Monday, January 13, 2014

Evil Genes

I am generally liking Barbara Oakley's Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend. As with her Cold-Blooded Kindness, which I previously reviewed, she seems to want to write more than one book at a time.  She covers a lot of territory; she tries to tie it all in together; you won't find a lot of this information in accessibly-explained form all that easily.  She examines some of the notorious evil people of history in the context of whether they had formal personality disorders; she looks at the brain research for the behaviors of personality disorders (subclinical and full-blown) we meet every day; she tries on the different theories of how these might be adaptive, and how the genetic and environmental causes interact to save some and ruin others.

Still, it does tend to cause her to switch gears precipitously, the connections dangling a bit.

Also, her strength is her weakness, as is the case with most of us.  Her training and research for such a work is nontraditional.  One reviewer credits her with an Indiana Jones background.  I wouldn't go that far, but compared to most academics, the description is defensible.  As a consequence, she does not meekly accept revealed wisdom and credits wide-ranging sources for possible explanations.  The downside is that she accepts some sources - biographers for example - at face value while dismissing others, without a good explanation why. If she were attempting to prove some political or cultural point, relying on the analysis and bias of a biographer or historian would be more expected. That's what they do.  Attempting to provide scientific evidence from such sources is more chancy. Softer data.

I will take a risk at mind-reading her thought processes.  She seems to think about a bit of data once, say, whether Margaret Thatcher was driven by need for dominance or by practical considerations, whether Christians can fairly say they regard life as sacred if they support the death penalty, or whether the borderpath formulation of Swift and Nandhra is valid - and think about it no more, considering it settled.  A common fault of the quick-witted, to over-rely on that trait.

Still, she'll give you a good deal more fresh thought than you'll get from three or four other sources picked at random, so we can't complain too loudly.

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