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Bad Seeds

Robert J. Richards

Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend. Barbara Oakley. 459 pp. Prometheus Books, 2007. $28.95.         

In the 1930s, Sigmund Freud collaborated with American ambassador William C. Bullitt to produce a psychoanalytic study of President Woodrow Wilson, which portrayed him as suffering from a libido that had been blocked of normal expression and rechanneled into a messianic identification with his father and Jesus Christ. The manuscript was finally published in 1967 to scornful and suspicious reviews. The notion that even the master of psychoanalytic technique could provide a scientific study of a man he had never met, whose history he learned at second and third hand and about whom he had an admitted prejudice, was rejected not only by the sober historian Richard Hofstadter but also by the eminent practitioner of psychobiography Erik H. Erikson. Erikson judged, on the basis of internal evidence, that very little of the final version had actually been written by Freud himself.

No such exculpating considerations appear to relieve Barbara Oakley of responsibility for Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend. Oakley, an associate professor of systems engineering, became interested in what she calls the "Machiavellian" personality as the result of long experience with the erratic and deviant behavior of the sister referred to in her title. The Machiavellian syndrome was initially defined in the 1950s and principally consists of highly manipulative behavior done without moral scruple. Studies that Oakley cites associate the syndrome with another set of traits, which also characterized her sister: those of the borderline personality disorder, which includes rapid mood swings, impulsive decisions and self-damaging actions.

Having described the phenomena of concern, Oakley explores studies of neural imaging that purport to find correlations between various behavioral traits and hyperactivity of particular brain areas. From that research, she draws such conclusions as the following: "The . . . dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is where plans and concepts are held and manipulated. . . . At the grocery store, this area would help you decide to select Fuji apples rather than Golden Delicious."

On the basis of such studies, Oakley believes we can now understand the origins of Machiavellian and borderline behaviors: The various component traits of these syndromes derive from disturbances of specific neural systems. Thus, impulsivity stems from abnormal activity of the orbitofrontal cortex; inability to resolve conflicting information arises from a problematic anterior cingulate cortex; ineffective evaluations of negative stimuli flow from a dysfunctional dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; and so on. In the case of her sister, Oakley speculates that a mild case of polio as a child may well have caused neural damage to those particular brain centers.

From her intimate experiences with her sister, Oakley, a bit like Freud and Bullitt, turns to more historically dramatic examples of what she regards as similar instances of the Machiavellian and borderline syndromes, such as those manifested by Süleyman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire in the early 16th century and his spawn down the ages. She proposes that heritable pathologies rooted in Süleyman and his wife would explain the slow deterioration of the Ottoman Empire during the 400 years of its existence. Cautious historians might find the evidence for this claim a tad exiguous.

But once such bad seeds are identified, Oakley finds them sown in fields afar. Her scattered analyses of personality disorders range from those of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz (exemplified by their bitter priority dispute) to those of James Watson, Augusto Pinochet, Martha Stewart and the family of Paris Hilton.

Although Oakley devotes only a few pages to the aforementioned personalities, she expends two lengthy chapters on the deeply disturbed behavior of Slobodan Milosevic and Mao Zedong, both presumed to be suffering from borderline personality disorders and thus from brain pathologies in the corresponding areas. She believes that the dysfunctions of neural centers led, in the case of both, to the slaughter of countless innocent people. Mao's "many pathologies," Oakley maintains, "were almost certainly rooted in his genetic predisposition." Although she does not draw out the further conclusion of this presumption, the logic of her argument does suggest that additional millions of Chinese must also have had cerebral abnormalities, since they were not merely complicit in Mao's crimes but were the ones who actually tortured and executed millions of their fellow citizens. Thus considerable parts of the Chinese population—and the Serb as well—must carry the bad seeds.

Reading Oakley's book, one can hear the psychology go pop and then rapidly deflate into a limp outline of some not-unreasonable theses. That our overt behavior is a direct expression of our neurophysiology has been a staple of psychology since the early modern period. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous debates broke out concerning how closely various patterns of behavior could be identified with specific regions of the brain.

In the last part of the 19th century, both Paul Broca and Carl Wernicke identified specific language centers in the brain through postmortem examination of stroke victims. In the 1930s and 1940s, however, Karl S. Lashley, in a series of ablation studies of rats, concluded that although lower sensory and motor functions could be traced to specific regions of the brain, higher mental functions such as memory and learning were distributed over wide areas in a dynamic neural network. Lashley's protégé, Donald O. Hebb, studied the psychological effects of surgical removal (due to disease) of large portions of the cortex of children and adults. He observed that, amazingly, in children the higher mental functions, including language, could be restored, even after hemispherectomy, whereas adults subjected to such surgery would suffer major mental deficits.

Studies like those of Lashley and Hebb militate against assumptions of precise localization of the kinds of functions associated with the pathologies that Oakley describes in such flexible terms. And flexibility of classification is a distinct problem. After all, the deviant behavior of her sister would seem to have little to do with what Oakley takes to be the Machiavellian activities of Mao Zedong—or Paris Hilton, for that matter; so it is quite unlikely that brain scans of the three would reveal a common pathological pattern.

There are two reasons we should not expect any interesting commonality. First, it seems unlikely that the wildly disparate behaviors exhibited by such different individuals in divergent circumstances would have a common cause, despite her application of the label "Machiavellian" to all of them. A second, and more theoretically interesting, reason is that individual differences in brain circuitry seem to preclude common sources for even apparently similar behaviors. Recent experimental observations of the developing brains of quite young animals, including humans, demonstrate the crucial role of learning and experience in shaping the synaptic connections of the neonate's brain. It would be impossible for the relatively small number of genes controlling brain growth to specify the almost uncountable number of synaptic contacts established during childhood; experience is necessary to forge some links and terminate others. Thus a simple one-size-fits-all presumption about brain centers and their heritability seems to be excluded by this long trail of experimental neurophysiology.

That experimental history, however, has been not so much overturned as ignored by the several kinds of imaging studies on which Oakley draws (some reports coming only from the Web or from popular magazines). The use of PET (positron emission tomography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) techniques in cognitive psychology is quite recent, having largely begun in the 1990s; and many of the investigations cited here, as judged by the very latest standards, now seem naive. PET and fMRI indirectly indicate neural activity by measuring blood flow and metabolism in the brain. Experts recognize that averaging measures to identify particular brain regions disguises individual differences. They are also aware that although certain regions of the brain may exhibit greater metabolic activity while performing experimentally constrained tasks, this represents only a slight increase of the baseline activity of the resting brain. In other words, while some parts of the brain are lighting up, others, still in the dark, are simultaneously doing a lot of work—perhaps choosing the Fuji apples over the Golden Delicious.

These facts ought to caution against any easy identification of brain areas with specific emotional or cognitive activities, lest one be led to a modern version of phrenology. But Oakley raises no red flags about these problems. Indeed, the incaution of the whole book and its manipulative effect on the lay reader might even be regarded as a bit, well, Machiavellian.

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