Simon Baron-Cohen is best known for his research into autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and his theories on the origins of ASDs, from a failure of theory of mind, to fetal testosterone levels, to the latest formulation of a low empathizing/high systemizing theory. In his newest work, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and The Origins of Cruelty, Baron-Cohen moves beyond his decades long work in autism to look at empathy in general and what a deficit of empathy in people can lead to. The result is a slim volume aspiring to greater things.
This is, unfortunately, a book that requires mental gymnastics on the part of the reader for several reasons, the first of which is reconciling the title of the text to what the book is actually about. A careful reading of the book leads me to the conclusion that the American title is extremely unfortunate given the diversions he takes in the text. It is only when reading it under its British title Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty that Baron-Cohen’s thesis hangs together more cohesively. The British title is a much more accurate title and results in less cognitive dissonance while reading the text.
In an interview in New Scientist with Liz Else, Baron-Cohen responds to the American publisher’s choice of a title that he thinks “once they open the cover of the book, they will see that I’m arguing it’s time to drop that word [evil]. There might be some value in challenging them.” The American publishers may have decided to name the book The Science of Evil, but the thrust of his book really isn’t about the science of evil at all. It’s actually a loose connecting of several different ideas.
The second set of mental gymnastics occurs for the reader in trying to reconcile the typical perception regarding empathy and how Baron-Cohen is operationalizes it. Baron-Cohen’s main point is that he believes evil is better explained as the absence of empathy (not the popular definition, but his specific definition of empathy). Baron-Cohen’s definition of empathy is fairly complex and one that is not widely accepted in the masses; most people think of empathy as being able to understand another person’s emotional state. Before defining empathy, Baron-Cohen focuses on explaining what empathy erosion looks like.
Childhood stories of Nazi cruelties started Baron-Cohen on a lifetime quest of trying to understand how people could treat others like objects; explanations of evil were inadequate and circular. Instead, he posits that empathy erosion is a better explanation for why people behave cruelly, noting that society can reinforce empathy erosion.
His definition of empathy is more robust than most people’s and involves more parts: he delineates a cognitive aspect (“recognition”), an emotional aspect , and then, perhaps most importantly, an action component “response”). It’s not enough to recognize another person’s emotional state, one must care, and then one must respond overtly in order to qualify as empathy. This constant need for the reader to juggle his or her own definition of empathy and Baron-Cohen’s complex definition makes the ideas and information in the book harder to digest. It will become all too easy for people to dismiss Baron-Cohen’s work because of this difference in how empathy is used.
In order to explain how evil is “empathy erosion,” Baron-Cohen details disorders he hypothesizes involve zero-empathy, making the case that psychopathy, narcissism, and borderline personality disorders are not so much personality disorders as they are disorders of zero empathy.
And if this is where Baron-Cohen had stopped, it would have made sense within the context of the book’s American title and its opening chapter. But he didn’t; he then spent a substantial portion of the text to go over what he has theorized are zero-empathy positive disorders: Asperger Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder.
It is here that Baron-Cohen will lose some American readers; what place do individuals on the spectrum have in a book on the science of evil? In addition, Baron-Cohen doesn’t offer convincing evidence that all individuals with autism have zero empathy. Readers familiar with how it’s defined in the DSM will recognize that it is not a disorder diagnosed on a lack of empathy.
Also, some research shows evidence that autistics are not impaired in emotional or affective empathy, and may in fact get overloaded because of it (Krahn & Fenton, 2009; Smith, 2009). Plus, autism is a social/communication disorder; it’s reasonable to assume that this might impair the ability to always react empathically in socially constructed acceptable ways. Even Baron-Cohen notes that we all have periods where are empathy levels are turned down or off.
To be fair, Baron-Cohen doesn’t contend that ASDs are just zero empathy disorders. In tandem with Baron-Cohen’s empathy quotient is his systemizing quotient, which he contends autistics are high in, thus compensating for low empathy and making the ASDs a zero-positive condition rather than a zero-negative. Here he has a compelling argument that explains the pattern recognition, the need for order, and the difficulty with change that are part of autism. The problem, again, becomes that it fits poorly with a book on the science of evil. The American name of the book continues, time after time, to get in the way of the ideas that Baron-Cohen is trying to convey.
What should not be overlooked is that Baron-Cohen has as positive an outlook towards individuals on the spectrum as he does a negative one for those with a zero-empathy negative disorder. His enormous respect for autistic individuals’ ability to recognize patterns that others miss does not go unnoticed, nor does his belief that those with ASDs have a lot to offer a society that can successfully accommodate them.
The book contains a table for “Distinct Profiles of Empathy Disorders,” in which Baron-Cohen contends that classic autism has morality negative while Asperger Syndrome has morality positive but with insufficient accompanying evidence or explanation for the categorization of one ASD as moral and another as not moral. The table doesn’t appear to be fully fleshed out; systemizing is only noted on the ASDs; morality negative is checked for only psychopaths and classic autism. It appears to be a table of conjectures rather than of certainties, but that may be because Baron-Cohen’s explanations for the various categorizations are scattered throughout the text.
This interweaving of hypothesizing without already existing evidence next to theories that have panned out can get a bit confusing, but those familiar with Baron-Cohen’s other works will recognize this tendency and perhaps find it comforting. Baron-Cohen is interested in ideas, big ideas, and in constantly working to flesh out those ideas with scientific research. Over the last several decades, Baron-Cohen has constantly refined his theories, moving for the most part where the science takes him. Many of Baron-Cohen’s ideas are just that: ideas, explanations; they aren’t meant for practical implementation, for immediate change.
Most parents and educators won’t see an immediate advantage in treatment strategies from some of his loftier ideas, although they may find his theories helpful in understanding why an autistic child is fascinated with patterns, with details, and why they fixate on narrow interests. It would be remiss of me, though, to not to point out where his ideas have had real world treatment applications: theory of mind tasks can be taught, as can recognizing facial expressions representing different emotions. HisMindreading CD was very helpful to my three kids on the spectrum and one of the best purchases I ever made regarding helping them navigate social situations. I have dog-eared his books over the years, and print-outs of his voluminous journal articles are piled on the bookcase next to his books. His website is bookmarked and the fact that the journal articles are provided for free there much appreciated. His AQ (autism spectrum quotient), EQ (empathizing quotient), and SQ (systemizing quotient) tests are recommended activities for my psychology students and for friends. The importance of his work in relation to autism spectrum disorders is significant, and in the context of the British title, his time spent on what he posits are zero-empathy positive disorders makes perfect sense.
After a brief foray into the ASDs and the zero-empathy positive theory, Baron-Cohen moves to the science. Here, he combines a chatty, informal style of writing with a detailed look at the science regarding what he calls the brain’s empathy circuits. This is perhaps the least controversial aspect of the book and where he is on the most solid ground. Baron-Cohen details the neuroscience regarding the empathy circuits and the evidence for these various subsets of zero empathy having impairments or damage in the areas of the brain involved in empathy.
In a book that covers empathy erosion, looks at tests for measuring empathy, it seems odd to see Baron-Cohen argue towards the end of his book that psychology has ignored empathy over its history: “Psychology as a science virtually ignored it for a century” (183). There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that this is not true; database searches relating to psychology produce over 23,000 journal articles on empathy. Daniel Goleman has spent two decades promoting social and emotional intelligences, which both involve empathy. It seems fair to say that empathy has been looked at in great detail over the decades, although perhaps not in the way that Baron-Cohen thinks most applicable or helpful.
Baron-Cohen spends some time towards the end of the book examining the appropriate way to handle people with zero empathy disorders who commit crimes. Should they be held criminally responsible for their actions and imprisoned? If their crimes are a result of a neurological deficit, then the assumption here is that they couldn’t refrain from those acts and didn’t know better. There is little doubt that people with the zero empathy negative disorders are competent to understand when their actions violate a law (the reality appears to be that they don’t care and don’t see why those laws should apply to them).
But what does one do with the brilliant Aspie who hacks into classified governmental systems? Is jail appropriate? This is a complex topic with so many potential pitfalls and the chance for warring ideologies to get in the way of scientific knowledge. Perhaps a reminder that jail is usually about society and the victims and not about appropriate placement or consideration of the offender is in order. The issue is raised, at least, in the book, and Baron-Cohen puts forth the hope that compassion and appropriate placements for individuals will occur.
Baron-Cohen then concludes his book by examining how intentionally evoking empathy towards those one is ideologically in opposition to can resolve what seem like insurmountable problems. Having begun his book with remembrances of the stories he was told as a child about the Nazis, Baron-Cohen looks at the Jewish-Palestinian struggle and two fathers, one from each side, who work together to bring attention to the need to see the other side’s perspective: empathy bridgemaking.
Baron-Cohen’s work is ultimately an optimistic work (and potentially somewhat Pollyannish): the idea that empathy erosions and deficits can be turned around, that people can be taught to be empathic. He points out the need to seek treatments that will teach empathy to those who lack it, which he believes should reduce cruel behavior in the world. Baron-Cohen’s overarching topic is a serious one: why people are cruel to others, but his ultimate perspective is a hopeful one: that empathy can be learned, that the empathy muscle, so to speak, can be exercised. Baron-Cohen puts forth big ideas in a too-small space. There is the sense that these ideas were swirling around, nebulous, almost there, almost in grasp and that the writing of the work was an attempt to force these big ideas to coagulate into a recognizable whole to align the idea with the known world: it is nothing less than Baron-Cohen’s own personal theory of everything. It will be interesting to see where his big ideas are, where the science takes him, five years from now. What results and what ideas, built upon the framework of this book, will coalesce in his next work?
Krahn, T., & Fenton, A. (2009). Autism, empathy and questions of moral agency. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 39(2), 145-166. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5914.2009.00402.x
Smith, A. (2009). The empathy imbalance hypothesis of autism: A theoretical approach to cognitive and emotional empathy in autistic development. The Psychological Record, 59(3), 489-510. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.