222 of 242 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Towards a Science of Evil
(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...
Published on May 15, 2011 by An Appreciative Reader
292 of 325 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An amateurish attempt by a great researcher out of his depth
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...
Published on June 19, 2011 by A. Volk
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222 of 242 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Towards a Science of Evil,
This review is from: The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (Kindle Edition)
(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?
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 ;)
292 of 325 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An amateurish attempt by a great researcher out of his depth,
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!), 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.
45 of 53 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not quite science,
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.
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.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mistitled, misses many good points, and valuable anyhow,
I picked up this book because "The Science of Evil" was a fascinating title. The book explained a lot about progress in research on human behavior, especially unempathetic behaviors by people on the autism spectrum. The author links these human behaviors with the way we identify and characterize evil, by using anecdotes and personal experiences. Very early on, I concluded this book was only tangentially about evil, but very directly about lack of empathy.
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.
22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A person may be a genius but insane at the same time,
I am not a scientist; I know very little about science, not much about anything. Since the Nazis stopped me from attending school when I was thirteen years old, I have been trying to educate myself since the libration from a concentration camp. The Baron-Cohen's thesis in THE SCIENCE OF EVIL is that evil is caused by the absence of empathy. The lack of empathy is caused by abnormalities in the empathy circuitry in the brain.
I was captive in camps for three years and 123 members of my extensive family were murdered, because of an evil Hitler and his cohorts. I experienced and witnessed Nazis' looting, deporting, beating, torturing, shooting, hanging, babies smashed to death. The perpetrators carried out those atrocities with impetuosity and enthusiasm; they didn't cringe! Ergo, it is surprising to read (p.36) "No wonder we wince involuntarily when we see someone else get hurt." I think that "some of us do wince" (qualitatively) would be more accurate than "we wince" (generally) I saw many German guards evincing pleasure (shadenfreude) when seeing us (captives) suffering. Reading about the Zero-Negative type P (p64), I wonder if all those Germans could be classified as psychopaths and that there might have carried a genetic element. The Germans considered themselves to be superior to other people, but obviously not all of them could be classified as narcissists. Nazi laws defined me; a Jewish boy, as genetically subhuman. They wished to turn me into despicable body without a soul. If they deemed me to be a subject or an object wouldn't matter; they were evil, period. Marilyn Monroe is classified as borderline. Her terrible childhood and adolescence might be a factor, as suggested in the book. According to this criterion Holocausts survivors who had been terribly abused, as youngsters, should all be inflicted with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPS). In my observation, this is not the case.
In the year 2000, the FBI declassified documents pertaining to Hitler. In one of the documents, Dr. Ferdinand Sauerbach, Hitler's personal physician, in 1937, stated that the German dictator was showing signs of growing megalomania. Hitler was mentally unbalanced in any clinical sense. He may have been a genius, but insane at the same time.
Simon Baron-Cohen's list of brain regions whose functioning determines how much empathy a person will show. I have understood that Hitler's ideology, his true character, his ruthless and tyrannous ambitions, and his diabolic mind were the major factors in his monstrosity. THE SCIENCE OF EVIL evokes and provokes many valid questions and makes it interesting to read and learn from it. I did.
18 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Wrong premises - failed promises,
According to the journalist and writer Curzio Malaparte (as reported in his book Kaputt), Hans Frank, the Governor-General of the "Government General" - the Polish territories occupied by the Nazis - would first play classical piano with great feeling, then go and shoot Jewish children trying to escape from the Warsaw Ghetto.
He would be evil in my book. I'm not sure that it would fit the author's definition, for he defines as "evil" someone who is structurally unable of empathy, i.e. unable "to suspend his single-minded focus of attention and adopt a double-minded focus of attention" (pg. 16) - a "mechanism" that allows one "to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion". "Evil" in this definition is a binary condition: you either have (varying degrees) of empathy or you don't. Consequently, an evil person would treat everyone in equally "evil" fashion.
Frank, however, switches effortlessly from empathy for the music (empathy for Chopin) to single-mindedness against Jewish children (no empathy for what he had labeled "scum"). He certainly would not have even conceived of shooting German children in Berlin. Japanese and the German doctors, who performed appalling experiments on POW, would have recoiled in horror if asked to do them on their own innocent citizens (note the "innocent" - had they been condemned to death, they may have done it). So, where do such "selectively" evil people stand in the author's conceptual world? In fact, in contrast to the author, I'd define "evil" by the ability selectively to override our basic empathy, and do harm.
To pile doubts on doubts about the definition of "evil": Hitler was a vegetarian wallpaper hanger, probably harmless and dull in private (or this is what Eva Braun related), yet he persuaded millions to commit evil - to please him. He thus knew how to manipulate others - empathize with them. The worst "evil people" in my book are those that counsel evil - like Lucifer - and manage to get under the skin of many by manipulating them.
And what about those who let themselves be manipulated into committing evil? When no longer under the influence of the evil counselor they revert to being upright citizens - an indication that "evil" is a temporary condition. In fact, "evil" need not even have a distinct origin: mobs (and in-groups) are mostly mindless, and evanescent. Yet we may all be swept up by mob hysteria and commit or participate in unspeakable crimes.
These examples highlight the first of the two fundamental difficulties I have with this book. The author's definition of evil is crudely reductionist and binary - you either have X degrees of empathy or you don't - and never change from this "status", for it is imprinted in a brain "mechanism" (it is also monogenetic, and would not allow for interplay of different genes). On the contrary, it would seem to me, empathy works selectively, and in context - though it may have a physical basis, it plays out culturally. How this all works together we don't know. So the definition only touches a scruple of the problem.
The other problem I have with this book relates to the "empathy mechanism" the brain array author describes as underlying empathy. He baldly asserts knowledge, and describes an "empathy circuit" in the brain comprises of several components. He bases himself on fMRI - a scan which measures blood flow changes of "areas" of the brain in response to activity. But this is akin to asserting that one knows the "functioning" of a most complex chip by observing that, when yielding an output, electricity flows in particular through some parts of it. First, we are talking of correlations here, not causations, and then we do not know the design of the chip parts, the logic of the circuitry.
One must finally object to the use of deterministic terminology like "mechanism" and "circuit": it is an analogy from mechanics and implies specificity and segmentation, which is anatomically alien to the brain. We are talking rather of "zones" of activity concentration, with no clear boundaries, or enclosures. What we know is that they are involved in certain mental processes - better, that certain mental processes are disrupted if these elements no longer function - but we have no idea whether they function in isolation, or how they relate to the rest of the brain.
The premises on which the book is based are flawed. "Evil" has been spuriously redefined to elide "culture" - despite the overwhelming evidence that we are a culturally evolving ape. Brain "mechanisms" have been identified, despite our persisting deep ignorance of how the brain actually functions, let alone how "culture" emerges from it (it may be an emergent phenomenon of complex systems). So the book cannot make good on its promise to explain "The science of evil".
What it does contain is a far most modest account of the limited world of psychopaths and borderline cases - people at the far limits of society's "bell curve" (another bald assertion of the author - there may be "long tails" ha has no idea of) - interesting in its own right, but of little value beyond the specifics of the medical case. We may not extrapolate from these to the society at large.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Study of Lack of Empathy as the origin of evil,
This review is from: The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (Paperback)
The Science of Evil is an attempt to try to remove Evil from the realm of religion and the soul and put analyze it as a cognitive state. It starts out with trying to define evil and goes on to essentially associate it with the ability to commit harmful acts to others with no remorse which can only happen if you have no empathy for the person to whom the harm is inflicted. It is a combination of psychology, neuroscience and psychiatry and tries to show we need to study violent crime under a new analytic cap which incorporates the authors empathy circuit.
The science of evil is split into 6 chapters. The author first defines empathy and goes through examples of human cruelty, each example makes the reader cringe begging the question of how people can possibly treat each other as they do in these situations. The author then goes on to start quanitifying empathy using a bell curve and defining empathy through descriptive states of character types from those with no empathy to those who are full of empathy. The book then goes into when having no empathy is negative- using case studies which go through several character types including the Marilyn Monroe type, the violent psychopath and the self absorbed and rude type. The author then discusses when no empathy is not necessarily negative by using aspergers syndrom examples as well as savant autistics. The author then goes into some of the biology he has been working on and other results about the genes that are relevant in empathy and finally the author reconcludes with a chapter on human cruelty.
The science of evil is clear and easy to read. I am unconvinced it is particularly scientific. It uses a lot of fuzzy description and superimposing that on a graph is a far cry from doing objective scientific work. There is some work on the neuroscience of evil which i believe is a start but it is hard to come away from this with anything other than agreement about lack of empathy enabling people to be cruel (which is kind of obvious). The empathy network the author discusses is fuzzy and not conclusive, the folk psychology is descriptive not scientific and the categorization and character types make for interesting reading only. It is easy enough to read with interesting commentary but this is definitely not a book which one comes out from believing we have made any real progress on the science of evil. It is much more a book on the psychological repurcussions of having no empathy.
18 of 24 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not a coherent hypothesis,
I expected this book to be an exploration of the social dynamics of evil underscored by a scientific approach. Instead, much of the book was dedicated to discussing individuals with Aspergers and Autism, on the premise that they lack empathy, and lack of empathy relates to evil. No one, of course, would call Autism sufferers evil - they lack empathy because they lack most ability to interact socially on account of their severely impaired mental state. We might as well include inanimate objects in a discussion of evil, as inanimate objects also lack empathy.
Cohen does discuss pyschopathic personality disorder (briefly), as well as narciscistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder, which is interesting. However, the discussion doesn't even address larger-scale social evil, such as some of the tragedies discussed in the first chapter. The case of mentally ill individuals is clear-cut; but so much that could be considered evil is committed by perfectly 'sane' people, who commit evil acts. How and why does this happen? This book provides no insights.
Lastly, it's difficult to take a book seriously which starts on page one with falsehoods - in this case that the Nazis made soap and lampshades out of human victims. This is not a book about history, but nevertheless, while the Nazis did many, many terrible things, making lampshades of human skin was not one of them. This claim stems from unsubstantiated anti-German propaganda after World War II, but it has never been proven in any court, including at Nuremburg. For starters, it doesn't make sense for the simple reason that human skin is rather delicate, which you may have noticed by virtue of being covered in it. You can research it for yourself:
It's quite ironic that a book about evil begins with a propaganda story meant to dehumanize the enemy in time of war, without even realizing it. It ultimately points to a shallow understanding of evil; how evil is not something we are immune from simply because we are psychologically normal. We would like to believe that evil is something committed by "the other" - the Nazis, people with personality disorders, etc., but this type of thinking, while comforting, guides us to ignore acts committed by those we sympathize with - for example, the fire-bombing of civilians at Dresden or Nagasaki by people who look and talk like us and who never entered a mental institution.
At the same time, I give this two stars, because Cohen is pointing to something extremely important, which is that deficits in empathy are related to evil and are related to structures in the brain. For books in this subject, however, I would recommend books by Robert D. Hare or the groundbreaking works by Andrew M. Lobaczewski.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars confusion about the meaning of "empathy",
I have Asperger's. My mother was a diagnosed sociopath. This is my understanding of empathy.
Empathy is both the perception of a feeling of hurt within another person and the triggering of the same feeling within yourself.
If you have Asperger's then you often do not see that another persons feels hurt. If you do see that they feel hurt then the same feeling is triggered within yourself. A person with Asperger's has the full range of normal and caring feelings.
If you have antisocial personality disorder (a sociopath) then you can recognize that another person feels hurt as well as anybody. But you lack the ability to have the same feeling within yourself. The sociopath does not feel or care about the hurt that he or she sees in another person (unless that feeling of hurt is likely to lead to harm to the interests of the sociopath).
It appears that this understanding of "empathy" is not shared by many people, including Simon Baron-Cohen. I would appreciate any comments.
11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Thin, loose, possibly misinterpreting,
First, an example of possible misinterpreting. SBC mentions Joseph LeDoux's patient, SM, who had suffered damage to both amygdalae and afterward did not readily look at fearful faces. He says this was a "difficulty" caused by damage to the amydalae. Rather, why couldn't it have been that amygdalae damage made the patient oversensitive to recognition of fear on others' faces and therefore she voluntarily chose not to look? Or, are there yet other explanations?
Loose? He offers a six-point scale for empathy. On such a scale, if a normal bell curve, we would call level 4 "high average." He calls it "low-average," but then shows no graph to show what his empathy skill curve looks like if it's not a bell curve.
Loose 2? Presuming evil is the same as lack of empathy. Simply not true. In one case study, he mentions a wife who kills her own kids because her ex-husband was having a good time, post-divorce, and she wasn't. But, she had to be empathetic enough, or if not empathetic then sensitive enough, to him to know he would feel huge pain at this. After all, the founding myth of the House of Atreus takes this one step further. Beyond this, the Poe tale, The Cask of Amontillado is also built on the perpetrator actually, at least in one subself, feeling quite well what his victim is feeling.
And, there's an issue right there. SBC hints at it here and there, in talking about borderlines, but, in the larger population in general, never talks about "subselves" and about how, short of borderline type splitting or worse, they operate in the general population.
Also, he doesn't, other than the murdering mother case study, talk about vengeance in general.
Thin? I don't think it's really new to lump borderlines, narcissists and psychopaths under a general rubric of people with zero empathy. On Asperger's, whom he calls zero-empathy plus, how much of this is having little to no empathy, and how much is having little to no capacity to express empathy?
Tight when he should be loose? If there are 10 different brain regions (so far) identified as being part of being empathetic, shouldn't we expect a ... looser ... definition of empathy than what we get? A more provisional one?
The claim there are genes for empathy? Well, hold on. Given the brain information he cites, such genes probably code for many things, not necessarily just or even primarily for empathy; there's still a LOT of study to be done here.
Finally? Daniel Tammet may not even be autistic, but rather, a trained memory genius who has "sold himself" as being a variety of other things.
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The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen (Paperback - September 4, 2012)