The Science of Evil book review

I said back in May that the next book I would be reading was “The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty” by Simon Baron-Cohen. It took me till mid-August to get the book from the library, because there were so many holds on it–which is good, that people are interested in this subject.

Baron-Cohen is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, and has been studying empathy for 30 years. He has concluded that there is a biological basis for empathy or the lack thereof, as well as factors in the environment that affect the development of empathy. He and his colleagues have discovered some genes related to empathy, and expect to find more. They have pinpointed areas in the brains that are activated when a person has an empathetic response (or not very activated in the brains of those low in empathy.) He talks about hormonal factors–testosterone negatively affecting empathy, and oxytocin increasing empathy. (Not surprisingly, males on average rate lower than females on empathy.)

He presents a bell of curve of empathy, with those at the lowest end being termed either “zero-negative” or “zero-positive.” The zero-positives are autistic people, particularly those with Asperger Syndrome, who are unable to understand another’s point of view, but who nonetheless have a moral code and understand that they must live by the rules of society. (See blog post from Nov. 20, 2009 for a discussion from a reader on the difficulty of being married to a person with Asperger Syndrome–her husband literally just did not understand her.)

It’s the zero-negatives that are commonly labeled evil. They lack an ability to appreciate another person’s feelings or experiences, and are totally centered on their own selves–their own needs and desires. These people probably have a lethal combination of bad genes and a bad environment, most likely having been raised in abusive homes by zero-negative parents. They include sociopaths, narcissists, and people with borderline personality disorder. Whether their zero-negative state leads them to be angry at others all the time and to lash out verbally or physically, or whether it leads them to be coldly manipulative of others, or even to murder someone, the results are always bad for both the person and those around him.

Baron-Cohen talks about evil as simply being a complete lack of empathy, and it certainly makes sense that one would not be able to commit evil acts if one felt the pain of one’s victim. I don’t know that being zer0-negative is the sum total explanation of evil. It doesn’t seem to explain those that get pleasure from others’ pain. Particularly when it comes to psychopaths, such as Eric Harris, the Columbine killer, something else must lead them to move from not caring about causing pain to others, to actively seeking to cause pain. Psychopaths, says Baron-Cohen, can intellectually understand another’s viewpoint, which is why they’re so good at manipulating people, but they are unable to care. But psychopaths also seem to have a great deal of contempt for anyone but themselves, regarding others as inferior and deserving of whatever they do to them. This additional step seems to be necessary to get to evil.

One of my favorite movies is Fargo, partly for its brilliant portrayal of an ordinary, evil man. The car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard (played superbly by William H. Macy) is clearly a zero-negative person. He has absolutely no empathy for the terror he is willing to put his wife through in staging her kidnapping in order to solve his financial problems. He has absolutely no empathy for his son–what a painful, moving scene when he stands in the doorway of his son’s bedroom, seeing his son in so much pain over his kidnapped mother, and is unable to comfort him. At the end, he has absolutely no remorse for what he has done–just fear of the consequences for himself.

The book raises a lot of provocative questions. For example, it is often asserted that anyone is capable of committing evil acts, even murder, given the right circumstances. Is this true? People cite the famous psychological studies in which ordinary people can be induced to give painful electric shocks to strangers (or so they believe), or the experiment in which college students were randomly divided into guards and prisoners, and the guards ended up treating the prisoners (really their fellow students) cruelly. However, not everyone who participated in those studies did these bad things. Some people refused to do so, despite the experimenters’ attempts to push them into it. Baron-Cohen’s bell curve of empathy helps to explain this. Those in the lower to middle range, who score a one t0 a four, would be more easily induced to ignore any feelings of empathy for the other. Those at the high end, who score a five or six on the scale, would be those who would walk out or refuse to inflict pain on others, no matter what.

There is no denying that being zero-negative on the empathy scale is a necessary condition for evil. Certainly, environmental factors would have to contribute. (Often, but not always, parenting. Other factors might come into play–peers, media, and so on.)

The consideration of evil is a big topic, far to big to cover in one, or several, blog posts. But I would recommend this book as a fascinating jumping-off point. Let me just conclude with my favorite quote from the book: “Each drop of empathy waters the flower of peace.”

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