The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty Hardcover – May 31 2011
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Paul Harris, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education
“Simon Baron-Cohen displays once again his ability to bring science to bear on troubling and controversial issues. Arguing that we explain nothing by describing acts of wanton cruelty as evil, he explores the simple but powerful hypothesis that such acts can be traced to a distinct psychological state - a lack of empathy. He backs up his claim with a wealth of research - from developmental psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience and genetics. Those who have to deal with the aftermath of cruelty may not agree with Baron-Cohen’s analysis but they will surely be informed and provoked by his boldness and originality.”
“Horrific crimes usually freeze the mind, leaving only a desire for retribution. Simon Baron-Cohen has taken us beyond those mental inadequacies. In this book, proposing a new way to think about evil people and empathy, he has laid the scientific groundwork for a future and brighter science of understanding the dark side of the human condition.”
“The Science of Evil is a compelling journey into the ubiquitous power of empathy in our lives. The devastating effects of ‘zero degrees of empathy’ are masterfully described and thoroughly analyzed. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen’s book shows how, with its unexpected and unsettling absence, empathy reveals its foundational role in human sociality.
“Bringing cruelty triumphantly into the realm of science, this pioneering journey into human nature at last delivers us from ‘evil.’”
“A compelling and provocative account of empathy as our most precious social resource. Lack of empathy lurks in the darkest corners of human history and Simon Baron-Cohen does not shrink from looking at them under the fierce light of science.”
“Simon Baron-Cohen combines his creative talent with evidence and reason to make the case that evil is essentially a failure of empathy. It is an understanding that can enlighten an old debate and hold out the promise of new remedies.”
“What makes someone evil? What’s the brain got to do with it? Baron-Cohen confronts the most urgent and controversial questions in social neuroscience. Both disturbing and compassionate this brilliant book establishes a new science of evil, explaining both its brain basis and development. Baron-Cohen fundamentally transforms how we understand cruelty in others and in so doing forces us to examine ourselves. Reading this book invites us to widen our own circle of empathy—compelling us to grow and comprehend, if not forgive.”
“Clearly written and succinct, this book will enrich but not overwhelm interested readers…provides a useful perspective for understanding human pathology, including events like Columbine and the Holocaust.”
About the Author
Simon Baron-Cohen is a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge. A recipient of the McAndless Award from the American Psychological Association, he lives in the United Kingdom.
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Top Customer Reviews
His argument is that researchers have overlooked the importance of empathy in studying evil. Despite the fact that psychopathy researchers have noted, and studied that, for decades, he pretends (or really thinks?) that he's come up with something new here. Frick developed the Callous Unemotional traits that includes a lack of empathy. Book has talked about Callous Empathy as a descriptor of psychopathy. So forensic researchers have known about the issue of empathy. The "Dark Triad" of Psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and Narcissism is a recognition of the links between these different facets of "evil". Baron-Cohen calls his new link between two of these traits "blindingly-obvious". It should be, because it's been recognized for decades now! So Baron-Cohen is really reinventing the wheel here. Worse in fact, as he leaves out the troubling (for his theory) case of Machiavellians, who can flip back and forth between empathy as it suits their needs.
And he reinvents a really odd (oval?) wheel by referring to psychopathy, borderline, and narcissism as being negative zero-empathy while autism is positive zero-empathy. Because everyone would chose to "cure" the first three if they could (although I'm quite sure psychopaths and narcissists wouldn't!Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
What could one of the world's leading autism researchers possibly know about evil?
In the "Science of Evil" Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen has set out to apply scientific rigor to a concept that is all too familiar, but which has received very little serious attention from researchers. Whether it is describing serial killers, terrorists, or political mass murderers, we use the word "evil" without really understanding what it is. "The Science of Evil" takes a big step forward towards providing a scientific explanation for evil. And surprisingly, the explanation that Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen provides is a natural extension of his autism research and is solidly grounded in brain science.
In "The Essential Difference" Dr. Baron-Cohen described his autism research and theory that there is a continuum with autism on one end of the spectrum, and extreme empathy on the other. People on the autism end, also known as systemizers, have superior pattern recognition skills, but lack the ability to perceive and appropriately respond to the mental and emotional states of others. Think "Rainman."
So what does this have to do with evil? For Baron-Cohen, the core condition shared by those we call "evil" is a failure of the empathy system--a brain system that allows us to know how others feel, and care about those feelings. A brain system that prevents most of us from hurting others through the mechanism of empathy. Understood in these terms, the study of evil becomes a study of the biological and situational factors that underlie failures and deficits of empathy.
But what about those people who fall towards the autistic end of the systemizing/empathizing continuum? While they may lack empathy, what prevents them from committing the type of acts that we call evil? Baron-Cohen suggests that the critical difference between those who have little or no empathy--what he calls "Zero" on an empathy scale that he has developed--is whether the person is capable of forming a strong moral code, even in the absence of empathy. Baron-Cohen argues that people with autism are "Zero Positive" because, while they struggle with empathy in real-time social situations, they often use their excellent systemizing skills to form such a strong moral code. As a result they care about treating others fairly, and care that others (including animals) should not suffer. Think Temple Grandin. This contrasts with those who are "Zero Negative" (such as psychopaths) who, while they have no difficulty calculating what others might think or feel in real-time social situations, don't care about others' feelings and lack any moral code. This distinction helps explain why on average people who are Zero Positive are not predisposed to commit acts of cruelty, while those who are Zero Negative are.
"The Science of Evil" is an exceptional book on several levels. Although it deals with complex concepts from brain science, it is written in a very accessible style. Dr. Baron-Cohen's writing demonstrates his own empathy for his readers by providing many helpful clarifying examples. Baron-Cohen has the rare talent of making his own scientific research accessible and easy to understand. Specifically, I have never read a better description of Borderline Personality Disorder.
For those who have a background and interest in brain science, the position that Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen is advancing is supported with details of the brain structures involved. Readers can easily skip the descriptions of the brain structures involved without losing any of the important themes and ideas presented in the book. (Similarly, to set the stage, Dr. Baron-Cohen includes several examples of evil in the beginning of the book that some may find disturbing. These examples can also be skimmed or skipped. For those who have an interest in the science of empathy, the book is a perfect companion to Frans de Waal's "The Age of Empathy" and Dacher Keltner's "Born to Be Good."
Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen also provides a major new theory of the underlying physiological basis of Psychopathy, Bordeline Personality Disorder, and Narcissism. In my opinion, while there are many details that remain to be worked out, this theory has the same broad explanatory power as his systemizer/empathizer continuum model that is the subject of his "The Essential Difference." Dr. Baron-Cohen makes a very convincing case that brain imaging supports an underlying deficit or failure of empathy in each of these disorders.
Dr. Baron-Cohen is certainly not the first to make the connection between evil and empathy and he doesn't claim to be the first. This is not a survey of past research or thinking on the psychology of evil. What it is, is an extremely accessible book for general science reader that highlights the connections between empathy, evil, and the brain that is grounded in Baron-Cohen's extreme male brain theory. For professional researchers, it will probably raise more issues and questions than it answers. This is not a fully developed theory that is consistent with the systemizer/empathizer model, but first steps towards one. For example, is there an "empathy switch" that can sometimes be in the "on" position even in psychopaths and others whose switch is more often than not in the "off" position? In science, raising such issues for additional research is often as important as answering those questions. If you are a fan of Baron-Cohen's extreme male brain model and his "Essential Difference" you will particularly like this book and how it extends this model to examine the brain science of evil. If you are not, you may spend a lot of time focusing on what is wrong--and not what is right--about this book and the ideas that it expresses. And while not particularly empathetic, such an emphasis would certainly not be evil ;)
"The Science of Evil" is a gem of a book. It is a book about empathy that is written with empathy and compassion by a scientist who has devoted his life to unlocking the secrets of autism spectrum disorders. Simon Baron-Cohen's "The Science of Evil" is an indispensable resource for those who seek a better understanding of what it really means to be "evil. It is the most accessible book that I have read on the subject. It is a good book for anyone who wants to start thinking about evil in a different way.
P.S. Good books provoke discussion and further exploration. I think Baron-Cohen would be glad to see that his book has provoked the critical thinking and discussion that is reflected in the reviews of others here who have read his book. Based on what I know about Baron-Cohen I suspect he would sincerely appreciate those who have positive suggestions for improving his theory--especially if those suggestions are presented with empathy ;)
The ability of empathizing follows a bell curve distribution in the population and individuals and that continuous distribution is mapped arbitrarily into seven levels (why seven?). Individuals at level 6 are very solicitous of other people's needs. Individuals at level 0 are those with no empathy at all and some of them will hurt another person without any qualms. The book goes on to identify several regions of the human brain that are more active in individuals with high empathy than in those with low empathy.
Not all individuals with low empathy are evil and Chapter 3 is titled "When Zero Degrees of Empathy is Negative". Having "zero degrees of empathy" is introduced as a synonym of having 0 level empathy and the author does not explain why the new term is needed. It seems to make it easier to create catchy phrases and that points to one problem I have with the book. Making an impression takes precedence over documenting an argument. The chapter identifies three types of "zero-negative" individuals: Borderline, Psychopath, and Narcissist and provides examples of individuals in each category. The author concedes that these categories are already well established in psychiatry and but he claims to be the first to identify them as being manifestations of a single disorder: zero level empathy. There is a detail discussion of the causes of the disorder and good arguments are given that the causes are both genetic and environmental.
Chapter 4 is titled "When Zero Degrees of Empathy Is Positive" and attempts to explain why individuals with conditions on the autistic spectrum are not evil. The author argues that their desire to systematize makes them averse to hurting others. I am not convinced by that argument (see below).
My main problem with the thesis of the book is that I do not find lack of empathy as the sole or even the main determining factor of human actions. Autistic people seem to lack empathy, they are largely unaware of those around them, but most of them do not commit cruel acts. In contrast, manipulating individuals cause great harm to others by manipulating the emotions of those around them.
The main weakness of relying on lack of empathy to explain cruelty is that an individual may be quite kind to those of his own group and quite cruel to those of another group. In the few hunter-gatherer societies that still survive in our times, such as the native inhabitants of the Amazon forest, constant warfare is the rule with people killing those of other groups while taking good care of their own. Certainly, there is an evolutionary reason for that. I suspect that we are programmed to be kind to those who are genetically close to us. The big challenge of civilization is for humans to be kind, not only to their close relatives but also to members of large entities such as communities, cities, or nations.
A lot of the large scale cruel acts that have been committed throughout history have been inflicted on groups that have been first de-humanized. This is certainly true of the Nazi atrocities. Jews have been de-humanized by the Christian church over nearly two millennia so it was easy to build on that history and de-humanized them even further by Nazi propaganda. The de-humanization of the Jews may explain the actions of the infamous "Reserve Police Battalion 101" much better than that offered on p. 164 of the book. The latter is, in effect, the excuse Nazi criminals gave in trying to evade retribution after the war.
In short, the book contains several interesting arguments about what makes some people evil, but little science.
Baron-Cohen distances us from his topic by focusing on people with Asperger Syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders. He recognizes that lack of empathy by the Nazis started him down the path of this research. But he ignores the Milgram experiments that showed ordinary Americans on the streets of New Haven were completely capable of unempathetic meanness. If you read carefully, you'll see Baron-Cohen recognizes that these behaviors affect neurotypical people as well as people "on the spectrum". Losing this point in the details severely limits the value this book brings to many readers.
Those who know people with Asperger Syndrome will recognize that lack of empathy is not a constant. It varies with circumstances. Feelings toward some people may be more affected than feelings toward others. Mainstream people are affected similarly, judging by the popularity of unempathetic talk radio stereotypes.
Baron-Cohen does a more serious disservice to people with autism spectrum disorders by leaving out important unrecognized ways in which they show empathy. Mainstream people will recognize some of these behaviors under the rubric "being there when it counts."
Ultimately, Baron-Cohen's point suffers from his own lack of empathy, a behavior often recognized in people with Asperger Syndrome: black-and-white thinking. "Lack of empathy" is not a fixed persona which "those people" have. It's a personality issue, where people have different baselines on a scale with shades of gray. And furthermore, results will differ day to day, and situation to situation, depending on a large number of factors. Since even Jesus lost his temper in the temple marketplace, it's misleading to let readers think they're immune to the science behind empathy deficits.
So we arrive at the details that make the book valuable. Current research efforts are uncovering many of the neurotransmitters and genetic instructions that affect the times and ways we humans express empathy. Awareness of this material can make all of us a little more empathetic to... well, all of us.
His argument is that researchers have overlooked the importance of empathy in studying evil. Despite the fact that psychopathy researchers have noted, and studied that, for decades, he pretends (or really thinks?) that he's come up with something new here. Frick developed the Callous Unemotional traits that includes a lack of empathy. Book has talked about Callous Empathy as a descriptor of psychopathy. So forensic researchers have known about the issue of empathy. Coined years ago, the "Dark Triad" of Psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and Narcissism is a recognition of the links between these different facets of "evil". Baron-Cohen calls his new empathy link between two of these traits "blindingly-obvious". It should be, because it's been recognized for decades now! So Baron-Cohen is really reinventing the wheel here. Worse in fact, as he leaves out the troubling (for his theory) case of Machiavellians, who can flip back and forth between empathy as it suits their needs.
And he reinvents a really odd (oval?) wheel by referring to psychopathy, borderline, and narcissism as being negative zero-empathy while autism is positive zero-empathy. Because everyone would chose to "cure" the first three if they could (although I'm quite sure psychopaths and narcissists wouldn't!), while there is some social value to autism, because you can become a savant/genius, so you wouldn't automatically "cure" it. Yes, it's true that there is some value to being a savant/genius, but I'm quite sure we'd all equally chose to be empathic savants/geniuses (like Einstein) if we could. So he has a silly definition meant largely to protect autistic individuals and/or his own research. He even gives an actual example of an autistic child punching a strange infant in an elevator to quiet it as an illustration of how it's still "positive" zero-empathy. I don't think the angry mother of that poor infant would much care whether the stranger who punched her baby was autistic or psychopathic. The difference lies in the intentions of various disorders. Psychopaths are predatory, borderline are manipulative, narcissists are mostly ignorant of others, and autistic individuals are mostly-completely ignorant of others.
Baron-Cohen also conflates/confuses psychopathy with general antisocial behavior. One of the fascinating things about psychopathy is that it isn't strongly correlated to the parenting one received. In direct contrast to what Baron-Cohen reports, Lalumiere and colleagues have done excellent research showing that compared to general criminals, psychopaths are LESS likely to have suffered from pre- or post-natal trauma. As much as I admire the work of Bowlby too, attachment theory doesn't explain psychopathy despite decades of research in that area. Mealy and others have argued, convincingly, that psychopaths aren't so much the product of screwed-up development as they are evolutionarily-designed cheaters or parasites. Baron-Cohen also ignores fascinating new research showing how adolescent psychopaths may be treatable. So he's very clearly writing this book without having read, or is not commenting on, a lot of really relevant material.
What makes it worse yet is that his thesis is disjointed. He talks about balancing biology and the environment, but makes no attempt to discuss the plausible evolutionary mechanisms by which these genes originated and were selected for. Why have these negative genes for zero-empathy stuck around? He suggests that autism is related to the ability to see patterns, a plausible explanation. But what about psychopathy? He gives no answer. Rather, he simply lists areas of the brain and genes with no attempt to connect them to adaptive functions and phylogenetic histories. He has exactly one sentence on the possible evolutionary functions of negative zero-empathy (or to be precise, why there has evolved a range of empathy).
Equally bad is his dismissal of environmental factors. He only pays the briefest of lip-service to the tremendous work done by Milgram and Zimbardo on environmental factors. I consider Stanley Milgram's work on obedience to be FAR more important in explaining "evil", particularly that of the Nazi's. Milgram got 65% of average American citizens to painfully "kill" a fellow citizen!!!!! What does that say about zero-empathy and evil? Zimbardo's work (and others) on group conformity and group-group aggression, where he got a dozen average university students to turn on each other with severe verbal and mental torture in less than a week(!!!), is far more descriptive and predictive than Baron-Cohen's ambiguous talk of empathy. Daly & Wilson's work on the causes of homicide, from an evolutionary/ecological perspective, is also much more revealing and predictive. You can't claim to be inventing a new science of evil when you ignore tremendously important and relevant research on the subject from the past simply because it doesn't mention "empathy" explicitly. A good theory fits past data, incorporates good elements from past theories. Baron-Cohen's does none of this. He simply presents his idea (an admittedly good, if familiar one) that empathy is important in understanding evil as being new and of utmost importance. Citing Freudian or psychoanalytic theories doesn't really help build support for his argument either.
Overall then, I can't help but feel that this is Baron-Cohen's attempt to branch out his work on autism and empathy towards the larger field of forensic science. Unfortunately, his lack of familiarity with the field is glaring. This book tops out at roughly 180 small, large-print pages. Less than 2/3 of that are devoted to actually describing relevant research. So it's not surprising that the 120 "science" pages of this book fall flat. It's too little, too poorly thought, and reveals surprisingly little that's new. I appreciate his efforts to try and tackle this topic, and I welcome reading more about how brains, genes,and empathy relate to antisocial behavior. But as someone also on the outside of that field, I think he should really read up a lot more before making another attempt.