“The Science of Evil,” by Simon Baron-Cohen, seems likely to antagonize the victims of evil, the parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, at least a few of the dozens of researchers whose work he cites — not to mention critics of his views on evolutionary psychology or of his claims about the neurobiology of the sexes. “The Science of Evil” proposes a simple but persuasive hypothesis for a new way to think about evil. “My main goal is to understand human cruelty, replacing the unscientific term ‘evil’ with the scientific term ‘empathy,’ ” he writes at the beginning of the book, which might be seen as expanding on the views on empathy expressed in his 1997 book, “Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind” (Bradford).
Evil, he notes, has heretofore been defined in religious terms (with the concept differing in the major world religions), as a psychiatric condition (psychopathology) or, as he puts it, in “frustratingly circular” terms: “He did x because he is truly evil”). Dr. Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Cambridge and director of the university’s Autism Research Center, proposes that evil is more scientifically defined as an absence of empathy, exacerbated by negative environmental factors (usually parental, sometimes societal) and a genetic component.
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