The Science of Evil

The Science of Evil

On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty

Book - 2011
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Borderline personality disorder, autism, narcissism, psychosis, Asperger's: All of these syndromes have one thing in common--lack of empathy. In some cases, this absence can be dangerous, but in others it can simply mean a different way of seeing the world.

In The Science of Evil Simon Baron-Cohen, an award-winning British researcher who has investigated psychology and autism for decades, develops a new brain-based theory of human cruelty. A true psychologist, however, he examines social and environmental factors that can erode empathy, including neglect and abuse.

Based largely on Baron-Cohen's own research, The Science of Evil will change the way we understand and treat human cruelty.

Publisher: New York : Basic Books, c2011.
ISBN: 9780465023530
Characteristics: xii, 240 p. :,ill. ;,22 cm.


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Jul 13, 2016

Extremely interesting. It explains some people. It makes sense out of some non-sense.

Apr 01, 2012

Thought to up-date this comment in light of the current events in Canada and USA (killings in Edmonton, Toronto, and Aurora, Co. The brutality and indifference to pain caused is symptomatic of loss of empathy. Drugs like oxytoxin might help. It can be family life, but can also be caused by difficult births or some other minor deformaty. The humaniites teach empath, whereas other studies do not.

The author argues for treating all evil as mere ailments requiring causal awareness, and perhaps even potential treatment. The question he asks, stems from his research, and possibly neuroscience which is showing just how ineffectual the brain can be in understanding its environment. Chapter one has examples of cruelty that can be astounding for some. Tests to check ones own 'empathy" (adult or child) are included. One main theme is, the effect the first few formative years can have on a child's development, the cargiveres role to create the childs internal "pot-of-gold" from which to draw and relate to others. This book asks us to check our rigidity; his proposals are futuristic, but undestandable.
The chapters on brain and gene types can be ignored unless one is trained therein.

roaddogg09 Jul 06, 2011

`The Science of Evil' was a really good book! For a long time, I've heard people say, "Oh, he's just evil" or "what an evil act!" Most of us have probably heard similar statements. What Baron-Cohen attempts to do in `The Science of Evil' is to back away from this concept of `evil' and show that what we call evil is just a lack of empathy, or `empathy erosion.' Talk of evil has been delegated to religious circles for a very long time, but Baron-Cohen says that's not good enough, and that we must understand it at the level of the brain.

Citing many experiments and examples, Baron-Cohen paints us a picture of the emerging science that is trying to understand empathy at the level of the brain, and how it pertains to psychopaths, people with borderline personality disorder, narcissists, along with people who have autism and Asperger Syndrome. These people have what he calls `zero degrees of empathy,' which isn't necessarily a bad thing, and he goes into detail of what exactly that means.

Baron-Cohen explains the environmental aspect of developing low levels of empathy and also the genetic side. Empathy isn't purely environmental or genetic: it is a mixture of both. Environmental situations interact with our genetic predispositions. Baron-Cohen gives a detailed account of the `empathy circuit' within our brains, which consists of ten regions that are associated with empathy.

I really liked Baron-Cohen's discussion of Asperger Syndrome and Autism. The two subjects have interested me since my first psychology course, and I have a better idea of what each are and how they have to do with empathy. The abilities of people with AS or autism is quite amazing.

`The Science of Evil' is very well written and easy to understand. His discussion of genes may be a little much for some people due to their unique names, but no need to fret: Baron-Cohen guides the reader through what they are and asks that people don't get turned off by names.


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I found myself getting annoyed (as I often do with books of this kind) by what I perceived as a reductive, literal-minded positivism. Yet, there are very important concepts here such as what Baron-Cohen calls the "internal pot of gold". HIs phrase refers to the invaluable nurturing a child receives from her caregivers. My irritation was relieved at the end by his critique of psychiatry and his moving examples of empathy in action. More of this earlier would have relieved the technical/clinical focus. That said, it's a remarkable and significant book.


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"Empathy is a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. It is an effective way of anticipating and resolving interpersonal problems, whether it is a marital conflict, an international conflict, a problem at work, difficulties in a friendship, political deadlocks, a family dispute or a problem with a neighbor...this resource is a better way to resolve problems than the alternatives (such as guns, law, or religion). And unlike the arms industry which costs trillions of dollars to maintain, or the prison industry and the legal system, which cost millions of dollars to keep oiled, empathy is free. And unlike religion, empathy cannot by definition oppress anyone" (p. 186).

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