Monday, July 25, 2011

Book Review: The Science of Evil

...a born devil, on whose nature, nuture can never stick................W Shakespeare, The Tempest

Simon Baron-Cohen, in his book The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty argues that most of what we call evil can be explained as a failure of empathy, and that further, empathy is a fundamental human trait, orchestrated in the brain by an elaborate set of neural systems comprising the empathy circuit. To that end, he musters fascinating case histories, psychological tests, and the results of neuroimaging and genetic studies.

I found the case most convincing for certain extremely empathy limited individuals whose bad behavior seems closely tied to their apparent inability to understand how other think and feel, and usually, their own thinking. The situational cases of loss of empathy, whether due to social pressure, war, or extreme stress seem more problematic.

A secondary, and in my opinion far more convincing case is made that psychology as a science has drastically neglected the study of empathy and its failures.

I found the book consistently fascinating, partly because its is about some of my favorite subjects: psychopaths, narcissists, the borderline personalities (a new one to me) and those with Aspergers syndrome.

Most seem to believe that those conditions, once established, are incurable, but Baron-Cohen holds out some hope.