A Failure of Empathy? Review of Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Science of Evil

By Karen A. Frenkel

The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (Basic Books, 2011) is the third book in a trilogy by Simon Baron-Cohen, the renowned Professor of Developmental Psychopathology and Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge (UK). I have not read the first two works, Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind (MIT, 1995), his exploration of cognition and empathy with particular regard to autism, or The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain (Basic Books, 2003), which is about gender differences and emotional reactions to people, or affect, and empathy. But based on the new book, I want to read both.

The goal of this concise, accessible work is to understand human cruelty. According to Baron-Cohen, describing barbaric behavior as “evil” explains nothing. Instead, he attempts to link it to a lack of “empathy,” which has been the subject of a considerable amount of neuroscientific (especially functional neuroimaging) research recently. Ultimately, Baron-Cohens argues that empathy is an essential natural resource to be cultivated in the interest of one-on-one interactions and beyond that, of international peacekeeping.

“Empathy erosion” arises from corrosive emotions like bitter resentment, desire for revenge, hatred, or the desire to protect, Baron-Cohen says. Treating someone as if they are an object––ignoring their thoughts and feelings, that is, their subjectivity––is one of the worst things a person can do to another, he says. A person suspends empathy when thinking only about his or her own mind (single-mindedness) because empathy is the ability to “identify what (someone else is) thinking or feeling and respond to that with appropriate emotion,” according to Baron-Cohen. An empathic person does not merely ask someone how they are feeling, rather he or she avoids hurting their feelings, contemplates how to make them feel good, and considers the impact of his or her words and actions on others. The empathic person listens to what is said and notes how it is said. This ability is not like a toggle switch; it instead resembles a dimmer, Baron-Cohen asserts.

Just as levels of empathy ebb and flow in a person depending on whether or not they are preoccupied, they vary in the population. The area under the classic bell curve that most interests Baron-Cohen is the low end—those who entirely lack empathy; borderline personalities, psychopaths, and narcissists. He portrays each in short case studies so that readers recognize types in an informal and clear style so that you feel he is talking to you.

He also offers a tour of the parts of the brain activated by tasks purporting to show the ability to empathize. An example is the medial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for self-awareness, and a person’s ability to compare his or her point of view with that of another. His short, clean, jargon-free sentences tell you what you need to know and examples appear in just the right places––the hallmark of fine science writing.

Baron-Cohen is careful to distinguish persons with empathy-lacking personality disorders from those on the autistic spectrum, who tend to “systematize” the world, that is, they focus on detecting and analyzing patterns. He describes one person living with Asperger syndrome who recorded temperature, rainfall, and wind speed in thousands of notebooks in order to try and predict the weather, for example. A person with such a mind may not be able to tolerate imprecision or change, and other people’s behavior may be beyond comprehension. Empathy for others is therefore compromised. Unlike the personality disorders listed above, persons living with autism can develop a moral code; they must learn it through systematizing, however.

Noting that parents of persons with autism exhibit “mild difficulties reading the mind in the eyes of others,” and that siblings show intermediate activation of the amygdala during face processing, Baron-Cohen moves on to the genetics of empathy. Genes are associated with measures of empathy, he says. Anticipating objections that this is deterministic, he counters that genes are not the only deterministic factors––early environment is, too. “Should we simply sweep such genetic evidence under the carpet just because it makes us feel uncomfortable?” he asks, “In the pursuit of trying to understand how human beings can end up doing awful things to each other, we have to look at all the evidence, not just the bits that suit our worldview,” he argues. I say, well said.

Baron-Cohen offers several studies of twins to make his point, carefully explaining experimental design. He shows that nearly all studies of empathy in twins have found a greater correlation on empathy measures among identical twins, who share the same genes, compared to fraternal twins, who are not genetically the same. Describing his own research, Baron-Cohen tested for genes involved in the synthesis and receptors of oxytocin, the hormone associated with trust and generosity, and the related peptide hormone, arginine vasopressin. Of 68 candidate genes his group selected, four showed a strongly significant association with empathy. Baron-Cohen’s enthusiasm and the easy way he includes the reader in this quest make him a compelling storyteller. “We waited with baited breath while the genotyping took place and wondered whether the substantial time and money we had invested would all be to non-avail. Imagine our excitement wen the results came through,” he writes.

The final chapter, Reflections on Human Cruelty, recaps the salient points of previous chapters and then develops into an essay on the dangers of past indifference to cruelty and to terrorism today. Verging on moral philosophy, Baron-Cohen meditates on his thesis and raises questions that might pull it apart. He reflects on Hannah Arendt’s characterization of Adolf Eichmann and the “banality of evil,” for example, and notes David Cesarini’s criticism that Arendt observed only the beginning of the Nazi war criminal’s trial. Had she stayed longer, she would have seen how he exercised creativity in planning mass murder––that he was not just blindly following orders, Baron-Cohen says, summarizing Cesarini. For Baron-Cohen, the banality of evil, like the concept of evil itself, as he states in beginning of the book, are insufficient. To explain Eichmann’s behavior, his reduced empathy must be examined “in terms of social forces and individual factors,” Baron-Cohen says.

Looking at human cruelty today and cycles of violence, Baron-Cohen discusses terrorists, who kill innocent civilians to further their political agendas. “If my theory is correct,” he says, “we would have to say that terrorists have zero degrees of empathy. Is this true?” If so, we would have to condemn acts like the bombings of South African government buildings that Nelson Mandela coordinated as leader of the African National Congress, and the Haganah’s bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946, which was orchestrated by Menachim Begin, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize at Israel’s Prime Minister and shared it with Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat.

But then Baron-Cohen writes that terrorists target their victims because they believe their freedom and identity are threatened, so the unempathic act is not necessarily the result of lack of empathy. “The belief and/or the actual political context may drive the behavior,” he says. Nevertheless, at the moment the 9/11 terrorists committed their acts, their empathy was “switched off,” he says. As the terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers, they no longer cared about the welfare and feelings of their victims, he claims. The discussion of the 9/11 terrorists seems brief to me, however. Baron-Cohen quickly shifts to the response; Tony Blair’s remark that “history will forgive us” for invading Iraq, amounts to “judging an act only by its distant outcomes while ignoring its immediate outcomes,” Baron-Cohen asserts. That act “itself may be unempathic irrespective of whether the ends justify the means.”

Addressing human nature more broadly, Baron-Cohen asks whether all of us are capable of killing. According to his theory, only those with low empathy can commit murder, thus he concludes that most of us are incapable of killing because of our “average or above-average empathy levels.” But the key question in his book––whether an underactive empathy circuit in the brain explains human cruelty––cannot yet be answered because all the data are not in, he says.

Discussing capital punishment, Baron-Cohen calls for nurturing empathy so that we do not dehumanize perpetrators of heinous crimes. He writes:

If unambiguously “evil” individuals (a candidate for their category might be Hitler) felt remorse for their crimes and had been punished, would we try to focus on their good qualities, with an intent to rehabilitate them? My own view is that we should do this no matter how bad their crime. It is the only way we can establish that we are showing empathy for the perpetrator, not just repeating the crime of turning the perpetrator into an object and thus dehumanizing them. To do that renders us no better than the person we punish.

Further, Baron-Cohen says empathy is an underutilized, taken-for-granted resource we must nurture. He closes with the remarkable mission of two fathers, who are members of an organization born of blood and suffering called The Parents Circle. The fathers, one a Palestinian and the other an Israeli, each lost a son to the other side. Now the pair tours the mosques and synagogues of the globe. Recently they visited a London synagogue Baron-Cohen was attending. “I am Ahmed. . . . My son died in the Intifada, killed by an Israeli’s bullet,” one said in greeting the congregants, “I come to wish you all Shabbat Shalom.” Said the other, “I am Moishe…My son also died in the Intifada, killed by a homemade petrol bomb thrown by a Palestinian teenager. I come to wish you all Salaam Aleikem.”

Bathed in their loss, their empathy for one another is a tiny drop, but each drop of empathy waters the flower of peace, Baron-Cohen comments. Unlike religion, empathy “cannot oppress anyone,” he says. For Baron-Cohen sees empathy as “the universal solvent. Any problem immersed in it becomes soluble.”

I hope he is right. The idea seems convincing on paper. When will we test that hypothesis?

4 thoughts on “A Failure of Empathy? Review of Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Science of Evil

  1. May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

    Also see more about Simon’s work at: http://bit.ly/jlHrf7

    • Many thanks for the link to your important work — what a rich and comprehensive site, so much to read and think about — as well as the post on your magazine! Connie and Karen

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