The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty

Simon Baron-Cohen. Basic, $25.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-465-02353-0S
A leading British researcher of psychology and autism at Cambridge University, Baron-Cohen (Mindblindness) brings a fresh perspective to deciphering the enigma known as "evil." His jarring depiction of literal human objectification in Nazi Germany (when he was seven "[his] father told [him] the Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades"), followed by numerous examples of single-minded, unempathic acts across the globe, sets the stage for a thorough examination that replaces the term "evil" with a concept he finds more useful: empathy, and its erosion. He examines how empathy is measured empirically, on both social and neurological scales. Personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, and medical conditions like autism spectrum disorders (which unlike borderline disorder, do not lead people to harm others) are both dissected and humanized as Baron-Cohen analyzes the complex interplay of genetics and early environmental determinants of empathy. The author pulls no punches in the last chapter; he argues for a new psychiatric category called "empathy disorder" and underscores empathy's tremendous power—from a social perspective—as "a universal solvent." 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. (June)
Reviewed on: 05/02/2011
Release date: 05/01/2011
Genre: Nonfiction
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