Skip to main content

Zero Degrees of Empathy [The Science of Evil] – Simon Baron-Cohen ***

I’ve been a real fan of previous books by Simon Baron-Cohen like The Essential Difference, so opening this was one was a pleasant prospect. What I found was a book that wasn’t bad… but that could have been a lot better. I got the impression of a book that had been rushed out without a lot of work going into it.
The thesis at the heart of the book – that one of the important ‘circuits’ of the brain is the one dealing with empathy, and that individuals sit on an empathy spectrum, with some residing at zero degrees of empathy – is an interesting one. Baron-Cohen introduces us to three key personality types he defines as ‘zero-negative’ including psychopaths, plus types that are ‘zero-positive’ like those with Asperger’s.
In a way both of these definitions are odd, in that his zero-negatives can actually have a lot of the kind of empathy that involves being able to read another person’s emotional state, and his zero-negatives can have a lot of the kind of empathy involved in sympathising with someone else’s suffering. But this is certainly interesting stuff.
He also points out that empathy is important because arguably it is erosion of empathy that makes not only individuals do bad things, but states get into long term conflicts, like the situation in the Middle East.
And that’s great as far as it goes (though he offers no actual significant mechanisms for dealing with these empathy issues). But the whole thing does not read particularly well. The worst section is the one where Baron-Cohen describes the different areas of the brain that seem to be involved in the ‘empathy circuit’ (not by any means a single region) this is dull and an impenetrable list of acronyms with very little benefit to the reader. For the rest, there is a lack of feeling of context. We are given this assertion about empathy, and these people with zero empathy (except where they aren’t) without any way to make use of this information.
So, a disappointment. With a significant re-write, more context and more readability this would be the ‘valuable’ and ‘significant’ book the puffs on the back claim it to be, but as it stands it’s not quite there. Or am I just lacking empathy?
Paperback (US is hardback):  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Enjoy Our Universe - Alvaro de Rújula ***

I’m going to start this review with a longish quote from the author’s preface, for several reasons. It explains De Rújula’s purpose in writing the book, as well as the audience he’s trying to reach, while giving a taste of his idiosyncratic writing style (which he keeps up throughout the book). It’s also a good starting point for discussing the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Here’s the quote:

'This book is not intended for (very) young kids nor for physicists. It is intended for anyone – independently of the education (s)he suffered – who is interested in our basic current scientific understanding of the universe. By "universe" I mean everything observable from the largest object, the universe itself, to the smallest ones, the elementary particles that "function" as if they had no smaller parts. This is one more of many books on the subject. Why write yet another one? Because the attempts to understand our universe are indeed fun and I cannot resist the tempta…