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An Appreciative Reader
- Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Format Kindle
(Post-Sandy Hook tragedy note: Before you read the book or these reviews, you may appreciate watching the YouTube piece on Dr. James Fallon by Reason.tv called "Three Ingredients for Murder: Neuroscientist James Fallon on psychopaths". Of particularly interest is the last few minutes which I believe sets out the neurological basis for what Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen calls Zero Positive empathy: the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex)
What could one of the world's leading autism researchers possibly know about evil?
In the "Science of Evil" Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen has set out to apply scientific rigor to a concept that is all too familiar, but which has received very little serious attention from researchers. Whether it is describing serial killers, terrorists, or political mass murderers, we use the word "evil" without really understanding what it is. "The Science of Evil" takes a big step forward towards providing a scientific explanation for evil. And surprisingly, the explanation that Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen provides is a natural extension of his autism research and is solidly grounded in brain science.
In "The Essential Difference" Dr. Baron-Cohen described his autism research and theory that there is a continuum with autism on one end of the spectrum, and extreme empathy on the other. People on the autism end, also known as systemizers, have superior pattern recognition skills, but lack the ability to perceive and appropriately respond to the mental and emotional states of others. Think "Rainman."
So what does this have to do with evil? For Baron-Cohen, the core condition shared by those we call "evil" is a failure of the empathy system--a brain system that allows us to know how others feel, and care about those feelings. A brain system that prevents most of us from hurting others through the mechanism of empathy. Understood in these terms, the study of evil becomes a study of the biological and situational factors that underlie failures and deficits of empathy.
But what about those people who fall towards the autistic end of the systemizing/empathizing continuum? While they may lack empathy, what prevents them from committing the type of acts that we call evil? Baron-Cohen suggests that the critical difference between those who have little or no empathy--what he calls "Zero" on an empathy scale that he has developed--is whether the person is capable of forming a strong moral code, even in the absence of empathy. Baron-Cohen argues that people with autism are "Zero Positive" because, while they struggle with empathy in real-time social situations, they often use their excellent systemizing skills to form such a strong moral code. As a result they care about treating others fairly, and care that others (including animals) should not suffer. Think Temple Grandin. This contrasts with those who are "Zero Negative" (such as psychopaths) who, while they have no difficulty calculating what others might think or feel in real-time social situations, don't care about others' feelings and lack any moral code. This distinction helps explain why on average people who are Zero Positive are not predisposed to commit acts of cruelty, while those who are Zero Negative are.
"The Science of Evil" is an exceptional book on several levels. Although it deals with complex concepts from brain science, it is written in a very accessible style. Dr. Baron-Cohen's writing demonstrates his own empathy for his readers by providing many helpful clarifying examples. Baron-Cohen has the rare talent of making his own scientific research accessible and easy to understand. Specifically, I have never read a better description of Borderline Personality Disorder.
For those who have a background and interest in brain science, the position that Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen is advancing is supported with details of the brain structures involved. Readers can easily skip the descriptions of the brain structures involved without losing any of the important themes and ideas presented in the book. (Similarly, to set the stage, Dr. Baron-Cohen includes several examples of evil in the beginning of the book that some may find disturbing. These examples can also be skimmed or skipped. For those who have an interest in the science of empathy, the book is a perfect companion to Frans de Waal's "The Age of Empathy" and Dacher Keltner's "Born to Be Good."
Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen also provides a major new theory of the underlying physiological basis of Psychopathy, Bordeline Personality Disorder, and Narcissism. In my opinion, while there are many details that remain to be worked out, this theory has the same broad explanatory power as his systemizer/empathizer continuum model that is the subject of his "The Essential Difference." Dr. Baron-Cohen makes a very convincing case that brain imaging supports an underlying deficit or failure of empathy in each of these disorders.
Dr. Baron-Cohen is certainly not the first to make the connection between evil and empathy and he doesn't claim to be the first. This is not a survey of past research or thinking on the psychology of evil. What it is, is an extremely accessible book for general science reader that highlights the connections between empathy, evil, and the brain that is grounded in Baron-Cohen's extreme male brain theory. For professional researchers, it will probably raise more issues and questions than it answers. This is not a fully developed theory that is consistent with the systemizer/empathizer model, but first steps towards one. For example, is there an "empathy switch" that can sometimes be in the "on" position even in psychopaths and others whose switch is more often than not in the "off" position? In science, raising such issues for additional research is often as important as answering those questions. If you are a fan of Baron-Cohen's extreme male brain model and his "Essential Difference" you will particularly like this book and how it extends this model to examine the brain science of evil. If you are not, you may spend a lot of time focusing on what is wrong--and not what is right--about this book and the ideas that it expresses. And while not particularly empathetic, such an emphasis would certainly not be evil ;)
"The Science of Evil" is a gem of a book. It is a book about empathy that is written with empathy and compassion by a scientist who has devoted his life to unlocking the secrets of autism spectrum disorders. Simon Baron-Cohen's "The Science of Evil" is an indispensable resource for those who seek a better understanding of what it really means to be "evil. It is the most accessible book that I have read on the subject. It is a good book for anyone who wants to start thinking about evil in a different way.
P.S. Good books provoke discussion and further exploration. I think Baron-Cohen would be glad to see that his book has provoked the critical thinking and discussion that is reflected in the reviews of others here who have read his book. Based on what I know about Baron-Cohen I suspect he would sincerely appreciate those who have positive suggestions for improving his theory--especially if those suggestions are presented with empathy ;)
310 internautes sur 345 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile
- Publié sur Amazon.com
Two things to start off with. I am a researcher but not a forensic psychologist (although I've read a lot of its scientific literature) and I greatly admire the author's research on Theory of Mind and autism. Unfortunately, that's where he should have stayed. This book is well-intended, but is also a mish-mash of theories and concepts that illustrate the author's lack of familiarity with the literature and theories he describes as he overlooks, confuses, and/or conflates important research.
His argument is that researchers have overlooked the importance of empathy in studying evil. Despite the fact that psychopathy researchers have noted, and studied that, for decades, he pretends (or really thinks?) that he's come up with something new here. Frick developed the Callous Unemotional traits that includes a lack of empathy. Book has talked about Callous Empathy as a descriptor of psychopathy. So forensic researchers have known about the issue of empathy. Coined years ago, the "Dark Triad" of Psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and Narcissism is a recognition of the links between these different facets of "evil". Baron-Cohen calls his new empathy link between two of these traits "blindingly-obvious". It should be, because it's been recognized for decades now! So Baron-Cohen is really reinventing the wheel here. Worse in fact, as he leaves out the troubling (for his theory) case of Machiavellians, who can flip back and forth between empathy as it suits their needs.
And he reinvents a really odd (oval?) wheel by referring to psychopathy, borderline, and narcissism as being negative zero-empathy while autism is positive zero-empathy. Because everyone would chose to "cure" the first three if they could (although I'm quite sure psychopaths and narcissists wouldn't!), while there is some social value to autism, because you can become a savant/genius, so you wouldn't automatically "cure" it. Yes, it's true that there is some value to being a savant/genius, but I'm quite sure we'd all equally chose to be empathic savants/geniuses (like Einstein) if we could. So he has a silly definition meant largely to protect autistic individuals and/or his own research. He even gives an actual example of an autistic child punching a strange infant in an elevator to quiet it as an illustration of how it's still "positive" zero-empathy. I don't think the angry mother of that poor infant would much care whether the stranger who punched her baby was autistic or psychopathic. The difference lies in the intentions of various disorders. Psychopaths are predatory, borderline are manipulative, narcissists are mostly ignorant of others, and autistic individuals are mostly-completely ignorant of others.
Baron-Cohen also conflates/confuses psychopathy with general antisocial behavior. One of the fascinating things about psychopathy is that it isn't strongly correlated to the parenting one received. In direct contrast to what Baron-Cohen reports, Lalumiere and colleagues have done excellent research showing that compared to general criminals, psychopaths are LESS likely to have suffered from pre- or post-natal trauma. As much as I admire the work of Bowlby too, attachment theory doesn't explain psychopathy despite decades of research in that area. Mealy and others have argued, convincingly, that psychopaths aren't so much the product of screwed-up development as they are evolutionarily-designed cheaters or parasites. Baron-Cohen also ignores fascinating new research showing how adolescent psychopaths may be treatable. So he's very clearly writing this book without having read, or is not commenting on, a lot of really relevant material.
What makes it worse yet is that his thesis is disjointed. He talks about balancing biology and the environment, but makes no attempt to discuss the plausible evolutionary mechanisms by which these genes originated and were selected for. Why have these negative genes for zero-empathy stuck around? He suggests that autism is related to the ability to see patterns, a plausible explanation. But what about psychopathy? He gives no answer. Rather, he simply lists areas of the brain and genes with no attempt to connect them to adaptive functions and phylogenetic histories. He has exactly one sentence on the possible evolutionary functions of negative zero-empathy (or to be precise, why there has evolved a range of empathy).
Equally bad is his dismissal of environmental factors. He only pays the briefest of lip-service to the tremendous work done by Milgram and Zimbardo on environmental factors. I consider Stanley Milgram's work on obedience to be FAR more important in explaining "evil", particularly that of the Nazi's. Milgram got 65% of average American citizens to painfully "kill" a fellow citizen!!!!! What does that say about zero-empathy and evil? Zimbardo's work (and others) on group conformity and group-group aggression, where he got a dozen average university students to turn on each other with severe verbal and mental torture in less than a week(!!!), is far more descriptive and predictive than Baron-Cohen's ambiguous talk of empathy. Daly & Wilson's work on the causes of homicide, from an evolutionary/ecological perspective, is also much more revealing and predictive. You can't claim to be inventing a new science of evil when you ignore tremendously important and relevant research on the subject from the past simply because it doesn't mention "empathy" explicitly. A good theory fits past data, incorporates good elements from past theories. Baron-Cohen's does none of this. He simply presents his idea (an admittedly good, if familiar one) that empathy is important in understanding evil as being new and of utmost importance. Citing Freudian or psychoanalytic theories doesn't really help build support for his argument either.
Overall then, I can't help but feel that this is Baron-Cohen's attempt to branch out his work on autism and empathy towards the larger field of forensic science. Unfortunately, his lack of familiarity with the field is glaring. This book tops out at roughly 180 small, large-print pages. Less than 2/3 of that are devoted to actually describing relevant research. So it's not surprising that the 120 "science" pages of this book fall flat. It's too little, too poorly thought, and reveals surprisingly little that's new. I appreciate his efforts to try and tackle this topic, and I welcome reading more about how brains, genes,and empathy relate to antisocial behavior. But as someone also on the outside of that field, I think he should really read up a lot more before making another attempt.