Barbara Oakley – Evil Genes

October 15, 2007

Barbara Oakley, PhD, has been dubbed a female Indiana Jones — her writing combines worldwide adventure with solid research expertise. Among other adventures, she has worked as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers in the Bering Sea, served as radio operator at the South Pole Station in Antarctica, and risen from private to regular army captain in the U.S. Army. Currently an associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan, Oakley is a recent vice president of the world’s largest bioengineering society and holds a doctorate in the integrative discipline of systems engineering. Her new book is Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hilter Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Oakley explores human evil from a scientific perspective. She recounts experiences that led her to research the topic, including episodes from her sister’s life, and from her travels. She details recent advances in brain imaging and genetics that have implications for traditional views of evil, and discusses why a scientific understanding of evil is important.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, October 15th, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe fee point of inquiries, the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science reason and secular values in public affairs. On this week’s show, we have Professor Barbara Oakley, author of the new book Evil Genes Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron failed, and my sister stole my mother’s boyfriend. But first, here’s a word from this week’s sponsor. 

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I’m pleased to have Barbara Oakley on the show this week. She’s been dubbed a female Indiana Jones. Her writing combines worldwide adventure with solid research experience. Among her many adventures, she’s worked as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers in the Bering Sea. She served as a radio operator at the South Pole station in Antarctica and risen from private to captain in the U.S. Army. She’s currently an associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan, and she’s recently been vice president of the world’s largest bio engineering society and holds a doctorate in the integrative discipline of systems engineering. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Professor Barbara Oakley. 

Well, thank you. I’m glad to be here on point of inquiry. 

Professor, your book, Evil Genes, it’s not straight science writing. It’s like part family memoir, part cutting edge science reporting. People are saying great things about it. Steven Pinker, David Sloan Wilson, even one of my favorite sci fi writers, Orson Scott Card, had great things to say about the book. But to start off, why did you have to reveal so many personal things about your family in a book about the science of the genetics of a human evil? 

What a great question. I think it’s because everyone has really felt the personal impact of people like this, and that impact can be really very, very deep. I know for me, my sister Carolyn, she really did. As the title of the book says, she really did steal my mother’s boyfriend actually late in life. My mother had she had always wanted to go to Paris. And late in life, my mother met a man who decided to make her dream come true. And when my sister found out about it and next thing you know, she was on that plane to Paris. And then after she got back, she dropped the guy like a hot rock. I think it’s it’s these experiences like this where a family or an individual is devastated by someone who you really had trusted. I wanted to bring that into the book. Straight Science. Writing about someone who’s done something like this can be really dry. And the reason that we’re really interested in this kind of thing is simply because it has such a great impact on our lives. 

So it’s not a dry subject. It hits you where you live and breathe. But, Professor, a lot of people, it well, you said yourself experienced this human evil in their day to day lives, but they don’t go out and try to uncover it through the cutting edge science. They don’t try to figure out the genetic reasons why people are rotten. What led to that? In other words, why didn’t you just say, you know, that’s how it is? My sister was was nasty. 

I it’s because. Because my sister clued me in early that there were people who acted like this. I’m very interested in people. And so wherever I would go from there on, I would I would be watching people. So that meant that when I was up on the Bering Sea, for example, working as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers, I would notice that the KGB agents there seemed to be almost self selected for a kind of a sinister personality type. When I worked down in Antarctica at the South Pole station as a radio operator, they were always a few sort of malevolent people on the station who you who you couldn’t reason with. They were always just that way. When I went in and taught in China, I was aware of the effects of truly malevolent individuals and also startled to see how it was all the deaths of tens of millions of people could be covered up and sort of a mass cultural amnesia. 

But that’s not genetically determined, though. That’s. 

No, no. But I think seeing this pattern then building on that by going on and getting my doctorate in engineering, but also working in bioengineering and being very much aware of what was going on with medical imaging and genetics, putting that scientific knowledge with the the background patterns that I’d seen just in working with people in nonacademic settings. I think all of that put together is what gave me real insight. And I guess the to really get to the bottom of of your question, when I was in Kosovo, we have two adopted Muslim sons from Kosovo and I was visiting some of their relatives there. They had fled as refugees after the war with Serbia. And we saw Slobodan Milosevic, the dictator of Serbia, testifying at his trial. And I saw him there. And they asked him, why did you kill those people at the village for a check, which is a small village, about a half a mile from where my sons had been living. They actually heard the massacre occur. And he said, well, it was just artillery fire during a war. You know, civilians get killed during the war. That’s the way it happens. And they said if that’s actually the case, then how come all the gruesome things that were done to these people while they were still alive actually happen? That doesn’t happen because of an artillery barrage. And his answer was, gee, I can’t hear you. My earphones cut off. And I looked at that and I said, that’s the pattern they can’t hear. I mean, really, people like this. It’s precisely the same sort of thing as with my sister. If she didn’t want to hear something you were saying, she almost literally couldn’t focus on it. So that was the final click. I think it was just having a great variety of backgrounds with that final little knowledge of watching a person very, very different from my sister who acted in the same way as my sister. That kind of nudged me in to looking into what I was looking at. 

So these various experiences of your life, you’ve kind of connected the dots. But a lot of people have similar experiences, but they don’t look to genetics to explain everything. I’ll admit that I’m charmed kind of by the belief that everybody starts out as basically deep down good and that it’s a function of their circumstances or, you know, their childhood or something that let them turn out bad, their lack of an education, poverty, not having good parents, whatever it is in your book, challenges that not just by talking about these various experiences of your life, but by looking at the cutting edge research. I want to talk about some of that in a minute, but let’s backtrack a little and get more into your account of your sister through her journal entries, her diary recounting many of the things that she was up to in her life. Aren’t there other explanations than bad genes? I mean, couldn’t she early on have found that destructive, that inputs evil behavior really rewarding? Or maybe she suffered from a really low self-confidence, self-esteem? In other words, there are other stories that explain human evil rather than just blaming it on genes. 

Well, for one thing, she and I share many of the same genes. So if it was genes alone, you know, well, then certainly we turned out quite different. But I guess the real fact of the matter is just that every aspect of our personality has been found to be influenced substantially by our genetics. And to ignore that, I mean, I, too, would love to believe that we are shaped only by our environment, but by going down that path. You’re number one, you’re ignoring the results of science that are saying something very, very different. And number two, you’re setting yourself up for problems. And let me explain why. Years ago, they believe that autism was simply the result of poor parenting, in particular a cold mother. As a result of that, they felt that, hey, we’ve got a handle on this. It’s something we can’t control if we make the parents better. We can, you know, not have autism. And the the families, of course, were devastated because they were often trying to do everything they could to help their child with autism. And they were being blamed instead. It’s the same way for a family that through sheer coincidence and luck of the draw as far as genetics go, has a child that grows up with a predisposition for a lack of morals on it. Right now, the tendency is to say, well, it’s the family’s fault and often it isn’t. In fact, some of these children come from very, very good families who’ve tried everything and are really at their wits end. I don’t think it’s right to ignore the results of science and just make ourselves feel comfortable by believing something that is kind of an old wives tale that everybody’s good. Science is showing us that that’s simply not the case. In fact, some of the identical twin studies that S.E. writing has done in London at King’s College have shown that if one identical twin has the traits of psychopathy. Then the other identical twin in 80 percent of the cases also has those traits. If you have profound traits of psychopathy, it seems to be very strongly genetic. And right now, we don’t know how to fix people like that. 

If there are strong genetic predispositions people have toward human evil or psychopathy, seems me that raises some really big questions for society in terms of freewill, the justice system. Let’s talk about your sister. Do you think she could have been taught how to behave more ethically to show more concern for her fellow humans, for you, for your mother? You kind of dismiss the whole notion of freewill in the book, kind of by saying it’s meaningless. It’s like asking the question, does a cat have freewill when she likes her kittens? But our whole society is deeply invested in this notion. It’s widely assumed that everything’s going to fall apart if everyone’s going to just blame their behavior on their evil genes. The devil don’t make me do it, but my genes did. Won’t society crumble with that widespread belief? 

Well, I go on to say that people have differing amounts of freewill. I mean, if you have someone and they are born to be rather short, that person can they can work out. They can get really strong. They can do a lot of things with their body, but they’re not going to be able to do the things that are going to make them into a professional basketball player. 

So some people just can’t be good no matter what. 

Will we do not have the ability now to make changes in some of these deeply troubled individuals? That’s right. And what can we do now except accept that fact? And I mean, the fact that we didn’t accept that fact meant that the killer at Virginia Tech was allowed to remain free, even though many of the health care professionals knew that he was really a very troubled individual who could harm others. 

Right. You had that op ed piece in The New York Times. That was a big deal in the blogosphere. You you argued that this is slightly off topic, but that people in the academy, professors, administrators, should be able to identify these students as potential problems to avoid situations like Virginia Tech in the future. Does that mean that everyone should have brain scans or something? 

Oh, no, of course not. There’s always a balance. You need to be able to identify if someone is really, really potentially harmful. You just can’t let that person go running around and now having studied what happened. Some of the problem was simply that many people were aware of this, but they often weren’t aware that other people were aware of it because confidentially reality precluded their ability to communicate with one another. So many people knew that there were problems, but it was not being communicated widely. And and as a consequence, no action was taken. But really, no one wants to intrude on freedom or anything like that. But at the same time, sometimes we have seriously deranged people in our midst. And the reality is we need to accept that. And those people need to be out of the mainstream because we can’t have them going out and killing people. 

So she can’t have them out in the mainstream. But they’re human. Evil is not their fault. Do they deserve to be punished, thrown in prison, all that stuff? I mean, you are were getting far afield from some of the arguments in your book, but these are the implications of your thesis. 

Well, in this country with we have a very high rate of incarceration in prisons as opposed to many other Western countries. But what people have been neglecting all too long is the fact that we have a very low rate of involuntary admission into mental health care facilities. We have far lower rates of that than many other countries. So in other words, the people that in other countries that would be put into health care facilities, because they’re they may have done a crime, but it is because they have something wrong. It neurologically speaking. What we’ve done is put those people into a prison. And in many cases, they should have been in a health care facility. If if you balance everything out between the United States and other Western countries, we really have about the same percentages. It looks like, of people who are taken out of society for whatever reason. It’s just that we tend to lump them all in prison, whereas they put some in prison and some in health care facilities. Part of that was done both from the left and the right, the the right wanted to reduce costs and the left had issues with diagnosing people as mentally ill. 


I’d like to let our listeners know that you can purchase a copy of evil genes. Why? Rome fell. Hitler rose. Enron failed. And my sister stole my mother’s boyfriend through our website. Point of inquiry, dawg. 

Professor Oakley, you don’t spend the whole book talking about your family, you broaden the argument, you discuss the way that you say history’s evil figures like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, you mentioned earlier Slobodan Milosevic. You mentioned earlier how they all behaved and apparently the same ways and how you kind of drew these connections. It was more genetic than it was their childhoods. You’re saying you’re arguing that personality underlies these evil ideologies, that biology is destiny to some extent. 

I am arguing precisely that. I think by the time you reach all ages, you’ve run into people who are really rather amoral. And I suspect and it’s beginning to become clearer from science that these individuals brains function differently. People with low levels of altruism have a little bit less activity in certain areas that are affiliated with it, with altruism. Did they decide to be that way? I suspect to some extent, yes. But they were predisposed to be that way. All, can you have a genetic predisposition for this sort of sinister personality yet grow up to be a decent human being? Probably, although it’s more difficult for you if you’ve got a predisposition to be that way. There’s two sorts of circuits that relate to self. One relates to yourself and the other relates to others. If you’re circuit for self has sort of tuned up, then you really do anything you possibly can to benefit yourself because you’re wired to believe that you’re the best. Narcissism like this is one of the strongest of all genetic traits in our personality. 

So if narcissism is one of the strongest genetically determined traits of our personality, what do you say about all the messages we get in society that tells us your number one. This is your day. You should look out for yourself today. You deserve something great by this chocolate because you deserve it. You deserve these great clothes or you deserve the nice car. You know, people aren’t born with that view. In other words, I’m just suggesting there might be other factors that make people narcissistic. You know, social factors. 

Research on on the concept of self-esteem. I mean, everybody is let’s build self-esteem. That’s a huge thing in elementary schools and in education generally. That self-esteem is really important and we should feel positive reinforcing messages to people about who they are and what wonderful people they are. And in fact, what they’re finding is that that idea was based on really no science whatsoever and that people with a predisposition for narcissism, this can actually be something that’s really bad for them. I mean, many people with anti-social personality disorder really think they’re pretty great stuff. And when you keep telling them that, that just reinforces that they’re great. And the problem really lies with everyone else. For some people with their different genetic underpinnings, it makes a difference. What kind of messages they get from society. If you have someone who’s really kind of shy and not very outgoing at all to hear these messages. This is a very positive thing. But for these other personality types, it can be very problematic as we begin to finish up. 

I want to get to some of the breakthroughs in science that make you believe there are evil genes. One. One is in neuroscience. We were talking about these incredible advances in brain imaging. They say that the brain is the consistency of cottage cheese. And I’ve read stories about people falling off ladders, then becoming compulsive gamblers or sex addicts immediately, even if before they fell off the ladder they were, you know, upstanding citizens, went to church every week and whatever. Do you think these advances in brain imaging will make society view all negative behavior as kind of brain dysfunction? Is it going to be like you start fighting with your wife and and then you have to go to the doctor to get your brain scans? 

Oh, I don’t think so, because it’s clear that people just have a set of limits that they can operate within. I mean, if you are set to be really self-centered, you can still change somewhat based on that. But I’d like to go back to the issue of so-called evil genes. When I wrote this book that that title is a bit tongue in cheek. And I think it’s a good title, but really, I want to. Make it clear that some of our seemingly worst, most evil genes were mixed with other genes, can actually be responsible for some of our very best traits. 

They not only benefit the individual, but they benefit society ultimately. 

Exactly. You can’t go and get rid of a certain subset of genes because you want to get rid of bad behavior. Because if you tried to do something like that, you’d actually be getting rid of a lot of, ah, most intelligent people or most creative and even our our most altruistic people, because it depends on how those genes combine with other genes. As to whether you turn out to be a real problematic person or a good person, just recognizing the simple fact that some people, because of their innate makeup, simply can’t be reasoned with or trusted, even though they appear to be rational actors, is just vitally important. Some people are simply wired differently. And if we were wired that way, we’d be doing the same sorts of things. We can’t change them simply by reasoning with them. 

That seems kind of bleak diagnosis of our lot. If we can’t fix the problem. Well, let me ask it this way. Do you think that we can eventually fix the problem? The idea of human evil is the big question. I think for science to begin confronting religions had its turn. It hasn’t seemed to really solve the problem. Do you think that there’s eventually going to be a science of fixing human evil? 

I think the most that we can do is simply being aware that some people can’t be trusted and can’t be reasoned with. It helps us stop living in denial. And and it helps us to use science to help empower ourselves and avoid the pitfalls of history. Time after time after time, people like Hitler arise. And Chamberlain thinks he’s a wonderful guy and they don’t realize that. No, that’s that’s not the way it really is. But science is telling us that now. And this is actually a very positive message because it by being aware of these kinds of people, you can recognize them more easily and establish boundaries to help yourself avoid being hurt or used. You won’t let your life be derailed so easily when you do meet these people. 

So science merely to defend ourselves from human evil. But you don’t think science will ever fix it? I mean, science is making strides when it comes to autism. Why not? 

When it comes to human evil, people are really working hard to understand why psychopaths arise. And there may be some help with that. And I think that that’s actually a really good thing. At the same time, a lot of what I address in the book is it’s much more subtle than psychopathy, and this very subtlety makes it really impossible to eradicate. The best we can do is be aware of it. So that I mean, I’ll just give you one example. Ken Lay at Enron. He was made aware of a lot of the really dishonest activities that were going on. And his response was to sort of slap people’s hands and say not don’t do that anymore. And the consequence was that thousands of people lost their livelihoods. If he’d been more aware of the fact that, hey, those guys in leadership, you can reason all you want with them and you can tell them all you want not to do it, but they’re going to keep doing it. You better find some more concrete mechanism of dealing with this. If he’d known that, thousands of people would have benefited from it. So I think it’s it’s a very empowering message to know about this kind of thing. It’s not a negative at all. It allows us to more fully understand the human condition. 

Thank you very much for joining me on point of inquiry, Professor Barbara Oakley. Thank you very much. D.J.. 

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DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.