Conflict Book Review: Simon Baron Cohen: The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty

I met Simon Baron Cohen in Trinity College, Cambridge in 2004 as part of my exploration of the role of empathy (and lack of it or autism) in my field of conflict research. He is an extraordinary person to discuss these issues, with and his knowledge and compassion for the children he treats for development disorders strongly evident. His book ‘The Essential Difference’ played a major role in the evolution of my theory of ‘induced autism’ in conflict. 

His latest book extends his thinking into the role of zero degrees of empathy in the commission of acts of extreme evil. Since I met him, neuroscience has moved on rapidly and his latest book brings up to date the 10 areas of the brain that seem most implicated in empathy, or its lack, and also the half a dozen or so genes whose expression also contributes a genetic dimension to empathy or its absence. Identical twin research suggests that empathy has about 60% heritability, but the sample size and peer review process is probably not complete for that to be taken as proven.

I literally read this book in one sitting (despite the trans-Atlantic jet lag) and would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the problem of evil from a scientific viewpoint, and especially if you are interested in reducing it! Though the author warns at the onset: don’t read this book if you are sensitive to descriptions of appalling evil, as that is how he starts out defining what he is trying to understand, though there is far more to the book than this. He systematically un-picks the different empathy deficiencies of borderline personality, psychopath and narcissistic disorders and how they have at their extreme zero degrees of empathy. His accounts of the genetic and developmental causes of these disorders is strongly evidence based, though in the case of extreme narcissism the research is so far limited.

He also builds on his work in The Essential Difference on the systematizer/empathizer contrast and provides a convincing case that many of those with zero empathy are not borderline, psychopath or narcissistic but in fact use their strong systematizing to build very rigid moral structures. Extreme systematizers also have given us most of our science and technology.

The only weak part of the book is that Simon stops too soon and his phenomenal ability to develop ways to address issues of autism is not fully deployed. He ends with ten steps to increase empathy in the world and even grow in those with zero degrees. I would have loved another full chapter on where now?

This is Simon (and yes his cousin is Sasha Baron Cohen aka Ali G, who maybe could do with a bit of his cousin’s research)


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Book Reviews, Conflict Processes, Neuro-science of conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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