Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Science Of Evil

The Science of EvilWe have always had a morbid fascination with evil. You see it in our religions and myths and philosophies. You see it in the many words we’ve developed to speak of evil: wicked, sinful, malicious, reprobate, malevolent, heinous and so on. We speak of evil behavior (rape, torture and murder – to name but a few) and evil people (Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot), and we know that there is some causal link between the behavior and the qualification. Commit murder and you’ve undoubtedly committed an evil act. But are you therefore evil? Shakespeare gives us many villains – murderers, tyrants and usurpers – but Macbeth and Edmund gain our sympathy and Claudius and Richard III our understanding. Only Iago, the great unknown, eludes us.

The Science Of Evil is neuroscientist and Cambridge professor Simon Baron-Cohen’s attempt to study evil and that, by necessity, requires a concise definition. He argues that a lack of empathy is necessary (but not sufficient) to commit atrocities. And Baron-Cohen, as one of the world’s leading researchers on autism and Asperger syndrome – conditions characterized by difficulty intuiting the emotions of others – is well placed to conduct this interrogation.

He begins by making the case that empathy can be quantified (via brain scans, MRIs, self-reporting and psychological assessments) and that it has a basis in biology. We are treated to a tour of the “empathy circuit,” the brain regions involved in empathizing: the amygdala, somatosensory cortex, prefrontal cortex and inferior parietal lobule, to name just a few. Activity in all of these regions is highly correlated with empathy: those of us who can easily identify with others, who wince in sympathy when a character on television is in pain or who are profoundly disturbed by the sufferings of others, show markedly increased activity across these regions. He contrasts these findings with the results of studies on “zero empathy” patients – sociopaths, autistics, those with borderline or narcissistic personality disorder – whose brain scans reveal markedly decreased activity in the empathy circuit.

Of course, it is not merely the psychologically disturbed or the autistic who are capable of what we would call evil or human cruelty. Baron-Cohen shows how self-interest, in-group/out-group distinctions and anger are all capable of eroding empathy, either over time or in an instant. Take a moment, please, to appreciate the complex beauty of this evolutionary adaptation: I, a normal human being with normal morality, would think it abhorrent to take another person’s life. And yet, if a stranger threatened me or a loved one, those same circuits that, under different circumstances, would make me apologize for accidentally bumping into him, would shut off so that I might more easily bludgeon him to death. What a piece of work is man! To perpetrate a genocide must, we imagine, require evil intentions; the truth is that all it takes is indifference. The Nazi propaganda machine that systematically dehumanized the Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and physically- and mentally-challenged played on our in-built desire to categorize people. The mechanism by which prejudice operates is a base biological instinct.

The most moving sections of the book are those that detail Baron-Cohen’s experiences with the autistic. They evince no spontaneous interest in human beings, finding them unpredictable and therefore uncomfortable, but they show the greatest interest in mechanics, mathematics, statistics – anything from which patterns can be discerned. Many do not instinctively look people in the eye when having a conversation because, unlike most of us, they cannot connect a person’s facial expressions to their inner life. A crying child elicits no different reaction from them than a scowling adult. One patient, when he learned of the death of a coworker’s father, asked simply, “What time is the funeral?” What they lack is termed “affective empathy,” the ability to discern a person’s mental state intuitively. But they’re capable of the most remarkable “cognitive empathy,” the ability to relate to the suffering of another once that has been made explicit. Thus Baron-Cohen describes one patient who cannot bear the thought of unadopted dogs being euthanized in animal shelters, and has amassed dozens of pets as a consequence.

Contrast the autistic with the psychopath, someone who is extremely adept at affective empathy but feels no sympathy for the emotions he intuits. They are master manipulators, for the simple reason that they know what people are feeling and have no scruples about exploiting this knowledge for personal gain. Both are capable of stunning acts of violence, but they cannot be said to share responsibility. Baron-Cohen describes one autistic patient who, while on a plane, punched the crying infant next to him in order to silence him. This is someone so afflicted that the very concept of a consciousness not his own is difficult, if not impossible to grasp; for him, punching an infant child was no different than hitting the snooze button on an alarm clock.

The implications of this research are what most interests me. Imagine what it does to our theory of free will, the very foundation of our justice system, to grasp that some people are truly not equipped to make the kinds of moral judgments you and I make every day? It would be the worst cruelty to punish such a person for a crime they could not understand. Or does it then surprise you to learn that psychopaths are over-represented within the penal system?

The ability to empathize also shows a distinct sex-based difference. On the six-point scale used to assess empathy (where 0 means no ability to empathize, and 6 denotes a facility), the great mass of people score between a four and a five. Women, however, have an average score of 5, whereas men on average score a 4. If Baron-Cohen is correct in positing that empathy operates on a scale, it is of special interest to note that autism and Aspergers are overwhelmingly male afflictions. Autism is approximately four times more prevalent in men, Aspergers nine times more common. The explanation for this is outside the scope of this book, but has been the subject of Baron-Cohen’s research for some time.

This is a beautiful work, paradigm-shifting in its approach to acts of cruelty and how they might be prevented.