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The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty Hardcover – May 31, 2011


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (May 31, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465023533
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465023530
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (82 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #303,524 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

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.”

Michael Gazzaniga, Professor of Psychology, University of California - Santa Barbara; author of The Ethical Brain
“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.”
 
Marco Iacoboni, Professor, UCLA; author of Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others
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.
 
Dr. Helena Cronin, Co-Director, Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science, LSE
“Bringing cruelty triumphantly into the realm of science, this pioneering journey into human nature at last delivers us from ‘evil.’”
 
Uta Frith, Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development, UCL
“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.”
 
Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist
“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.”
 
Andrew N. Meltzoff, co-director of University of Washington Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences and co-author of The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us about the Mind
“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.”

 

Boston Globe
The Science of Evil contains a huge amount of useful information for a rather short read…it’s an important early step in building a more robust understanding of our species at its most horrific.”
 
Psychology Today
“Rigorously researched…[Baron-Cohen’s] discussion of how parents can instill lifelong empathy in their children is particularly useful.”
 
Terry Eagleton, Financial Times
“Attractively humane…fascinating information about the relation between degrees of empathy and the state of our brains.”
 
Richard Holloway, Literary Review
“Ground-breaking and important…This humane and immensely sympathetic book calls us to the task of reinterpreting aberrant human behaviour so that we might find ways of changing it for the better…The effect…is not to diminish the concept of human evil, but to demystify it.”
 
The Spectator (UK)
“Short, clear, and highly readable. Baron-Cohen guides you through his complex material as if you were a student attending a course of lectures. He’s an excellent teacher; there’s no excuse for not understanding anything he says.”
 
Times Higher Education Supplement (UK)
“Engaging and informative.”
 
Dorothy Rowe, The Guardian (UK)
“A book that gets to the heart of man’s inhumanity to man... Baron-Cohen has made a major contribution to our understanding of autism.”
 
Ian Critchley, Sunday Times (UK)
“Fascinating... bold.”
 
Science Focus
“Easy to read and packed with anecdotes. The author conveys brain research with verve.”
 
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Baron-Cohen’s professorial background shines through in the book’s tone and in step-by-step, engaging prose urging both academic and lay reader alike to journey with him in scientific inquiry.”
 
Library Journal

“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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Customer Reviews

It is the most accessible book that I have read on the subject.
An Appreciative Reader
It would be like someone writing a book about cakes but then focusing only on the butter and saying that was the key to it all.
Amazon Customer
In fact, "evil" need not even have a distinct origin: mobs (and in-groups) are mostly mindless, and evanescent.
Sceptique500

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

224 of 245 people found the following review helpful By An Appreciative Reader on May 15, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
(Post-Sandy Hook tragedy note: Before you read the book or these reviews, you may appreciate watching the YouTube piece on Dr. James Fallon by Reason.tv called "Three Ingredients for Murder: Neuroscientist James Fallon on psychopaths". Of particularly interest is the last few minutes which I believe sets out the neurological basis for what Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen calls Zero Positive empathy: the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex)

What could one of the world's leading autism researchers possibly know about evil?

Surprisingly--plenty.

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.
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303 of 338 people found the following review helpful By A. Volk on June 19, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Two things to start off with. I am a researcher but not a forensic psychologist (although I've read a lot of its scientific literature) and I greatly admire the author's research on Theory of Mind and autism. Unfortunately, that's where he should have stayed. This book is well-intended, but is also a mish-mash of theories and concepts that illustrate the author's lack of familiarity with the literature and theories he describes as he overlooks, confuses, and/or conflates important research.

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!
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47 of 55 people found the following review helpful By Frequent Reader on July 5, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The stated goal of this book is to provide a psycho-physiological explanation of why some people are evil. The basis for the explanation is empathy that is defined at the start of Chapter 2: Empathy occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention.

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.
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