Ishmael Seaward's Reviews > The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty

The Science of Evil by Simon Baron-Cohen
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Dec 06, 2011

really liked it
Read from December 04 to 05, 2011

The word "evil" is a label we attach to people who do bad things. That doesn't mean we really understand what is going on. The author is quite specific in what he wants to accomplish: Stop talking about evil, which can't be defined or measured, and talk about empathy (or the lack thereof). Empathy can be measured; this is supported by years of research. With the advent of fMRI, parts of the brain can be identified that are involved in empathy. There are 10, and the author describes each one, where it is located, what it does, and therefore what it contributes to the empathic circuit.
He presents the bell curve of empathy, which is well researched and documented, and then discusses where people fit on the curve and their behavior patterns. He establishes a very strong correlation between behavior we call "evil" (pyschopathic behavior), the position on the bell curve, and the areas of the empathic circuit that don't function well. In short, Baron-Cohen has moved the concept of evil out of the realm of religion and into the realm of science.
I especially like that he mentions the people he has collaborated with, or whose results he has used, giving them full credit for their contribution. Some of these researchers I recognize from other books and articles. The author also identifies the gaps in the research as he takes the reader through the development of his thesis. Last but not least, the list of references is both broad and deep, ranging from Daniel Dennett to Takahashi et al., for a total of 385; the book is only 186 pages of text.
I can't say that the book is ground-breaking, but it certainly pulls together multiple strands of research to form a coherent theory of "empathy erosion" and how it explains the behavior of people we call "evil". I found it very readable.
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Reading Progress

12/04/2011 page 104
41.0% "Great read so far. The author points out that "evil" is simply a label we attach to people whose actions we cannot relate to. So he shifts the discussion to empathy, or the lack thereof, which is something that can be measured. He then takes the reader through the elements of the brain that make up the empathic ciruit and shows how people with different levels of empathy have different elements of the brain function."

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