When I was asked to review Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and my My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend, by Barbara Oakley, I was pretty certain that my life as a Science Blogger had reached its peak. I mean, blogging about science AND FREE BOOKS?! You’re not serious. When I got the book in the mail I did a little happy dance of joy. It’s the little things in life, you know.
And then, of course, I realized I would have to review it. Luckily, for this particular book, it turned out to be a very easy task. For another, excellent review, check out Gene Expression’s coverage.
Evil Genes tackles a seriously complicated and often very touchy subject: Machiavellian behavior. Though sometimes, when the author describes actions by, say, Chairman Mao, I think ‘Machiavellian’ is a bit of an insult to Machiavelli. Machiavellian behavior, as defined by Oakley, is actually another word for borderline personality disorder, or perhaps a cross between borderline, psychopath, and antisocial personality disorder, with a more than usual dose of narcissism. It is based around profiles and discussions of some of the most famous evil geniuses in history, and interspersed with stories about her sister, Carolyn. By the end of the book, you can easily see that the point is not necessarily to provide a clear picture of Machiavellian traits (though the book does that very well), is rather for the author to come to terms with her sister’s life and death, what it meant, and whether she was truly evil, or actually capable of feeling love and caring for her family or friends. The author is very open about this, and it adds a touching dimension to something that might otherwise be just history and science (which is already cool enough, of course).
The book explains many of the recent theories behind borderline personality disorder (and behind many other disorders) in a way that is very clear, and certainly better than I could do for some of the complicated systems the author has to cover. Her simple, clear discussions of the serotonin system (including a bit on serotonin transporters and long vs. short alleles), MAO-A, the dopamine system, and various genetic factors were helpful, without becoming so simple that they became incorrect. She spends a lot of time disucssing how various genetic and environmental and genetic influence could produces changes in the brain, resulting in increases in Machiavellian behavior. Though of course, most of this stuff is hypothetical and requires a lot more research. There’s certainly not a lot of animal research out there, this would have to be in humans, which is a much more difficult prospect. After all, how would you study “backstabbing” behavior in a mouse?
However, I will say that I think the title of the book is a little misleading. There is only one reference to the Roman Empire, and though there is a relatively extensive reference to Roxalena, she was in fact in the harem of Mehmed in the Ottoman empire. There is coverage of Hitler, Stalin, and Enron, but these pale in comparison to the exposure given to Mao Zedong and Slobodan Milosevic, who each get an entire chapter to themselves. I appreciated the coverage of Mao and Milosevic, both of whom I had previously known very little about, and certainly felt like I got my full dose of Machiavellian behavior.
What may seem surprising at first is that the author never diagnoses anyone with borderline personality disorder. Her point is that the “successfully sinister” fly below the radar, somewhat borderline, and certainly wreaking havoc, but possibly not borderline enough. I warn you, reading this book will make you watch your back, and wonder if certain people in your life are maybe a little more “successfully sinister” than you might like. But the author is very good about pointing out that these disorders are extremely rare in the population, and that there are certain Machiavellian traits, like a good competitive streak, some narcissism, and in some cases, the ability to do the dirty work, that can be useful in an individual without making them Machiavellian. Of course, when all these attributes combine, or when some of these attributes combine with, say, a crappy childhood, you can come up with a person capable of wreaking havoc. And those people tend to be especially successful when circumstances, such as a bad economy or a toppling government are in their favor.
I was continually impressed with Oakley’s command of the subject material, though not too surprised. She’s apparently been a translator on a Russian fishing trawler, in the army, a PhD in engineering, and a radio operator in Antarctica. She clearly has some impressive intellectual abilities, to go from all that she knows about things like engineering to deep studies of behavioral psychology. And she’s an excellent writer. This is a fast, interesting read, the kind of thing I would totally take to the beach (keep in mind, I’m a geek, and the books I take to the beach are probably very different from the books most people take the beach). I definitely recommend it. But do keep in mind, these people are rare, so you don’t have to keep looking over your shoulder like that.
Filed under: CNS Diseases and Disorders