I just finished Barbara Oakley’s “Evil Genes”, which I hadn’t previously blogged since I had little to add to Razib’s review. When I went to pick it up at the library I noticed that Philip Zimbardo’s “The Lucifer Effect” was right next to it, and was tempted to grab that instead, but stuck to the original plan. About three-quarters of the way through “Evil Genes” has a giant footnote, in part dedicated to critiquing Zimbardo’s famed prison experiment. “Zimbardo’s understanding was that he had gone out of his way to select :young men who seemed to be normal, healthy, and average on all the psychological dimensions we measured.” However, as pointed out by astute researchers Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland, that does not at all appear to have been the case. On one test related to authoritarian attitudes, Zimbardo’s volunteers scored higher than every standardized comparison group except San Quenton prisoners!” Carnahan & McFarland found that such an unrepresentative sample results from publishing an ad referring to “prison life”.

Regarding the bulk of “Evil Genes” itself, I was a bit disappointed in how shallow (broadly-targeted?) it seemed. It might have been more interesting if I hadn’t already read Harris, Pinker etc. Oakley is a professor of engineering and much of the subject is of personal rather than professional interest, but her unusual life history compensated for that. However, I think it was too vulnerable to the “gee whiz” reaction to neuroscience imaging. Finally, the “For Pondering” section struck me as very strange. It referred to the author in the third person and overall looked a lot like a reaction writing assignment you might get in middle school, and I initially thought it might have been mistakenly inserted into the mass market version of the book.

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