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Evil and empathy: Scientists shed light on hearts of darkness

Cambridge University professor Simon Baron-Cohen is studying the links between evil acts and the absence of empathy. - Cambridge University professor Simon Baron-Cohen is studying the links between evil acts and the absence of empathy. | The Globe and Mail
CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND— From Saturday's Globe and Mail

When Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg spoke to his grieving nation in the wake of a rampage that killed 77 people, he said, “Evil can kill a person, but it cannot conquer a people.” That quote, in slightly different translations, zoomed around the world.

A day later, Geir Lippestad, the lawyer for the accused mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, was asked if his client had shown any empathy for his victims when he allegedly mowed down dozens of teenagers on the island of Utoya: “No,” the lawyer said. His client had shown no empathy. He believed that Mr. Breivik was insane.


It was an understandable way for the tragedy to be framed: This was the evil, inexplicable act of a cold-blooded killer. But is it enough to leave it there? Scientists don't like to be told things are “inexplicable.” Science is trying to explain the actions of someone like Mr. Breivik – not as the presence of evil, but as the absence of empathy. If empathy can be identified, at least partly, as springing from complex circuitry in the brain, then its absence can be explained as well.

Long regarded as a hippie-ish preserve unworthy of study, empathy is now being placed in the spotlight, and a better understanding has begun to emerge of what eminent British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen calls “one of the most valuable resources in our world.”

In Prof. Baron-Cohen's office, the walls are sparsely decorated: A framed cover of an issue of Newsweek magazine that featured his autism research, a couple of small oil paintings, two brain scans pinned to a bulletin board, their different regions picked out in lurid colours.

To a layperson, the neuro-imaging means nothing. But it's the mapping of various regions over the past couple of decades that provides the foundation for Prof. Baron-Cohen's new book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. That's the North American title. Apparently “evil” is book-buying bait on this side of the Atlantic. In Britain, it goes by the less inflammatory title Zero Degrees of Empathy.

“Evil's an easily accessible term to describe when people do bad things,” Prof. Baron-Cohen says, settling into a utilitarian chair under the office's one tiny window. “But it doesn't take us any farther.”

Empathy, on the other hand, can be understood by looking at a combination of neuroscience and genetic and social factors. “Empathy is much more on the [scientific] agenda than it ever has been,” he says. “People are beginning to take it seriously. It doesn't seem to be woolly or unrealistic, which is perhaps how it was seen in the past.”

A 30-year journey to understand the motivating factors behind human cruelty has brought Prof. Baron-Cohen to this office on the leafy outskirts of Cambridge University, where he is both the director of the Autism Research Centre and a professor of developmental psychopathology (“the study,” he says dryly, “of what happens when the mind doesn't work in the usual ways.”)

When he was a boy, Prof. Baron-Cohen's father told him that Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades, into soap. His father told the story of a friend's mother whose hands had been severed by Nazi scientists and sewn back – on the opposite arms. The question never left his mind: How do humans come to switch off their fellow-feeling for another person who is suffering?

The answer, he argues, lies partly in your brain, partly in your genes and partly (you knew this was coming) with your parents, if they were cruel or neglectful. There is an empathy spectrum, it is quantifiable and we all sit somewhere on it.

“The spectrum approach reminds us that none of us are angels and none of is the devil,” says Prof. Baron-Cohen, who at 52 is tall and lean, and in his soft speech bears little resemblance to his much more famous cousin, Sacha (also known as Borat, Bruno and Ali G). “When your empathy either fluctuates or is compromised in more permanent ways, it shifts where you are on that scale.”

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