At some point in our lives, most of us will have a personal encounter with someone who seems innately evil or cruel. They go out of their way to hurt people, or at least appear not to care whether they do damage with their actions or words. Most of us will assume that the person had a miserable life or some traumatic incident that turned them into a misanthrope, and with luck will avoid their destructive wake. Barbara Oakley has a different theory, one backed by some scientific research into the cerebral structure of unpleasant people — and she believes it explains a lot about how Rome fell, Hitler rose, and her sister stole her mother’s boyfriend:
My sister stole my mother’s boyfriend. It wasn’t as if the boyfriend, Ted, was any great catch. At 85, he trundled about with a nose tube and oxygen tanks, hacking and snorting as he nursed his emphysema. Then there was the age gap — Ted was 40 years older than my sister. So what was the attraction? As it turned out, it was the gift Ted had planned for my mother — the Parisian vacation she had always dreamt of.
On hearing that my mother was planning a trip to Paris, my sister Carolyn suddenly realised that she, too, had always wanted to go to France. And what my sister wanted, she had a way of getting. When Carolyn clicked her spotlight on Mum’s boyfriend, he was dazzled. Soon, my sister was tucked beside Ted and his breathing apparatus en route to Paris. Après Paris, of course, Carolyn dropped Ted like a hot rock.
My mother withdrew, shamed and saddened by this ultimate humiliation. Not long after, she passed away.
Manipulative, hurtful people such as my sister can’t help but draw our wonder even as we agonise over the pain they cause. Perhaps we remember working for an arrogant, tyrannical supervisor — a charismatic man who wowed upper management with his flashy presentations and witty wordplay during golf. Or perhaps we never mention our pillar-of-the-community father — a kindly Santa Claus of a man who no one would believe had a sinister flip side. Or we learnt too late that a seemingly perfect wife is in reality a deceitful manipulator who has no qualms about using the children as tools to get her way.
These observations come directly from Oakley’s book, Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend. While title sounds quirky and overstated, Oakley takes the subject quite seriously. She goes beyond her own family to look at other case studies — Hitler, Slobodan Milosevic, Mao Zadong and more.
It raises more than just scientific curiosity. If the root of evil can be found in a corpus callosum or in the ratio of cerebral white matter, does this essentially end individual accountability? Can “evil” be diagnosed — and if so, what can and should society do with that information? Can a person predisposed to these factors still make the rational choices to do good?
Barbara Oakley will join me today on Heading Right Radio to discuss all of this, and more. In the meantime, her book can already be found at bookstores, or through the CapQ Bookshelf. Be sure to tune in and join our conversation.