The science of evil

Dr Simon Baron-Cohen has been battling with evil all his life.

As a researcher seeking to understand random acts of violence, from street brawls to psychopathic killings, to genocide, he has puzzled for decades over what prompts such acts of human cruelty. And he's decided that evil is not good enough.

"I'm not satisfied with the term 'evil'," says the Cambridge University psychology and psychiatry professor, one of the world's top thought leaders in autism and developmental psychopathology.

"We've inherited this word, and we use it to express our abhorrence when people do awful things, usually acts of cruelty, but I don't think it's anything more than another word for doing something bad. And as a scientist, that doesn't seem to me to be much of an explanation. So I've been looking for an alternative - we need a new theory of human cruelty."

Lack of empathy

Dr Baron-Cohen, who is also director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, UK, has just written a book in which he calls for a kind of rebranding of evil to offer a more scientific explanation for why people kill and torture, or have such great difficulty understanding the feelings of others.

His proposal is that evil be understood as a lack of empathy - a condition he argues can be measured and monitored and is susceptible to education and treatment.

Dr Baron-Cohen defines empathy in two parts - as the drive to identify another person's thoughts and feelings, and the drive to respond appropriately to those thoughts and feelings.

It is also, he says, one of the most valuable resources in our world - one which is currently woefully underused.

"We all have degrees of empathy... but perhaps we are not using it to its full potential," he explained in an interview with Reuters after delivering a lecture in London.

Global issue

He says erosion of empathy is an important global issue that affects the health of communities, be they small ones like families, or big ones like nations.

If we all used our ability to empathise more, and recognised its value, he says, conflicts such as the decades of tit-for-tat violence between Palestinians and Israelis could be resolved.

"If you think about conflict resolution at the moment, usually we are dependent on diplomatic channels, legal frameworks, or military methods. But all those things operate at a very abstract level and they don't seem to get us very far."

Tuning in to others' feelings 

"Empathy is about two people - two people meeting, getting to know each other and tuning in to what the other person is thinking and feeling."

As an example, Dr Baron-Cohen cites the meeting of minds between Nelson Mandela and the then South African president F. W de Klerk, which helped end apartheid in the early 1990s.

"The progress that came out of just that one relationship - well, arguably, it broke through where all other methods had failed, and at far less cost in terms of human life," he says.

Deconstruct human cruelty

A Jewish upbringing peppered with tales about the horrors of the Nazis' treatment of Jews and other minorities was early motivation for Dr Baron-Cohen to seek to deconstruct human cruelty.

He cites times when his father told him how the Nazis turned Jews into lampshades, or into bars of soap, and a tale about the mother of a family friend whose hands had been severed by Nazi scientists who switched them around and sewed them back on again so that her thumbs were on the outside.

"Today, almost half a century after my father's mind is still exercised by the same single objective: to understand human cruelty," he writes in his book.

In the book, entitled "Zero Degrees of Empathy" in Britain, and "The Science of Evil" in the United States, where it appears in July, Dr Baron-Cohen seeks to pick apart and define components of empathy - including hormones, genes, environment, nurture, and early childhood experiences.

'Empathy circuit' in the brain

Citing decades of scientific research, he says there are at least 10 regions of the brain which make up what he calls the "empathy circuit". When people hurt others, either systematically or fleetingly, parts of that circuit are malfunctioning.

Dr Baron-Cohen also sets out an "empathy spectrum" ranging from zero to six degrees of empathy, and an "empathy quotient" test, whose score puts people on various points along that spectrum.

Drawing a classic bell curve on a graph, Dr Baron-Cohen says that, thankfully, the vast majority of humans are in the middle of the bell curve spectrum, with a few particularly attuned and highly empathetic people at the top end.

Psychopaths, narcissists, and people with borderline personality disorder sit at the bottom end of the scale -- these people have "zero degrees of empathy".

Disabled, not evil

But rather than labeling them as evil, Dr Baron-Cohen says they should be seen as sick, or "disabled", and we should seek to understand why they have such an empathy deficiency and help them replace it.

Dr Baron-Cohen shies away from saying that psychopaths can be "cured" of extreme behaviour, but he argues strongly against locking them up and saying there is nothing society can do.

"I try to keep an open mind. I would never want to say a person is beyond help," he explains. "Empathy is a skill like any other human skill - and if you get a chance to practise, you can get better at it." - (Kate Kelland/Reuters, April 2011)

Read more:
The mind of a monster

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