BPD, and maybe i'll take you seriously.

2:10 AM, October 04, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BPD is a devastating illness. The results often have tragic consequences, and the one with the illness comes across looking (and acting) extremely evil to those the individual "goes off" on (the snap, if you will). Usually immediate family, significant other.

Those not in the loop of the few who become the targets of such goings on often don't believe what they hear about this person. They believe the person to be charming, funny, engaging, funny, innocent, interesting. They often stare in disbelief at the one who may be trying to explain a persons behavior, thinking THAT person must truly be the one who is nuts. They believe themselves to be very smart (cunning), and able to fool anyone and everyone into thinking they have glowing halos. Sadly, it most often works for a long time.

Environmental, genetic, both? Don't know, don't care. Just move out of my way, because I'm getting the hell away from that individual as fast as possible.

7:16 AM, October 04, 2007  
Blogger kipwatson said...

What an amazing breakthrough!

And to think I had no idea Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and Slobodan Milosevic were even genetically related...

8:55 PM, October 04, 2007  
Blogger Barb Oakley said...

Hi Allison: Actually, there are some good genetic studies related to the heritability of BPD--I mention them in "Evil Genes" (which is obviously a bit of a tongue in cheek title). There is also fairly direct evidence relating specific serotonin receptors and transporters (and their underlying genetics) to BPD, as well as indirect evidence of the relationship between dopamine receptors and BPD. Of course, these disorders depend on far more than just a few genes related to the dopamine and serotonin systems. Still, the work with BPD and psychopathy, as well as other disorders, is allowing extraordinary progress to be made in understanding why some seemingly rational actors are innately duplicitous and impossible to reason with. All of this is detailed in the book--along with some personal stories that give evidence for why and how such people can often go unnoticed until the damage is irrevocable.

For Kipwatson: Oviously, Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and Milosevic weren't directly related--rather, they appeared to share some of the same personality-related genetic and neurological quirks. Similarly, schizophrenia is found worldwide. It's easy to posit that the predisposition for that schizophrenia is often due to alleles that may be common to all humans.

9:04 PM, October 04, 2007  
Blogger knox said...

Environmental, genetic, both? Don't know, don't care. Just move out of my way, because I'm getting the hell away from that individual as fast as possible.

I've known a couple manic-depressives. I agree: run. Run as fast and as far as you can.

I feel terrible for people with personality disorders--assuming that it is genetic and beyond their control--but they are scary. And the fact that they are sick in no way mitigates the damage they do to others.

11:18 PM, October 04, 2007  
Blogger kipwatson said...

Is there any real evidence that evil -- or BPD, or psychopathy if you like -- runs in families? I can think of Ma Barker and her sons...?

I know it's only rhetorical, but what a leap! A vague genetic link to certain low level brain functions is found and suddenly you have the 'gene for evil'. If evil has a material cause, it must be the 99-zillion-or-so genes that code for 'human being'!

Without criticising you personally, this highlights for me the triumph of the medicalisation of matters of soul is almost verging on superstition -- in that science presents invented understandings of things which are simply not understood.

I admire the work of the psych professions in genuine medical matters (the treatment of schizophrenia is a good example) and I certainly wouldn't criticise you without reading your book, but no one is helped by the tendency of the psychological profession to adopt the role of society's 'witch doctors'.

11:39 PM, October 04, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Kipwatson,

If the book "Evil Genes" was what you are concluding it is here, I would be totally in agreement with you! But fortunately, the book isn't that at all. As "Evil Genes" points out, thousands of genes effect our personality, all intertwined with the effects of environment. Moreover, some of the genes that underpin our more problematic behavior are also, when combined with other genes, responsible for some of our most remarkably creative behavior. I'm giving away a bit of the book here, but you'll see that the "evil genes" of the title ultimately refer to alleles that guide the creation of the receptors that allow polio to invade neurons, as well as those that provide for a predisposition toward Alzheimers.

The points you bring up here are so completely apropos--and so thoroughly addressed in the book--that I think you'll like the book when you do read it. I'd love to hear what you think after you've had a chance to give a read.

7:49 AM, October 05, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know one family that Bi-Polar and BPD runs in. I married one of the family members. Yeah, I'm a dumb ass.

6:41 PM, October 05, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I know enough about the differences between mood disorders and personality disorders to be dangerous. Hmmmm.... so do most law makers, judges, juries, come to think of it. Personality disorders, I believe, as far as I know, are totally different from mood disorders. Although, neither seems to "ride alone". A personality disorder is who one is, not something one "has". And can you imagine someone trying to completely change who they are? We all have quirks. No one escapes scott free. Most people's "quirks" are enjoyable facets of their personalities, making them who they are.

Were personality disorders easy to detect by anyone, like a bad case of acne, or obesity, or striking physical beauty for that matter, the Gary Gilmore's of the world, etc., would never be so successful in what they are "driven" to do.

I sure wish I had a magic wand. br549, King of the World, has a nice ring to it, don't you think?

11:12 AM, October 07, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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12:35 PM, October 09, 2007  
Blogger LimboMan said...

This stuff is scary. I don't beleive it for a minute. My background is philosophy, not neurology, but I firmly believe in moral responsibility. Yes we are different, with different genes and different "wiring". But the software in our heads is a sea of language that we can understand and manipulate. I can be aware of my baser instincts and overcome them. I HAVE FREE WILL! If you consider Hitler's behavior to be evil because he had a little too much narcissistic gene activity going on, how do you explain the rest of the nation? Were they all in-breeding, or were they just caught up in the old ethnic hatred thing. Sorry, I don't buy it!

11:25 PM, November 07, 2007  
Blogger Marmot said...

I don't know why so many people, such as SkepticalGadfly and Kipwatson above, simply refuse to believe that genes influence behavior. But I find it completely fascinating.

Partly, that's because they'll admit genetic effects on physical characteristics, while invoking the "soul" or "free will" or "language" as the only allowable firmament of personality and behavior.

I'm tempted to think these folks are protecting long-held emotional ties to cherished, untestable ideas. Along comes research linking particular genetic alleles to a psychiatric condition, and they just deny it. Kipwatson decries "the triumph of the medicalisation of matters of soul"! Oh noes! Can't they leave it alone?

He or she even goes so far as to purposefully misunderstand genetics -- saying researchers claim Stalin and Mao are related, because they might've had similar genes! After noting that the book title's tie of "genes" and "evil" is rhetorical, s/he nonetheless accuses researchers of having claimed to find "the 'gene for evil'" based on "low-level brain functions"! Get that? Just one gene! So, in kipwatson's version, scientists say it's an ON/OFF relationship, and the activity of neurotransmitter receptors is simply unimportant poppycock!

Doubtless, kipwatson has been schooled countless times about how genes often simply influence observable traits, or just change the probability that certain traits will appear.

Reminds me of creationists, frankly. But maybe I'm wrong -- it wouldn't be the first time.

Take this study proving a genetic influence in 1 percent of autism cases -- it's a duplication or deletion in a small part of chromosome 16. Is this something y'all will accept into your belief system?

Is it just the "big" things that genes are allowed to affect, rather than the "little" ones, such as BPD?

8:29 PM, January 09, 2008  
Blogger Xenophora said...

As one who was raised by an abusive NPD father who was supported in his abuse by an OCPD mother, as one who then had the living snot kicked out of her by another BPD, I am always pondering the responses of people outside the abuse to the abuser.

They just don't want to believe it. It ruins their day. My father died recently and it was quite the head trip at the wake, as people kept coming up to me to offer their condolences, because I must be devastated because my father was such a wonderful man.

My father was poison on two legs. But I've learned enough to know that would not go over well. He had that NPD charm and people would rather believe lies that make them feel all is as it should be and the world is a comfortable place. This is how pedophile priests and murderous heads of state can sit so comfortably in their positions of authority.

The daddy figure is benign, things are okay. Everything is fine, fine, fine. Your father loves you (even while he is abusing you, you hear this) Your father loves you.

Even inside a family, the manipulations go on and an abused scapegoated child is treated as defective by the rest of the family. It is a scary journey, confronting the amount of evil in the world. It is a scary personal journey to really realize how toxic the people close to you can be. Better to blame the victim, the sacrificial lamb on the altar of "We're fine. We're normal. We're a happy loving good family/church/society."

You can get a whiff of it from Oakley's sister's comment in the Amazon reviews. Gee whiz, she's telling us, we were fine, we were normal, the crazy sister is the one who is writing the book."



11:39 AM, February 09, 2008  
Blogger Marmot said...

Good point, Xenophoria.

And I saw that post from Oakley's sister, too. Could be that it really IS the denial talking. It wouldn't be the first time, since apparently the BPDs thrive off of it.

7:44 PM, February 13, 2008  
Blogger Patty said...

I just ordered the book, and my experience is rather similar to what Xenophora posted. Sometimes it takes experience to have any kind of understanding at all, and I think that is why Dr. Oakley can be so accurate with no formal training in psychology. I've struggled all my life with the answers to that kind of evil, which is also woven throughout my family.
I bought the book specifically because from what I can already gather, Dr.Oakley's conclusions are the same conclusions that I came to with the help of the program in ACOA.
And I've read that many of them do believe that evil has its grip on them but they don't know what to do about it. My belief is that they should be viewed as having a physical illness and treated as such.
When my father was forced to take psychotic meds in a rest home, I had a very short and bittersweet chance to have a somewhat normal father and daughter relationship with him for a very short time.
And believe me, he was a monster, having carried out unspeakable horrors for which he was never held accountable, but he knew it and the meds helped him to control his behavior for the very first time.
He died shortly thereafter and I heaved a sigh of relief with no remorse or grief over his passing, just sadness over a wasted life of someone who inflicted so much horror on others without restraint.
My sisters and I are still trying to recover although we are all in our 50's and 60's and have unwittingly spawned another generation of family afflicted to various degrees with the same problems my father had.
The biblical passage, "The sins of the father are passed down to the sons and daughters to the third and fourth generation" comes to mind as I ponder the problem.
Let me say finally that it is my belief that many of the homeless would be off the street and more productive members of society if they were offered treatment instead of being shuffled into shelters with funds just to house, feed and clothe them and the expense of law enforcement and their victims having to deal with them.
Many are dangerous or mentally ill and instead of spending on treatment to help them, society spends to have homeless shelters available to them, which doesn't do society any good, does little good for them, and puts many citizens in harm's way.
There used to be programs in place for them, and few vagrants were ever encountered on the streets back then as I recall, but now the streets are teaming with them and a new victim of their violence is born every day.

11:44 AM, January 01, 2009  
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