Evil, without empathy?

Thanks to Simon Baron-Cohen’s new book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, the question of the definition and source of evil is receiving a lot of interest.

Baron-Cohen  argues that neither a circular definition of evil (“He did that evil deed because he’s evil”) nor defining evil as a religious concept is sufficiently scientific, as neither can be tested empirically.

Now that various centres of empathy have been identified in the brain, evil can be tested by defining it as an absence of empathy.

Baron-Cohen uses examples from around the world to make his point that evil like the war crimes of Nazi Germany is not unique. In fact, cruelty and evil have been a recurring part of human history in all times and in many places.

If this is true, Baron-Cohen reasons, then evil is the result of a universal human capacity — or, in this case, incapacity. People with no empathy, whom he terms “Zero Negative” on his empathy scale, are capable of great cruelty and evil.

(There are “Zero Positive” people as well, whose very low empathy levels are counterbalanced by very high levels of structured and categorized behaviour. This combination can lead to non-social but highly moral lives. Simon-Cohen cites both reclusive geniuses and some people with Asperger’s Syndrome as examples.)

The Science of Evil (less provocatively titled Six Degrees of Empathy in the U.K.) does not argue that a person’s degree of empathy is entirely genetic. Environmental factors and social learning are major contributors. Temporary loss of empathy is particularly susceptible to social conditions, but there are some people whose empathy levels are more permanently suppressed:

Empathy erosion can arise because of corrosive emotions, such as bitter resentment, or desire for revenge, or blind hatred, or a desire to protect. In theory these are transient emotions, the empathy erosion reversible. But empathy erosion can be the result of more permanent psychological characteristics.

For Baron-Cohen, the central feature of empathy erosion is the tendency to treat others as objects rather than subjects.

As a scientist I want to understand what causes people to treat others as if they were mere objects. In this book I explore how people can treat each other cruelly not with reference to the concept of evil, but with reference to the concept of empathy. Unlike the concept of evil, empathy has explanatory power.

Baron-Cohen wants to do more than just establish what empathy does. He also wants to explore how it does it. He writes, “Empathy erosion as an explanation begs the further questions of what empathy is and how it can be eroded.”

Baron-Cohen supports his contention with research that demonstrates that there is a link between measured levels of activity in the “empathy centres” of the brain and other measurements of behaviours that can be characterized as “evil.” As well, he refers to studies that explore the ways that empathy can be triggered in social settings.

Studies reported in the book and in the many online reviews include:

– a longitudinal study– which began 10 years ago – found that the more testosterone a foetus generates in the womb, the less empathy the child will have post-natally;

– recent research by Baron-Cohen and colleagues found four genes associated with empathy – one sex steroid gene, one gene related to socialemotional behaviour and two associated with neural growth;

– fMRI studies have found gross abnormalities in the neural activity of psychopaths. For example, when psychopaths are shown pictures of people suffering from pain, fMRI scans of their brains reveal decreased activity in regions integral to the empathy circuit;

 – teens with high levels of aggression showed activity in the reward centers of the brain when they watched films depicting the infliction of pain on someone.

As Jill Suttie reports in her review:

Baron-Cohen … argues that there must be a genetic basis to empathy. Evidence to support this claim comes from studies of twins, which show that twins demonstrate similar emotional responses to witnessing pain, and they have similar abilities to identify their own emotions, even if they grew up in different environments.

Two related studies make interesting companion pieces to Baron-Cohen’s book.

One, a  study of empathy in mice, indicates that empathy can be learned, and that social connections are important for that learning. Two different strains of mice, one demonstrably more social than the other, were exposed to the discomfort of another mouse. When the subject mice were then placed in a situation similar to that of the distressed mouse, mice from the more social strain were much more likely to anticipate their own impending distress.  The results suggest not just that mice can learn to feel another’s pain, but that empathy may be encoded in animals’ genes.

A second study examined chemosensory stress signals. Specifically, researchers exposed subjects to samples of the sweat of other people. (Ah, the romance and adventure of primary science!) Some of the samples had been produced during stressful situations, while others were collected from sports participants. The results show that, “even though the participants could not attentively differentiate the chemosensory stimuli, emotional contagion seems to be effectively mediated by the olfactory system.” Subjects couldn’t tell the samples apart, but their brains could, as the stress-produced samples activated brain areas associated with empathy.

How do you stack up on the empathy scale? In a survey on a webpage dedicated to Baron-Cohen’s previous (and quite controversial) research on gender differences in human brains, you can measure you “Empathy Quotient” to see where you rank on the “Six Degrees of Empathy” scale — or even if you fall into the “Zero” category.

If you do, I’m confident that you’re a highly intelligent  “Zero-Positive” savant who really likes puppies and Disney movies.