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Barbara Oakley - Evil Genes (10/15/07)
Posted: 17 October 2007 01:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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Despite my general critique I do agree that a certain percentage of people may be incorrigible, and possibly for reasons that are fixed in their ‘nature’ or genetic makeup. I once worked for a savvy business manager of a theatre with lots of employees. She knew that given the size of the theatre she could pretty much count on having severe problems with 10% of the employees (theft, drugs, gambling debts, fake illness), regardless of how sure they were to have made the correct descisions during the hiring process.

By the same token, physics students often were the valedictorians in their respective highschools, and yet, now that they’re an undergrad at MIT they suddenly find themselves somewhere on a bell curve distribution where a few of their fellow students finish their problem sets in early afternoon while they give up at 3:30 am. No longer above average, good bye Lake Wobegone.

The point being: we have different abilities, and whenever we look at the extremes of a distribution we most likely have folks who got there by the grace or curse of superb or dismal genes.

Sociobiologists have long argued that we ignore our biological determinants at our own peril, but the cautious ones add that much of what our genes do not do for us can instead achieved through practice, cooperation, delegating tasks, or redefining goals. But again: mitigation may be tough or impossible at the extremes where 12 hours of excersises don’t make a math genius, and 10 years of therapy don’t cure a pathological sex killer.

Speaking of pathological: much of what we consider pathological or sociopathic in one society is considered normal or unremarkable in others, for purely cultural reasons.
Sexual initiation of teenage boys in bordellos in Thailand (used to be the practice in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, too). Wife beating. Slavery. Lynching. Honor killings. Killing of prisoners of war. Stealing from travellers. War raids over cattle, cuties or calebasses. Deadly duels over matters of ‘honor’ (i.e. words).
Consider: all these behaviors can be judged as rather evil, and yet they might have been performed by entire societies or within certain classes by a wide range of people. Did they have bad genes? No, they followed accepted cultural norms.

And as for Hitler and Co: What about that old wisdom that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely?
My Aikido teacher (a mellow defensive Japanese martial art) told us yesterday how tempting the position of martial arts teacher is in that the aura of authority creates a power imbalance that is easily exploited. Often, female students feel drawn to a teacher who can easily take advantage, eager students quickly idealize a teacher, and the result is often that a teacher overestimates his actual skill. It even goes so far that some start to believe they have supernatural powers even when they initially knew full well that they were performing what amounts to circus tricks. Didn’t James Randi debunk some of those?

Anyway, just an example of how power corrupts, either with the corrupted knowing full well why he scores so easily, or, at a later stage, when his own interpretation becomes delusional. No ‘evil genes’ required here, just normal corruptable people developing nasty features.

[ Edited: 18 October 2007 10:16 AM by moreover ]
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Posted: 18 October 2007 09:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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I came in late and have been busy doing a bit of writing on my own.  I ordered Oakley’s book this morning as I tend to wander off mentally when listening to anyone reading anything.  It is a subject that I am interested in since I began working with at-risk teens.  I have never believed that evil is a natural tendency but an anger that has taken over the mind much like Autism. 

Zarcus, you quote Michael Shermer.  Is it a strange coincidence that you look like him?  I am a great fan of Shermer’s books, magazine and his appearances on television.  I was sorry he was not a speaker at the Atheist Alliance Conference last month.

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Posted: 18 October 2007 06:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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That’s interesting… I think having autistic tendencies would definitely be detrimental to people with chronic anger issues.  OCD patterns are more likely, and anger is easy to be OCD about.  But I wonder if it is easier for people with different brain chemistry to get past anger.  I have a relative who is bi-polar and, I think, somewhat autistic, and she absolutely cannot get over her anger issues.  She seems like such a miserable wreck so much of the time.  I wish she would take her medications, because I know from personal experience that they help just enough to get over things, or at least to stop digging the hole.  I mean, if you really need to have a breakdown you can do it eventually, but you just need to stop digging first.  When every day of your life is a breakdown you gotta change things somehow.

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Posted: 18 October 2007 07:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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godlessgeorge.  Has she had any chemistry tests of her possible imbalance in her blood or digestive system?  Even a hair analysis could pick up the reason she is so angry.  A lot of the problems can be om the diet or alcohol intake.  I’m so sorry to hear of anyone having to on medications when it could be a simple change in diet.  There is so much we don’t know about bodies and brains. 

I think we all are a little different from the norm (what ever that is) and sometimes it makes us more able to think or act in a positive way.  I have a very strange quirk in my personality and have used the energy from it in good ways. 

I am looking forward this reading this book to see the quirks in others and not be put off by them.

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Posted: 18 October 2007 07:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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Well, her diet and her behaviors kind of reinforce one another.  She eats a lot of junk food and gets more depressed.  I don’t think she’s had any tests done, which, now that I think about it, is bad if she does have medication!

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Posted: 18 October 2007 10:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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First thing I thought of when I read about a recent internet news story regarding James Watson’s controversial statment about Black intelligence was The Barbara Oakley podcast I had listened to earlier. The Barbara Oakley discussion opens a pandora’s box for while attempting to ascribe genetic destiny on Evil individuals, Professor Watson goes one step further and attempts to ascribe certain genetic qualities to groups. Great Controversial Podcast!  However I was’nt convinced of her Evil Gene Hypothesis. It’s not the whole story. Just like the idea that free will does not exist.  Again I’m not convinced by this idea either. I think Humans have it.  Great Podcast!

Anyway regarding genetics and science. Here’s a statement Watson gave today regarding the flack he took about what he said or did’nt say.

In his statement today, Prof Watson said science should not be afraid of tackling controversial issues.
“Science is no stranger to controversy and I am not one to shy away from tackling issues, however, difficult they might prove to be. I have had my share of controversy, as many of you know,” he added.
“I have always fiercely defended the position that we should base our view of the world on the state of our knowledge, on fact, and not on what we think it should be.
“This is why I believe passionately in genetics - for it will lead us to answers to many of the big and difficult questions that have troubled people for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.”

How long has evil been around? Can you say thousands of years?

[ Edited: 18 October 2007 10:56 PM by websurrfrr ]
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Posted: 19 October 2007 01:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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A good metaphor for free will I heard once was a comparison with riding a bobsled.  You don’t have the maneuverability of an off-road vehicle, but you have some.  And, a lot of times if you’re going to change the direction the thing is going in, you have to work very hand-in-hand with the ice, or your personal/social/environmental landscape.

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Posted: 19 October 2007 01:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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The book sounds compelling, but I’m going to have to read it to get much idea at all where the science fits in because the interview barely touched on it.

I mean, who is the least surprised that there are socio-paths?  Nothing new there.  The question is whether they are socio-paths because of their genes.  Why or how does the author think science supports this hypothesis?

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Posted: 19 October 2007 02:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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The point about sociopaths is key. Any leader can be called a sociopath with some justification, and while there may be genetic predispositions it seems all too obvious that normal people can often be corrupted into becoming a sociopath by the corrupting influence of power, learning from their peers, following class-specific social norms etc. There’s a path to sociopathy, I’ll say, that requires no evil genes.

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Posted: 19 October 2007 07:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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A Doctor from UCLA tried to compile a history on my family back in the late 60s when he discovered that my mother’s side of the family had one generation of 5 serious alcoholics.  They could not go back further than the parents who did not touch alcohol until my grandmother had bladder problem and the doctor put her on a beer a day.  It took her 6 months before she had tapper delivered for a constant flow of beer into her system.  My grandfather was Mormon and the reasons neither of them drank until after he died.  When the ambulance came to collect my own mother, who would go into a drinking spree lasting as long as 3 weeks and was taken to a rehab hospital, I had to go with them as I had no other family in our city.  I saw the vomiting, the hysteria of insanity until the doctor could get me out of there.  This started when I was just 4 years old.  When I was 10, that same doctor sat me down and told he felt this disease might have been inherited from my mother’s family and I should decide whether I would drink or not. 

At 15, my father (long divorced) was killed when his car missed the turn off in Beverly Hills and he was drunk at the wheel of his car.  That did it for me!  I was carrying a load of bad genes and the decision was mine how to handle the information.  If I decided not to ever drink, my life would be saved and I passed the information on to my kids.  We also discovered an inherited a degeneration Retina and that I and my kids could be blind at the age of 45 which seemed to be the common age. 

We did not even realize this inherited problem until the alcohol problems was finally diagnosed.  I did not get either problem and my eyes are still active at 74 and my kids have no problem at this time and one is 50 and the other 43.  My cousins have inherited the alcoholism and about half are losing their sight.  The draw to alcohol has destroyed their ability to stand without alcohol and many have gone into drug addiction.  We were an interesting study.  It is not over yet.  My girls did not breed so that part has been solved.  They have step kids but that’s all. 

This background of mine is why I’m very interested in looking into genetic flaws and why the human brain is unable to correct its own actions.  I do know that anxiety is part of the problem and none of the past generation ever got through a holiday without caving into alcohol.  It made all of us dread any action that brought them together.  I have outlived my generation and being the head honcho at this time, I try very hard to explain free will and a responsibility to stop this disease.  My oldest living cousin has become a born-again bore and fell into the 12-step program and brought his own son into this crap.  That, I guess is better than dying of alcohol but not much!!!

I have been concerned that our brains will not evolve any better than what we have at this time.  Humans are so eager to be addicted that I fear we might stop nature’s ability to extend our species.  Tell me I’m wrong!!!

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Posted: 19 October 2007 08:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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.

[ Edited: 19 October 2007 09:49 PM by zarcus ]
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Posted: 21 October 2007 11:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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zarcus - 16 October 2007 05:17 PM

I found this episode thought provoking, enlightening, and fascinating.

Also, it reminded me of Michael Shermer’s book, The Science of Good and Evil

Michael Shermer’s book found - HERE = Skeptic.com on right of page

Barbara Oakley’s web site - HERE

“Evil” is the topic of an article in the NY Time magazine today Sunday 10/21
[Here - ]

This article is an example of how the discussion can get hard-to-follow, because the philosophy of ‘evil’ gets abstract even though it is tied to concrete examples.

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Posted: 21 October 2007 12:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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Jackson, thank you for letting us know about the New York Times Magazine article.  What I find fascinating is that there is no discussion at all in that article of the directly relevant information that science is beginning to provide about the concept of evil.  It’s a bit like reading a story about cancer that only discusses what was known up to the 1950s—and only discusses literary works about the topic. 

As the author of Evil Genes, I would like to point out that there is no “evil genes” hypothesis that states evil genes are the total story for why people might behave in a generally malevolent manner.  Genes are about risk, not about certainty—environment also very often plays an important role.  And sometimes that environmental influence can come about in surprising ways—that’s very clear with what happened to my sister. 

Yes, in some cases it does appear that people become psychopaths as a result of a strong genetic influence.  It really shouldn’t be controversial to say this—after all, we already know that occasionally people get Alzheimers at an early age because of a strong genetic influence.  And conditions ranging from Alzheimers to autism to schizophrenia to bipolar disorder are affected in varying degrees by both genetics and environment.  Also, some of the genes that can create some of our more problematic behavior can, when mixed with a different set of genes, underpin some of our very best behavior.  So there’s no such thing as getting rid of a few “evil genes” and, shazam, we’ve just eliminated evil. 

Free will most emphatically does exist.  The point I was trying to make in the book is that some people have more—and others less—“free will.”  For example, if you have a strong ability to focus your attention, it appears you can make enormous changes in your temperament.  Certainly Gandhi and George Washington—well known for possessing the capability for profound passion and anger—were able to make deep-seated changes in their behavior.  But what if you don’t have that innate ability to focus?  What if part of your problem is that you can’t focus on anything negative about yourself?  In fact, difficulties with the attentional network appear to be at the heart of some forms of psychopathy and borderline personality disorder.  How can you use your “free will” to change yourself if you can’t understand that there is anything that needs to be changed—however obvious that need for change may appear to others? 

What an enlightening thread this is—thank you all so much for your insights.  I hope this helps clarify some of the important points that you all have brought up.

Barb Oakley

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Posted: 21 October 2007 01:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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It is nearly impossible to discuss “evil” in today’s culture because all those terrible people mentioned as being evil are all considered Atheists.  Today it is so simple to state that had God been in the minds of these people (Jesus Christ in particular) they would not have done what they did!

In the cities today in America we are seeing an outbreak of evil from just about every level of society from our young children all the way into the White House in D.C.  Some wander around as Christians and stop at nothing to gain their power whether at 60 or 6 years of age.

I have a very simple mind, even for a girl, and have done some instruction of children to teach them survival tricks in our area of the San Andreas Fault in California.  The first thing to set in cement is the difference between right and wrong.  One can even use a dog training book for this as we learn that every action has a reaction that could either save a life or damage a life of oneself or others.

Animals have instincts that are either learned from training or from a genetic memory of earlier species.  For example, watch the people of Sumatra when the earthquake hit and the water around the islands began to recede.  The animals headed for high ground, many people did not.  One can train people to learn how to survive these catastrophes but first comes the moral lessons of knowing what is right from wrong.  One must rely on one’s own code here and not simply follow a supposed leader hired to lead us. 

Has the art of brain washing stopped our individual survival instints?  Did no one ever question those evil leaders mentioned in the NY Times article?  I spent many years trying to figure out what drove those German people to allow the atrocities we have seen before and during WW2. 

In America we see the damage the churches, temples, schools and even scout troops do to our younger people.  Our children are taught to follow any authority approved by a majority.  I was raised in a very anti-Semitic home and it wasn’t until I went to all girls school in Beverly Hills that I saw the utter fallacy in this.  I also refused to attend Church or even go home on weekends.  I fell head long into a library of classic literature that I have never really ever left.

Could it be that evil is inheritied through the ignorance of our parents?  I have no clue how to introduced training right from wrong anywhere but I did ask my own children to write down what they felt was right and what was wrong.  When their lists were made I asked them to describe what gave them joy.  Yep, simple uncomplicated joy.  Turned out what was right often brought them joy. Elementary my dear Watson!

I remember attending a class by Hayakawa at UCLA where he spoke on Language and how our thoughts often become our actions and my mind went even further into this that our morals could be formed by our thoughts if they were given a thorough process of evaluation; but first came right versus wrong. 

But I am a simple senior lady with little reputation other than being a foolish Atheist.  But I have kids who are so ethically sound that I wonder if we could have done the right thing afterall? 

I don’t want to believe that evil genes are inherited any more than I believe stupidity is inheritied.  The problem is there is not one damn thing any of us can do about it except to keep our children (in my case grandkids) trained to be aware of the danger of acting as groups rather than individuals.

Are there enough of us to even make a dent in this indivudality?  Rand developed her mountain retreat where individuals could end up and for some reason I am looking at Mexico which has such a weak government we might be able to develop something.

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Posted: 21 October 2007 04:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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Barb Oakley - 21 October 2007 12:56 PM

Jackson, thank you for letting us know about the New York Times Magazine article.  What I find fascinating is that there is no discussion at all in that article of the directly relevant information that science is beginning to provide about the concept of evil.  It’s a bit like reading a story about cancer that only discusses what was known up to the 1950s—and only discusses literary works about the topic. 

Professor Oakley, thanks for doing the interview with D.J. Grothe.

If it makes sense to you perhaps you can write a letter-to-the-editor for the NYT Magazine commenting on that short article, if only to point to additional reading and current research.  I didn’t include the link because I agreed with it, only because it seemed to link ‘topically’ to this link. Except it doesn’t, as you explain.  Thanks for your additional comments.

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