Jackson, that’s a good idea about the letter to the editor. I’ll write one and if I hear back, I’ll post here.
I’m very glad you supplied the pointer toward that article—it was completely apropos. The article perfectly illustrates how the exciting and enlightening neuroscientific results about human malevolence are often not being conveyed by the popular media. This type of article, in fact, is exactly why I wrote the book.
I’m coming late to the discussion since I just got the chance to listen to the episode. I have to say that while I think genetics clearly has a profound influence on temperment and behavior, I think our understanding of the connections and the relative contributions of genes, environment, development, and other factors is still very weak. As such, I was bothered not so much by the connection posited by Prof. Oakley between genes and behavioral tendancies as by the seemingly casual acceptance of pretty radical implications. She seemed quite comfortable suggesting some people are innately hopeless and that institutionalization prior to any actual violations of law would be reasonable, and I have to say our current ability to predict violent behavior doesn’t seem nearly strong enough to support that idea. Granted, imprisoning the mentally ill is a terrible idea, but the history leading to our doing so has as much to do with the equally horrible warehousing in nominal “health care” facilities that were little more than prisons by another name, so we need to be very concerned about the way in which the mentally ill are evaluated and cared for before we start talking about involuntary commitment. It’s easy to take a case like Virginia Tech. in hindsight and say “we should have known,” but the presumption that the mentally ill are prone to violence is often mistaken, and the source of much unecessary suffering.
I also wonder if the reliance on personal experience and moments of epiphany, as during listening to Milosevic in the dock, are a sound basis for the formation of a scientific theory. Granted I haven’t read the book, and I presume there is more detail about what the science actually shows than in the interview, which really provided no evidence at all, but I can easily see a set of powerful personal experiences with evil leading to the formation of a set of ideas based on the person’s own temperment and emotional needs as much as on any rational analysis of human behavior. With a different personality, cultural and historical context, and scientific education, Viktor Frankl experienced evil personally and came up with a theory opposed in many ways to the “evil genes” idea. Now we acknowledge the contextual reasons for the form his theory took and why it is, in retrospect, full of holes. It seems safe to presume the same might be true of any contemporary theory which has emerged out of a personal set of experiences.
None of this is meant to say that I really feel qualified to evaluate Prof. Oakley’s ideas based on the little tidbits from the interview, only that I would have to see quite strong evidence for it before going along with some of the extensions and implications brought out in the interview.
Glad to see you here, Barbara or do you prefer Ms. Oakley? I was very fascinated by what you had to say and could comprehend the psychology behind your theory. However, I was curious about one thing. What is it in the genes in which one parent had no scruples and was domineering, the other has a plenty- so much so she is passive (most of it was her Evangelical Fundamentalist upbringing) and the offspring is “too good”. Yes, that is what the teachers said to my mother about me. I was too afraid to get into trouble, still some what am for that matter, but I have become a little more assertive and outspoken in my adulthood, esp when I see people harming themselves or others.
Listening to you tell your sister’s story made me wonder how such things occur in one family, which I know very well can happen from your story. I just didn’t quite grasp the same idea when one parent is one way, another is the opposite and the offspring is similar to the parent with scruples. Shouldn’t that make a middle ground for the offspring? Or does the environment the aggressive parent causes cause the child to swing towards the more passive parent?
I guess what I’m asking is, doesn’t environment have something to do with it too and how does that all factor into offspring’s behaviour. BTW, I only threw in my mother’s upbringing, because I know it too is an environmental factor that can contribute to submissive behaviours- esp for women. It seemed to me, environmental factors were missing from your theory, but I can understand that, because you and your sister had the same childhood environment. Genes could be the only probable factor. I have no siblings to compare and can only conclude that environment is a factor too.
I bought your book Barbara and was meeting someone for lunch and took the book with me, when he showed up on time, I tossed the book on the seat of my car. When we came back the book was gone. So, I ordered another copy as the first part of the book was wonderful!
Hi Mriana: Thanks for the words of welcome—please just call me Barb.
I think the best way to answer your question is to look at peas. (That’s what Mendel, the father of modern genetics, did back in the mid-1800s.) If you cross a pea that produces red flowers with one that produces white flowers, you’ll get pink-flowered offspring. If you mate those pink flowers, you’ll get pink offspring—but also red as well as white offspring! This is because a pea inherits two genes that tell it how to color its flowers. If the pea gets two “red” genes, the flower is red. If the pea gets two “white” genes, the flower is white. But if the pea gets a red and white gene, the flower is pink.
I’m simplifying a lot now, but it might help you to think of the “red” gene as being a red flag, while the “white” gene is a white flag. The flags themselves don’t change color—the pair of them just send signals to tell the flower what color it should be. Two red flags signals for a red flower. Two white flags signals for a white flower. A red and a white flag signals for a pink flower. (There is never a pink flag.)
Humans genetics are a lot like those simple pea genetics—except there are thousands of genes that combine to shape our personalities. Sometimes human genes can mix and match together so that two really nice people produce a child that has an extremely problematic temperament. And two nasty people can have a child with a wonderful temperament. It’s the luck of the genetic draw. Overlying everything, and of extraordinary importance, is the effect of the environment. The interaction of genetics and environment is so complex that it is only just beginning to be understood. But I try to explain some of the ideas in the book—certainly my sister led a deeply troubled life not only because of her underlying genetics, but also because of the damage to parts of her brain by the poliovirus, as well as the actual stress related to being a polio survivor.
Brennen—I absolutely agree that we don’t have good predictive skills about violent behavior. And the potential for abuse of involuntary commitment means that I’d be the last person to be advocating it without many of the checks and balances that are already in place. I also agree that a simple moment of epiphany certainly shouldn’t do the trick for anybody in forming scientific theories. (We’re most emphatically on the same side there!) That initial spark was tempered by six years of careful study—years where some of my ideas were rightly shot down by experts, while other ideas took their place. Certainly I am now far more understanding of the difficulties experienced by some of those who inflict emotional pain on others. I’m so glad you brought up science—D. J. Grothe mentioned that he planned to bring me back for precisely that discussion. It’s awfully tough talking about a book with as many different facets as “Evil Genes” in the short time we had available. Meanwhile, for your hit of solid science, you can enjoy the book itself. I’ll be very interested to hear what you think after you’ve had a chance to give it a read.
Sandy—LOL! You and the light-fingered Machiavellian who took the book have both made my day.
Yes, I understand genes put that way because I have two biracial children and the odds of them marrying a white woman and having a child that looks Black is greater if there is a hidden ancestor back there, but for the most part, if they marry a black woman, they will have Black children and a white woman White children- so to speak. Black as a rule is dominate.
I don’t know, I think genetics has a some to do with it, but environment has a lot to do with it too. Polio is a physical event, but I’m sure the time being in the hospital and possibly an iron lung didn’t help matters. I may have to get your book and read it, because I’m sure there’s more research now than there was when I first got my degree in psychology, but I would think after seeing Holocaust victims, learning about Stockholm syndrom and other environmental “tragedies” (crimes to humanity) there would be a lot more information on the effects of environment. The book “There Are No Children Here” by Alex Kotlowitz attributes a lot to environment. Skinner and Bandura did too. The list goes on and on. Of course, the human mind is the Final Frontier and we still have far more to explore of it than we do space. We’ve mapped more of our solar system than we have the human brain. However, I’m not so sure environment and genetics don’t contribute about equally, barring some traumatic events. There again, traumatic events can cause a person to react either way given their genetic make-up too, so I’m not trying to discredit what you said. I just need to snag a copy of your book, which does sound fascinating.
Oh, with bi-racial children, you get the point precisely! What lucky ducks your children are—they’ll have less risk of the malignant melanoma that runs in our family.
Keep in mind that the “Evil Genes” title is tongue in cheek. Mostly one can think of environment and genetics as being equally important, but not always. For example, some Romanian orphans had barely any stimulation or cuddling at all, and they often either died or suffered profound personality dysfunction. That’s a profound environmental effect that overrode all genetics. But those who inherit the allele for Huntington’s will get Huntington’s, with all its accompanying ill effects on the personality. That’s a profound genetic effect that overrides all environmental effects. (Actually, it sounds like we’re both in agreement about these kinds of issues.)
Thanks so much for your comments and questions. Do let me know what you think of the book when you’ve a chance to give it a read!
Yes, I do and love their natural tans. :D Although my older son takes a bit after my side of the family only not as light complected. Obviously their father had a white gene in his family tree, which is no surprise considering American history.
Yes, I think we are in agreement. Case in point on the Huntington’s. My younger son has Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Autism spectrum, high functioning). At age 2 1/2 he was not talking, but his older brother when he was 8 months spoke full sentences (different as day and night). I heard the Dx and went straight to my mother and asked her if there was Autism in our family. At the time she said no, but as the next three years went by, we learned more, and my younger son started talking two word sentences when he was almost 5. My mother said, “Now wait a minute. Your great uncle Bennett (my grandfather’s baby bro) was considered backwards, not quite with the social norms.” He also had the flapping hand tantrums, outbursts, and repetitive behaviours, but not classic autism, so no one thought he was autistic back then. Sadly he was hitchhiking, not unusual for him, and was killed. Family members assume it was probably because of his unusual behaviours. My mother observed her younger grandson and said, “He acts like the stories of your great uncle’s childhood.” Years went by and she said, “He’s the spitting image [behaviourally] your great uncle.” Just like my younger son, he was brilliant in certain areas, but lousy with social rules and norms.
That is genetics, but my mother’s belief that she had to be submissive to her husband, even an abusive one, and spent 15 years too many married to him because divorce “is a sin”, is environmental. My grandfather had both though- genetic depression and extreme religious beliefs that sadly led to his suicide- he refused treatment for depression, saying psychologist and psychiatrist were of the devil and the doctors were playing god and keeping him alive longer than God wanted him to be. So he quit taking all his heart/blood pressure meds and died of heart failure three days later. He was a smart man who knew better than to quit taking his meds, but due to religous beliefs refused help for depression. Bad combination IMO, but of course, there is the possibility some of his astere religious beliefs were a symptom of the depression, so I should not be so hasty to blame religion in his case. He wasn’t a religious suicide bomber after all. There is a difference between religious oppression (environment) contributing to behaviours and mental illness (genetic) causing behaviours- even religious psychosis. It is not unusual for severe depression to cause psychosis.
The brain is a very complex thing. Sometimes it gets confusing concerning the cause of behaviour- the environment, genetics, or both.
I will let you know what I think when I get the chance to read your book.
After listening to the podcast, I went to your website to read the reviews and will definitely
get a copy your book. Facinating title.
I am reading “Moral Minds” by Marc Hauser in which he “argue that we are endowed with
a moral faculty that delivers judgments of right and wrong based on unconsciously operative
and inaccessible principles of action”.
Correct me if I am wrong, it appears you are proposing that some people have an immoral
faculty instead which make them successfully evil.
Does your theory in any way directly contradict Marc Hauser’s or is it complementary in the
sense that most people are moral except for some who are immoral because of their
Your comments would help to clarify this issue and would be appreciated.
Your question is a very interesting one. I’m actually not proposing that people have an “immoral” faculty. Instead, I’m simply proposing that some people don’t have a “moral” faculty. Thus, they can do immoral things far more easily.
I haven’t thought about it in this way before, but in some sense, perhaps sadism could be thought of as an immoral faculty. It does appear to have a genetic component—certainly there could also be an environmental component. There is so little known now about how sadism arises that it’s tough to make any conjectures at this point, though.
Thanks for clarifying the issue. My apologies for misunderstanding your proposal.
The absence of a moral faculty in some people who are also very intelligent, have no scruples, successfully cloak their intentions to appear benign, gain people’s trust and manipulate them to do evil is my definition of evil incarnate. Mao, Stalin and Hitler had this ability to mesmerise millions of their own people to betray, torture and kill without remorse. The irony is that in their lifetimes, they were worshipped like gods. Confucius thought that a ruler who had to resort to force had already failed as a ruler—“Your job is to govern, not to kill”
Thinking about these powerful evil personalities and how successfully evil they were lead me to propose that they did not lack moral faculties but had immoral faculties instead.
“Never follow a multitude to do evil” is a good maxim to follow. So is the ethic of reciprocity or the golden rule. Why did the millions of people who had moral faculties follow these psychopaths to do evil?
If the human moral faculty is so fragile, then we are indeed doomed when the next “devil” comes. What do you think? Do we have a fighting chance?
Barb, I find compatabilism- soft determinism real. I have schizotypy and found therapy to overcome it somewhat. I find that medecine and talk therapy can overcome the genectic and environmental causes in that they are superior causes. So, determinism is consistent with free will.
Don’t you find that religion is the universal neurosis! I find with Albert Ellis that it is ‘mustabatory,” a mere want , not a real need, a replaceable placebo. I find that human purposes and love and this one life suffice and thus we need no divine purpose for us and love and no future state.
I hope to find your posts elsewhere here. Thanks!