LETTER TO THE BOOKSHELF
A letter regarding Robert Richards's review of Evil Genes
My book Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend, which was reviewed in the March-April 2008 issue ("Bad Seeds"), is not a conventional academic volume—I wrote it to convey a serious central message but used comic and ironic twists to help flesh out the ideas. It appears that reviewer Robert J. Richards, who specializes in recondite scholarship, had trouble appropriately conveying its content.
For example, the review makes it seem I assign each personality trait or flaw to a single part of the brain, as though Evil Genes were an exercise in phrenology. That would indeed be a laughable idea, if anybody actually believed it. But in reality, the book lays out what is currently known about the brain's parts while also making clear that the brain is a complex, synergistic system. Richards also claims that Evil Genes resorts to a "one-size-fits-all" common cause for sinister personalities. That's odd, since I explain at great length the many different neurological and genetic quirks and glitches that seem to play a role in all sorts of troubled behavior. As I also explain, the imaging studies described in the book give only a hint of the differences in people's neurophysiology.
Richards insists that, following the book's logic, virtually all Chinese and Serbians must also be bad seeds. Actually, the book jackhammers the point that it was the very different and unusual characteristics of Mao, Milosevic, Hitler and their sinister brethren that bounced them to the top and allowed them to dupe well-intentioned followers into doing all sorts of nasty things.
Moreover, Richards states that knowing "our overt behavior is a direct expression of our neurophysiology has been a staple of psychology since the early modern period." But I would argue that the great bulk of psychological research throughout the 20th century vehemently rejected the idea that innate differences in neurophysiology could play a role in how personalities are expressed. Even today, allusion to differences in neural characteristics between people can provoke a firestorm: Witness Larry Summers's ouster by Harvard's faculty.
Lastly, the review criticizes the speculative nature of parts of my work. But as Evil Genes makes clear, research about malevolent individuals is woefully inadequate. And speculation, along with anecdotes and even personal experience, has a long and respected history in helping us grapple with the difficult issues facing science, medicine and psychology.
Barbara Oakley, Ph.D., P.E.
Associate Professor of Engineering
Rochester, MI 48306