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Editorial Reviews

Famed British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has spent the last 25 years publishing his research on theories of mind, consistently demonstrating that he is one of the most experimental and cutting-edge specialists in the field of cognition. The Science of Evil, published abroad as Zero Degrees of Empathy, brings together several strands of Baron-Cohen's work into a unified theory of human cruelty that describes empathy as a brain-based and therefore scientifically accessible phenomenon. East Sussex actor Jonathan Crowley does a superb job of conveying how groundbreaking and interesting Baron-Cohen's premise truly is. A frequent voice worker and recent winner of an AudioFile Earphones Award, Crowley is no stranger to the invigorating possibilities of scientific non-fiction narration. The psychologist makes it easy on him, with clear writing that explains cognition in everyday terms and with a view toward the practical applications of his theory.
Essentially, there are three diagnoses that have a lack of empathy in common: borderline personality disorder, narcissism, and psychosis. Each of these mental states is missing either the ability to recognize the feelings or others, or the ability to respond to those feelings, or both. This is Baron-Cohen's fundamental argument about the cause of human cruelty. Cruelty is only possible given a lack of empathy, and he devotes a chapter to each of these diagnoses. He devotes additional chapters to autism, the subject around which the majority of Baron-Cohen's research has long orbited. Because autistics are highly systematizing thinkers, they generally develop strong moral rules and a sense of injustice that is not premised upon having empathy, which is a characteristic they lack.
Crowley's lively rendering of the case studies for each type of person having zero degrees of empathy is deeply engrossing. Listeners will be shocked to recognize bits and pieces of their own less than understanding moments embedded in the anecdotal evidence provided here. The book concludes with a hint of the larger implications for a complete study of empathy as a brain-based behavior. Crowley delivers Baron-Cohen's final plea with all the earnest optimism it deserves: if we could use science to isolate the biological sources of empathy, we could eliminate cruelty, and voila -- world peace. —Megan Volpert
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Publisher's Summary

Borderline personality disorder, autism, narcissism, psychosis, Asperger's: All of these syndromes have one thing in common---lack of empathy. In some cases, this absence can be dangerous, but in others it can simply mean a different way of seeing the world. In The Science of Evil, Simon Baron-Cohen, an award-winning British researcher who has investigated psychology and autism for decades, develops a new brain-based theory of human cruelty. A true psychologist, however, he examines social and environmental factors that can erode empathy, including neglect and abuse. Based largely on Baron-Cohen's own research, The Science of Evil will change the way we understand and treat human cruelty.
©2011 Simon Baron-Cohen (P)2011 Tantor
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Critic Reviews

"Baron-Cohen's professorial background shines through in the book's tone and in step-by-step, engaging prose urging both academic and lay reader alike to journey with him in scientific inquiry." ( Publishers Weekly)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
4 out of 5 stars
By Douglas on 02-16-12

A fine primer...

for the neurological and psychological basis of "non-empathetic" behavior. Baron-Cohen does a fine job in describing the diathesis mode of approach to those who go through the world unable to experience or understand normal human feelings of empathy and the sorts of sensitivity toward one another that most of us take more or less for granted. By employing the medical model, he forces a redefinition of what has formerly been termed "evil," redefining it "non-empathetic." Obviously, those who are narcissistic, borderline or psychopathic are on the negative end of this scale, as they range from simply annoying to out and out life-threatening, though Baron-Cohen also explores the positive end of the spectrum in the way of autistics and those with Asperger's syndrome (a disorder along the autistic spectrum), who are not only usually nonviolent but who are often creative and supra-moral. An interesting, informative and well-put together read.

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18 of 18 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars
By Cynthia on 03-10-13

What causes evil?

The first time I remember evil – real evil – was more than 40 years ago, when I heard of awful things a boy down the block had done to a cat. I was too young to put a name to it, and the boy was spoken of in whispers. We were told to stay far away from him, and I did, crossing the street if he was on the way to grade school at the same time I was. He disappeared from the neighborhood several months later, and I am still relieved I never saw him again.

About ten years later, I put a name to evil, at least in fiction, reading Stephen King’s “Carrie”. The true evil wasn’t Carrie herself – it was Chris Hargensen, the beautiful, taunting classmate; and Margaret White, Carrie’s mother. Both had a complete lack of empathy for Carrie – and for anyone else.

In “The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty”, Simon Baron-Cohen, Ph.D., a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge, argues that all we consider evil presents as a lack of empathy. A lack of empathy can be momentary, chronic or innate, and to some extent, conditioned by being around others with a lack of empathy . The consequences can be disastrous. Baron-Cohen starts with the Holocaust as an example. Since research recently determined more than 40,000 Nazi ghettos and death camps were in operation, his conclusions have merit.

In this book, Baron-Cohen discusses signs and symptoms to some extent, but his emphasis is the neuroscience of evil. Baron-Cohen discusses the regions of the brain controlling empathy response, and how physical damage, fetal development, and environmental factors can affect these areas, causing them to function differently than those of empathetic people. Baron-Cohen does a good job at discussing the malfunctioning areas of the brain. As a layperson, I had to listen to those sections several times to understand what he was talking about.

Since reading “Carrie” more than 30 years ago, I’ve run into a lot of actual people who completely lack empathy. I have wondered the whole time how that happens. Setting aside the theological theory, this book explains at least some of it.

I enjoyed the narration, and the unedited use of British terms. And yes, for anyone wondering, Simon Baron-Cohen is Sacha Baron-Cohen’s cousin – and Simon, in a very apropos discussion later in the book, mentions Sacha’s work.

[If you found this review “Helpful”, please click the “Helpful” button. It does matter to me!]

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80 of 86 people found this review helpful

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