Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and my My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend

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.

8 Responses

  1. … a bit of an insult to Machiavelli.
    More than a bit: Machiavelli was a proponent of careful understanding and rational calculation in all things, and according to Niccolo’s Smile by Maurizio Viroli, a competent, often likable man.

  2. Well, I don’t know about that. The author points out several times that Machiavellians are often very likable people when you first meet them. Many of the great Machiavellians were capable of being extremely charming.
    But yeah, I’ve read my share of Machiavelli, and I always got the impression that his nastier political ideas were more the result of the backbiting in city-states rather than the nastiness of the man himself.

  3. you’re both describing sociopathic behaviour which is encouraged and rewarded mightily in a world where money rules, absolutely – the most cunning and ruthless (and charming like clinton ferinstance) rise to the top of corporate, gov, institutional, group hierarchies and since most people avoid confrontation and conflict, the sociopaths rule by intimidation and manipulation or so it seems to me.

  4. The author points out several times that Machiavellians are often very likable people…
    Try this thought experiment: where Oakley says “Machiavellian”, substitute “Darwinist” and see if a frame-up is being perpetrated.
    Suppose all one heard about Darwin came from creationists, “social Darwinism”, those Darwin Award emails, and a few colorful excerpts from Origins & Descent. The result would be a rather unpleasant impression, to say the least.
    While the politics of early-Renaissance Italian city-states is hardly an uplifting and heart-warming topic, one leading reason ol’ Nic has such a bad rep was that he was the first European philosopher since the fall of Rome to reason on purely secular, pragmatic grounds. The Holy Mother Church viewed that with great horror and unleashed its propaganda corps to do its worst, with lasting results.

  5. It doesn’t matter whether or not Machiavelli was personally pleasant or not. The important difference between Machiavellian politics and personality disorder is that the former enlists “ruthless” means toward the goal of social harmony. It might be a fallacious ethical position, but it is one. Psychopathy has no ethical position whatsoever.
    But what is the most disturbing about this book is that Oakley gives no attention to the standard social psychology explanations of why people develop personality disorders. If they’ve been discredited, she should specify how. There is ample research supporting attachment theory and its kin. With which part of it does she take issue?
    Oakley gets a lot of mileage out of Essi Viding’s studies in an attempt to show that some genetic profiles are so strongly determinative of personality disorder that even the most textbook “good” upbringings cannot prevail. But this is not the conclusion that Dr. Viding herself has reached. She wrote:

    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.

    The reason this is important is that without this alleged strong connection between genes and the “successfully sinister,” Oakley’s book has little to contribute to our understanding of personality. We already knew that severe personality disorders are intractable. Directing attention away from the only real way we know to prevent them–effective parenting–is a very dubious enterprise.

  6. Reminds me of somebody I used to work for (shiver). He was a master at courting people. Hurt a lot of folks too. Funny thing is he met his match… his boss was better at it than he was.

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