A collection of essays by Bill (website@ccjj.info) accompanied by feedback from his friends.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Book Report: Evil Genes by Barbara Oakley

I met Barbara Oakley when she gave a talk in New York about the book she wrote after this one, "Pathological Altruism". The talk was poorly received because she ran afoul of liberal orthodoxy, but I thought she made some good points and the audience was just being dense. "Pathological Altruism" was not available yet on kindle, but her other book, "Evil Genes", was.

In "Evil Genes", she focuses on the "successfully sinister", people who are profoundly lacking in morals who nonetheless not only stay out of jail, but excel in society. One case she talks about is her morally dysfunctional older sister, who shamelessly used and abused her family at every opportunity.

On the one hand, how objective can we expect anyone to be about their own sister? On the other hand, it makes for entertaining reading. I read Steven Pinker's "How the Mind Works", a much more scientific piece, but found I remembered nothing about it. The author's liberal use of anecdotes to describe the dysfunctional people she focuses on bring the issues to life.

She discusses mental illness, especially borderline personality disorder and psychopathy, and how they lead to morally depraved behavior. She uses several examples of tyrants including Serbian president Milosevic, Chairman Mao, Adolf Hitler, and the CEO of Enron to illustrate her points.

At this point, science is at the level where many specific genes associated with mental illness have been located, and Oakley frequently mentions them. I wonder how long it will be before we will have located genes associated with certain types of intelligence, or with altruism? Also, we still have at least fragments of the bodies of many of the tyrants she discusses, it would be interesting to analyze their genomes and see if her analysis of their mental illnesses is very accurate.

Oakley says there are two types of people: those who have encountered the successfully sinister and those who haven't. I count myself in the first category -- I had a close friend a long time ago, who I thought was a wonderful person until I got up close, then she started acting really underhanded and making threats. I got as far away as I could as fast as I could, but she rose to become a successful CEO.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if CEOs used to be more altruistic back when the top bracket marginal tax rate was very high. It seems that way in retrospect, although there are other factors affecting the CEOs of the 1950s and 1960s, such as the social experience of the Depression, WW II, and the Cold War. I'm no expert on business history either, so I don't have much data - just a vague impression and a few anecdotes.