Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Empathy: Evil Spirits

Nietzsche* didn't care for empathy. He argues in a few places that it was a Judeo-Christian plot to restrain the aristocratic and creative impulses of human nature.

Of course he didn't understand evolution, much less neuroanatomy, so he probably shouldn't be blamed too much for getting the main point upside down - or perhaps he should - he certainly caused enough downstream grief.

Simon Baron-Cohen, in his new book: The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty takes a very different tack.

Baron-Cohen recalls being told as a child that the Nazis made lampshades out of human skin. The imagery has stuck with him through the years and he has devoted much of his life to trying to understand the problem of cruelty. He presents some samples, including some more egregious ones from Nietzsche's blond beasts, but enough from others to show that monsters come in plenty of human types and races, and anyone with a bit of history can provide endless examples of their own.

Baron-Cohen is a neuroscientist, and he knows that the human brain devotes a lot of neural architecture to the mechanisms of empathy - which by itself is a clear refutation of Nietzsche, Rand and others who regard it as a fluke or social construct. Instead, it is clearly one of the essential characteristics that makes us human.

More when I get further in the book.

*Wolfgang is probably repenting teaching me how to spell Nietzsche.