“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
― Edmund Burke
Evil exists in the world. It seems almost impossible to read the daily news without coming across stories of great injustice and malevolence brought about by human cruelty. Rather than dismissing these acts of evil as mere acts of insanity, however, it can be highly valuable to investigate what causes people to act so destructively. Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen’s book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, does just this. Baron-Cohen, a psychologist specializing in autism, suggests that “evil” is more properly defined as a complete lack of empathy, the ability to understand and respond emotionally to others.
As he explains in the book’s opening chapter, Baron-Cohen has long been intrigued by the nature of cruelty. At age seven his father told him of the Nazi atrocities and the images of the suffering of the Jews never left him.
“Today, almost a half century after my father’s revelations to me about the extremes of human behavior, my mind is still exercised by the same, single question: How can we understand human cruelty? What greater reason for writing a book than the persistence of a single question that can gnaw at one’s mind all of one’s conscious life?”
The Science of Evil argues that empathy is distributed throughout the population as a bell curve. Some have a tremendous amount of empathy while others, those often labeled as psychopaths or other psychiatric diagnoses, reside on the low end of the bell curve. Baron-Cohen explains that the roots of empathy are derived from both nature and nurture. Those with little or no empathy may have different brain structure and functionality or may have suffered environmental factors such as childhood neglect or abuse.
By substituting the word “evil” with the term “empathy erosion”, where people turn other people into objects, Baron-Cohen takes on a more scientific approach to understanding why people become capable of malevolence. He provides examples of empathy erosion, or extreme human cruelty, around the planet as well as a highly scientific exploration of the causes of this lack of empathy.
The erosion of empathy: Simon Baron Cohen at TEDxHousesofParliament
The Science of Evil may be a difficult book to read. Baron-Cohen does not shy away from detailing and exploring case after case of almost unimaginable brutality and cruelty. However, by revealing the origins of cruelty and illustrating a new way to think about the nature of evil, Baron-Cohen has laid the foundation for a superior understanding of this human condition. And hopefully, this understanding will bring about a better way of combating, or perhaps even preventing, future injustices in our world.