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article imageOp-Ed: Evil may stem from the brain, not the heart says engineer Special

By Jonathan Farrell     May 4, 2017 in Health
When bad things happen it's common to have a pity party and exclaim, "why me!" But on a much more contemplative note when looking upon world events, most people will ask "why did this evil happen?"
"What made that person or those people involved do such a horrible thing?"
Ethics and morality are the most difficult and complex abstracts to navigate. Religious and philosophical debates aside, one researcher says it could be genetics coupled with environment—she points to what we know from science about the inner workings of the brain.
When Barbara Oakley wrote her book "Evil Genes - Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron failed and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend," over a decade ago, she was pursing an advanced degree and tenure position in engineering. "It was something that I worked on the side for about six years.” And of course, she added, “engineering is not psychology or neuroscience. But for me there was more to it than just curiosity."
Prof. Barbara Oakley  PhD teaches at Oakland University in Michigan. Her work studying neurology and...
Prof. Barbara Oakley, PhD teaches at Oakland University in Michigan. Her work studying neurology and brain mapping, has opened the door to an exciting field that goes beyond her engineering expertise.
Courtesy of Barbara Oakley, PhD
The title of her 2007 book does provide a clue about why that curiousity arose. Her sister Carolyn's actions and unethical behavior spurred Oakley on to delve deeper, even if by only a few steps at a time, to find real answers. "The answers I got from psychology often had little or no scientific foundation."
Oakley noted that while thinkers and doctors like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung opened the door to an analytical study of human behavior, most of it was explanation, theory or philosophical speculation without scientific research and testing "I am very accustomed to solid academic research," said Oakley, "and I could see that very little real research was being done, using scientific methods."
She mentioned to this reporter that because Freud and Jung's theories and ideas were established, psychiatrists/psychologists and the like, often simply leaned on them without much question.
For her, the recent advances in brain study and tools to look at the brain were the way to uncover more fact, not theory. "Think of it as you following a map while driving along a road. And, then suddenly the road you are on just dead ends. That is what got my attention and that lack of correlation between map and actual road is what pushed me to continue," Oakley said.
Her determination wasn't some intellectual or scholarly vanity. Being raised in an Air Force household Oakley has been accustomed to change, challenges and a sense of adventure, of one sort or another. Her father Alfred Grim after serving as a pilot in WWII became a veterinarian, and then went on to get a Masters Degree in Food Technology from MIT. He went on to head the Air Force program to develop food for astronauts.
Facing challenges and having a sense of adventure or quest has always been a part of Prof. Barbara O...
Facing challenges and having a sense of adventure or quest has always been a part of Prof. Barbara Oakley's life. Here she is at the command post station in Antarctica just after her tour of duty in the U.S. Army.
Courtesy of Barbara Oakley, PhD
Following some of the familiar footsteps of her upbringing, Oakley served in the military where after completing studies at the University of Washington with a Bachelor of Arts in Slavic languages. She went to serve as a Signal Officer in Germany. She also worked as a translator in the Bering Sea and spent a season in Antarctica as a radio operator at the South Pole Station.
After completing her military duties as an Army captain, Oakley decided to use her study of languages, and 'retool it' to study math and science. Engineering was chosen because she wanted to better understand the training and equipment she had received while in the U.S. Army.
Leading expert in the field of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at Binghampton University in Michigan, Dr. David Sloan Wilson considers Oakley an "evolutionary explorer." And with her upbringing and background it is clear to see why.
Yet even taking on these rigorous challenges, she still honestly wanted to know what physical, tangible evidence was there for the then current theories in psychology and psychiatry?
Wilson sees that such crucial exploration can take place on any scale, even from one's own family.
The pain and anguish her sister Carolyn caused by doing the things she did, no doubt gave Oakley the incentive. But again it was that lack of correlation between the established theories (diagnosis) and the pathology of behavior manifested. This was intriguing!
"You can research the bad behavior of human beings for only so long. We can theorize over and over."
In addition to her research of current brain science, Oakley provides interesting details of intrigue in the Machiavellian behavior of some very notorious characters in history.
Whether it be plots within a palace for monarchy or schemes within the harem to be a favored concubine, the impulsive nature of human's is really in the brain. The heart is an organ traditionally viewed as the place of 'the soul' so to be speak. But it is our brain where not only the seat of logic is, but also where the consciousness of a heart, a soul resides.
"It is important,” said Oakley, “to form a proper foundation in scientific research." She reiterated that theories can be formed on feelings. Feelings are fickle, this is why a more reliable scientific method is needed.
Science does not stay stagnate; it is a growing field. And, much has changed since the 19th Century when Freud and others broke ground in the study of behavioral science. For Oakley she noticed one tangible aspect to her sister Carolyn. It was her struggle with polio. Carolyn had contracted polio as a child. The virus that causes it attacks the nervous system.
Any attack on the nervous system does affect the brain. Depression and difficulty in concentration and memory has been known to occur in post-polio conditions.
Oakley makes note of her sister's condition frequently in the book. Recalling her memories of Carolyn and a diary of hers she found, Oakley used the knowledge of neuroscience to help her understand Carolyn's behavior.
Oakley writes: "Carolyn, and people like her, often don't consciously intend to be evil... Instead, these are people who are constrained by the quirks of their neural machinery."
But even when entering the 'nature versus nurture' discussion, Oakley insists it must be science-based.
Since publication of "Evil Genes" Oakley has gone on to write more books involved in multiple areas of research, ranging from STEM education, to engineering education, to learning practices. "'Evil Genes' was rejected 42 times before it was accepted by Prometheus Books," she said.
Even with her dedicated research and focus on current knowledge of neurology and brain science, "I was attacked by some in the professional establishment of psychology for my stand on the role genes and the brain play in the behavior of people gone bad. I was shocked by such negative reactions." Oakley then pointed out "the disagreements were of that time, over a decade ago — those kinds of disagreements aren’t happening now." (Especially as neurological and brain science is advancing). When Oakley wrote "Evil Genes" she was only pointing out the inconsistencies she uncovered at the time. "I was researching what other researchers had published." From her experience with writing the book she recognized that, "It's really vital to do scientific vetting."
The reviews for "Evil Genes..." on were mixed but many. While some reader-reviews cautioned the approach about viewing genetics as way to discern evil behavior; most agreed the book was interesting. With almost 80 reviews, even those most critical said they were fascinated by the subject. And, as one woman noted, "I ate it up," describing it as 'a-page-turner."
Not surprised, Wilson pointed out that Oakley's style of writing for 'Evil Genes' conveyed the complexity and at the same time was entertaining and enlightening. "Just as Charles Darwin's books were read by all sectors of the population, not just other scientists..."
Completing "Evil Genes" opened the door for Oakley to the burgeoning field of neurological studies and brain mapping. She anticipates that as technology advances science will shed more light on all the factors that go into behavior and the human condition.
Professor Oakley has published eight books. To learn more about Barbara Oakley, engineer, educator and writer, visit her web site.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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