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The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty | [Simon Baron-Cohen]

The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty

Borderline personality disorder, autism, narcissism, psychosis, Asperger's: All of these syndromes have one thing in common---lack of empathy. In some cases, this absence can be dangerous, but in others it can simply mean a different way of seeing the world. In The Science of Evil, Simon Baron-Cohen, an award-winning British researcher who has investigated psychology and autism for decades, develops a new brain-based theory of human cruelty.
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Audible Editor Reviews

Famed British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has spent the last 25 years publishing his research on theories of mind, consistently demonstrating that he is one of the most experimental and cutting-edge specialists in the field of cognition. The Science of Evil, published abroad as Zero Degrees of Empathy, brings together several strands of Baron-Cohen's work into a unified theory of human cruelty that describes empathy as a brain-based and therefore scientifically accessible phenomenon. East Sussex actor Jonathan Crowley does a superb job of conveying how groundbreaking and interesting Baron-Cohen's premise truly is. A frequent voice worker and recent winner of an AudioFile Earphones Award, Crowley is no stranger to the invigorating possibilities of scientific non-fiction narration. The psychologist makes it easy on him, with clear writing that explains cognition in everyday terms and with a view toward the practical applications of his theory.

Essentially, there are three diagnoses that have a lack of empathy in common: borderline personality disorder, narcissism, and psychosis. Each of these mental states is missing either the ability to recognize the feelings or others, or the ability to respond to those feelings, or both. This is Baron-Cohen's fundamental argument about the cause of human cruelty. Cruelty is only possible given a lack of empathy, and he devotes a chapter to each of these diagnoses. He devotes additional chapters to autism, the subject around which the majority of Baron-Cohen's research has long orbited. Because autistics are highly systematizing thinkers, they generally develop strong moral rules and a sense of injustice that is not premised upon having empathy, which is a characteristic they lack.

Crowley's lively rendering of the case studies for each type of person having zero degrees of empathy is deeply engrossing. Listeners will be shocked to recognize bits and pieces of their own less than understanding moments embedded in the anecdotal evidence provided here. The book concludes with a hint of the larger implications for a complete study of empathy as a brain-based behavior. Crowley delivers Baron-Cohen's final plea with all the earnest optimism it deserves: if we could use science to isolate the biological sources of empathy, we could eliminate cruelty, and voila -- world peace. —Megan Volpert

Publisher's Summary

Borderline personality disorder, autism, narcissism, psychosis, Asperger's: All of these syndromes have one thing in common---lack of empathy. In some cases, this absence can be dangerous, but in others it can simply mean a different way of seeing the world. In The Science of Evil, Simon Baron-Cohen, an award-winning British researcher who has investigated psychology and autism for decades, develops a new brain-based theory of human cruelty. A true psychologist, however, he examines social and environmental factors that can erode empathy, including neglect and abuse. Based largely on Baron-Cohen's own research, The Science of Evil will change the way we understand and treat human cruelty.

©2011 Simon Baron-Cohen (P)2011 Tantor

What the Critics Say

"Baron-Cohen's professorial background shines through in the book's tone and in step-by-step, engaging prose urging both academic and lay reader alike to journey with him in scientific inquiry." (Publishers Weekly)

What Members Say

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  •  
    Douglas Auburn, WA, United States 02-16-12
    Douglas Auburn, WA, United States 02-16-12 Member Since 2008

    College English professor who loves classic literature, psychology, neurology and hates pop trash like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.

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    "A fine primer..."

    for the neurological and psychological basis of "non-empathetic" behavior. Baron-Cohen does a fine job in describing the diathesis mode of approach to those who go through the world unable to experience or understand normal human feelings of empathy and the sorts of sensitivity toward one another that most of us take more or less for granted. By employing the medical model, he forces a redefinition of what has formerly been termed "evil," redefining it "non-empathetic." Obviously, those who are narcissistic, borderline or psychopathic are on the negative end of this scale, as they range from simply annoying to out and out life-threatening, though Baron-Cohen also explores the positive end of the spectrum in the way of autistics and those with Asperger's syndrome (a disorder along the autistic spectrum), who are not only usually nonviolent but who are often creative and supra-moral. An interesting, informative and well-put together read.

    11 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Cynthia Monrovia, California, United States 03-10-13
    Cynthia Monrovia, California, United States 03-10-13 Member Since 2012

    Audible listener who's grateful for a long commute!

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    "What causes evil?"

    The first time I remember evil – real evil – was more than 40 years ago, when I heard of awful things a boy down the block had done to a cat. I was too young to put a name to it, and the boy was spoken of in whispers. We were told to stay far away from him, and I did, crossing the street if he was on the way to grade school at the same time I was. He disappeared from the neighborhood several months later, and I am still relieved I never saw him again.

    About ten years later, I put a name to evil, at least in fiction, reading Stephen King’s “Carrie”. The true evil wasn’t Carrie herself – it was Chris Hargensen, the beautiful, taunting classmate; and Margaret White, Carrie’s mother. Both had a complete lack of empathy for Carrie – and for anyone else.

    In “The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty”, Simon Baron-Cohen, Ph.D., a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge, argues that all we consider evil presents as a lack of empathy. A lack of empathy can be momentary, chronic or innate, and to some extent, conditioned by being around others with a lack of empathy . The consequences can be disastrous. Baron-Cohen starts with the Holocaust as an example. Since research recently determined more than 40,000 Nazi ghettos and death camps were in operation, his conclusions have merit.

    In this book, Baron-Cohen discusses signs and symptoms to some extent, but his emphasis is the neuroscience of evil. Baron-Cohen discusses the regions of the brain controlling empathy response, and how physical damage, fetal development, and environmental factors can affect these areas, causing them to function differently than those of empathetic people. Baron-Cohen does a good job at discussing the malfunctioning areas of the brain. As a layperson, I had to listen to those sections several times to understand what he was talking about.

    Since reading “Carrie” more than 30 years ago, I’ve run into a lot of actual people who completely lack empathy. I have wondered the whole time how that happens. Setting aside the theological theory, this book explains at least some of it.

    I enjoyed the narration, and the unedited use of British terms. And yes, for anyone wondering, Simon Baron-Cohen is Sacha Baron-Cohen’s cousin – and Simon, in a very apropos discussion later in the book, mentions Sacha’s work.

    [If you found this review “Helpful”, please click the “Helpful” button. It does matter to me!]

    41 of 46 people found this review helpful
  •  
    E. Honaker 02-02-12
    E. Honaker 02-02-12 Member Since 2006
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    "very interesting, excellent reading"
    Would you listen to The Science of Evil again? Why?

    I might, because there was a lot of detail in places. There is a long section about which brain regions are responsible for empathy, which was hard to keep track of in an audio format if you're interested in that kind of thing.


    What was one of the most memorable moments of The Science of Evil?

    There were character studies of people who exhibited particular types of zero-empathy disorders (psychopathy, borderline, narcissism) that were moving and sometimes frightening.


    Any additional comments?

    This book can really change your way of looking at the world. It's well-argued and well-written. Very rare and fascinating. The reading is also excellent. I recommend it highly.

    9 of 10 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Midwest Lady Indiana 10-01-12
    Midwest Lady Indiana 10-01-12 Member Since 2010

    Reader. Painter. Newspaper columnist. Nurse. Humane Society. Lake life. Walker. Happily remarried - was a widow.

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    "Rational and logical explanation of cruelty."
    Any additional comments?

    Well written, scientific but not all boring or dry, logical and useful discussion of what makes a person lack empathy and therefore, "humanity".
    Laid out so is easy to understand.
    Highly interesting.
    One can lack empathy partially or totally and yet not be criminal, or can be criminal. The difference remains personal choice. Some element of biology in cruelty and that part was interesting.
    If you have brushed against cruelty in someone who seems to enjoy being cruel, a sociopath or psychopath, you will benefit from reading this book. Held my attention throughout. Non-emotional explanation so one can get the core of this issue without all the drama and blood and guts the popular media projects. Discusses how cruelty evolves and why it is so easy for some.
    Also discusses mass low empathy such as when groups are cruel.
    Explains the "relentless" quality one sees in the cruel and sociopathic.
    Highly recommend for everyone.
    If you like the topic but fear too much dry science putting you to sleep, this is a good book. It is scientific but not at all difficult or professorial.

    5 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ellen Chesterton, IN, United States 09-06-12
    Ellen Chesterton, IN, United States 09-06-12 Member Since 2008

    I'm a bibliophile since early childhood. Love speculative fiction, odd premises, mystery novels that teach about different places and times.

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    "Some interesting premises"

    This is a book that explores the phenomena of evil as the inability to feel empathy. The science bits of it devolve into nonsense syllables: aerograms put together into a system I believe only applies to this man's theory.
    But it does discuss unsocial and dangerous people in light of the limitations of their illnesses. I did find that helpful.
    I don't agree with him that the inability to empathize is all of anti social behavior. It's a puzzle piece among other puzzle pieces. But it is a piece.

    5 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Lynn 02-08-12
    Lynn 02-08-12
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    "Raises Questions"

    Simon Baron-Cohen looks at empathy in The Science of Evil and presents a cognitive approach to understanding human cruelty. Essentially, he sees “evil” as rooted in limits of persons to experience empathy. This is a very engaging, thought provoking book. Despite that I came away with unanswered questions. For example, how can some people be kind to one group of people and cruel to others? I hope in future books, Baron-Cohen will flesh out his theory and link it to other fields of psychology. For example, what would Evolutionary Psychology say to the development of empathy? Along with the general reader, most persons interested in criminal behavior, bullying, ethical behavior and similar topics would find this book interesting. The narration of Jonathan Cowley is very good.

    5 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kate Crisp Cranston, RI, United States 04-10-12
    Kate Crisp Cranston, RI, United States 04-10-12 Member Since 2012

    Kate Crisp

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    "Thought Provoking"
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    Excellent and engaging. The narrator is particularly excellent.


    What about Jonathan Cowley’s performance did you like?

    He's by far the best narrator of all the audible books I've listened to.


    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Neuron Sweden 04-15-13
    Neuron Sweden 04-15-13 Member Since 2012

    Family father, neuroscientist, and non-fiction audiobook addict.

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    "Juicy, interesting and scientifically sound"

    Simon Baron Cohen’s fundamental idea is that in order to prevent evil we must first understand its causes. How was Josef Fritzl capable of locking up his own daugter in his basement and then rape her on a daily basis for more than a decade? The typical reaction to this type of story is that Josef Fritzl is an evil man, and he did what he did because he was evil. But what does it mean when you say that someone is evil, and does deeming someone as an evil person have any positive side effects?

    These are of course difficult questions and I don’t think that Baron Cohen provides a complete answer to them (which would have been a lot to hope for). What Baron Cohen does claim is that if we want to prevent evil we must first understand it. He further suggests that individuals, such as Fritzl, who commit horrendous acts probably suffers from a lack of empathy, that is a lacking ability to see the world from another persons perspective. Borderline patients, psychopaths and narcissists are three mental disorders that have a common feature, namely zero empathy. In other words they are more or less incapable of seeing the world from another persons perspective and therefore they may not get the same “gut response” when they hear about Fritzl.

    Many people lack empathy, but not all of them endorse in “evil”. Other factors such as upbringing and attachments to caregivers can influence whether a person born with deficient empathy becomes an offender or learns how to follow the rules of society despite lacking some of the intuitions that derives from having empathy.

    Simon Baron Cohen’s expertize lies in the field of autism which is another mental dissorders characterized by a lack of empathy. Individuals that have a autism spectrum dissorder (this category includes those with asperger syndrome), also behave in ways that reveal a lack of empathy, however, they are often good at systematizing, that is seeing relationships between various variables in the world. Because of this special ability they have benefited the world in many ways

    Rather than deeming individuals evil, we should try to understand why evil acts are committed. To look at people with a severe lack of empathy is a good and plausibly fruitful starting point for such an endeavour.

    Simon Baron Cohen, is a terrific writer with the ability to convey complex ideas and complex research findings in an accessible and easy to understand way. This book as well as “The essential difference” show that this is indeed the case.

    3 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Patricia Flagstaff, AZ, United States 10-01-12
    Patricia Flagstaff, AZ, United States 10-01-12 Member Since 2003

    Can there be any better pasttime than reading? Audiobook, regular book, e-book - I have 1 of each going at all times.

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    "Good, until the end"

    The author presents the scientific, brain-based view of lack of empathy as the source for various personality disorders, some of which are associated with cruelty and mistreatment of others. He differentiates positive and negative types of zero empathy. This helped put a realistic view on the concept of "evil", away from a religious definition, which is nebulous at best.

    His polemic at the end was unnecessary and detracted from the scientific basis for the book.

    2 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Raven913 Austin, TX United States 02-27-13
    Raven913 Austin, TX United States 02-27-13 Member Since 2012

    lauren25

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    "Great premise, lacks excitement"
    Would you listen to The Science of Evil again? Why?

    No, I wouldn't listen to this book again. The material was dry and felt like sitting through a personality disorders seminar. It seemed there was little inflection to give the book life.


    Were the concepts of this book easy to follow, or were they too technical?

    Being a psychology major, the material was easy to follow. If I did not have my background, the book would not have been too technical. The concepts are pretty clearly explained with plenty of examples to further elaborate.


    Did the narration match the pace of the story?

    It felt like there was no pacing to the story, and the narration was lackluster. I would say that the narration did match the pace of the story.


    If you were to make a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?

    Journey through the minds of disordered personalities. The darkness awaits.


    1 of 2 people found this review helpful
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