Some of the main arguments in this entertainingly written book are as follows: those who aspire to be, or become, cult leaders are usually genetically defective individuals; this flawed nature means that they are covertly suffering from a psychiatric disorder (for the authors, a slippery combination of symptoms from different diagnostic categories); and the paranoid and narcissistic activity of cult leaders, which often includes sexually promiscuous conduct with acolytes, is driven by the desire to perpetuate flawed genes.
The premises of evolutionary human science (EHS) that occupy a vociferous space in the current discourses of both psychology and psychiatry were anticipated by a genius cult leader: Carl Gustav Jung. This seems to indicate that, for the authors at least, cult activity can have creative as well as crazy consequences.
A different account (by historians such as Richard Noll) is that Jung's work was not progressive but atavistic. His mystical view about archetypes and racial differences was elitist, pagan, Germanic ideology, ultimately justifying Aryan superiority. Accordingly, the authors construct an interesting thesis. On the one hand, they want to legitimise their arguments with (one imperialistic version of) modern science - EHS. On the other hand, they want to promote Jungianism and all of its pre-scientific and politically dubious trappings.
They indulge in much retrospective diagnosis of dead people. For example, Jesus is declared sane but Hitler suffered from schizotypal personality disorder. Their diagnostic deliberations take full advantage of the blurred boundaries between psychiatric categories. Cult leaders are both sort of schizophrenic and sort of personality disordered. But, by the end of the book, psychiatric nosology is declared inadequate. In its place, the authors' own apocalyptic vision is given. We are told that by the early 1990s there was "a small number of us who had begun to think of ourselves as evolutionary psychologists and psychiatrists". Apparently, an inner sanctum of superior intellectual beings is gathering in our midst.
As I share the assumptions of the "standard social science model" (about social determinism and cultural relativism), which the authors' vision seeks to displace and colonise, I found the logic of this book unpersuasive. If individual genes are in competition, why do we find stable combinations of genes? The purported functional value of "selfish" genes is long term, not immediate. If this is the case, how can it claim to explain situated, reactive human conduct? Surely it is much more likely that the latter is accounted for by contingent factors. These occur in an opportunity structure - a locality, culture or social network, operating at a point in time or in favourable historical episodes. These favourable historical episodes emerge for a variety of supra-personal reasons, rooted in economic and other material circumstances. Although we could, like the authors, look for an understanding of Nazism only in a retrospective psychiatric diagnosis of Hitler and the psychodynamics of his mass following, historical and economic factors, to say the least, might offer a more persuasive picture. The simplistic bio-psychological reductionism of EHS offers a weak challenge to this complexity.
While it is the case that manipulative, selfish people may work hard to contrive an opportunity structure that suits them, this is as true of respectable careerists in all walks of life, as it is of disreputable cult leaders. Are respectable careerists suffering from a form of genetically determined personality disorder? Quite how far do we psychiatrise large chunks of the wider population who never appear in the clinic? Is there one gene for people who believe in the genetic determination of all behaviour and another for those who are seduced by cultural relativism?
Finally, should the complex models developed in social science, about competing interests operating in dynamic interplay in open social systems, now be scrapped in favour of socio-biological speculations and psychiatric postmortems?
The abiding impression of this book is that political science, sociology and even theology can pack their bags and hand their traditional tasks over to EHS. While this scenario cannot be totally discounted, it is likely EHS will go the way of most other cultish belief systems.
David Pilgrim is professor of mental health, University of Liverpool.
Prophets, Cults and Madness
Author - Anthony Stevens and John Price
ISBN - 0 7156 2940 9
Publisher - Duckworth
Price - £18.00
Pages - 246