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The Baron-Cohens and the Problem of Evil

The pervasiveness of evil and the suffering of innocents have confounded religious believers throughout history.  Jews, with their history marked by abundant evidence of evil and their faith in an omnipotent and benevolent God, have unsurprisingly produced a vast Jewish literature that attempts to reconcile God's justice with evil's apparent dominion, in works ranging from the book of Job to Harold Kushner's best-selling When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Relevant Links
The Evil Inclination  Raphael Magarik, Jewish Ideas Daily. For the rabbis, the yetzer hara is not a part of the human psyche or soul, and not a metaphor for it, either. Rather, it is an actual, physical demon.
The Male Condition  Simon Baron-Cohen, New York Times. According to what Baron-Cohen calls the “extreme male brain” theory of autism, people with the disorder simply match an extreme of the male profile, with an unusually low drive to empathize.
The Family Baron-Cohen  Sarah Glazer, Moment. Family legend has it that when Chaim Baron, a red-headed widower, emigrated to Britain, he tacked Cohen to his name to show his Jewish pride and his descent from the priestly cohanim.  

The history of Jewish suffering at the hands of evildoers has also produced an unrivalled body of comedy, often the Jews' most brilliant and resilient response to such monsters.  The evil that most terrifies the Jewish state today is the nuclear holocaust threatened by Iran's dictators; and it is no accident that the new film The Dictator, by the Jewish comic Sacha Baron Cohen, tackles precisely this subject.  The film's protagonist, Admiral General Aladeen of Wadiya, a composite of Middle Eastern dictators from Muammar Qaddafi to Saddam Hussein, harbors the same dastardly nuclear ambitions as Ayatollah Khameini.  He pursues them through tactics that are shrewd and stupid, highly offensive and very funny.  Laughing at Aladeen is a fine coping mechanism in a world beset by terrifyingly evil men.  

But, of course, such laughter does not help us understand or explain such men.  For those tasks we must turn to another Baron Cohen—Simon, Sacha's first cousin, a distinguished British neuroscientist.  Simon Baron-Cohen recently published The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, an erudite but concise and accessible book devoted to the scientific explanation of human malice.  One benefit of Sacha's recent piece of inspired lunacy may be to call more attention to Simon's sane and scholarly work.

The Science of Evil is part of a trilogy of books by Baron-Cohen that summarize for non-specialists the results of decades of painstaking neuroscientific research by his Cambridge laboratory, much of it with children suffering from autism and Asperger Syndrome but also with adults exhibiting personality disorders from narcissism to criminal psychopathy.  Baron-Cohen has studied these individuals through clinical analysis, therapy, what he calls "gene-hunting," and functional magnetic resonance imaging of brain activity.  Using this last technique, Baron-Cohen has found that all his subjects have a common denominator: a discernible deficit of empathy in their brain circuitry.

Baron-Cohen argues that trying to explain human cruelty through metaphysical or religious notions of good and evil produces "no explanation at all."  But, "unlike the concept of evil, empathy has explanatory power"; and his book demonstrates this power.  In a minor masterpiece of popular scientific writing, Baron-Cohen takes readers on a fascinating tour of the ten-region "empathy circuit" of the brains of his empathy-deficient subjects, from the criminally psychopathic to the benignly autistic, examining them from angles environmental to chemical. 

Because Baron-Cohen uses a single, if complex standard—low scores on the empathy scale—to explain behavior in subjects from innocently autistic children to criminal sociopaths, his argument might appear dangerously reductive.  Some scientists and social scientists—including Steven Pinker, in his recent book  The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined—have mentioned Baron-Cohen in deriding what Pinker dubs the "empathy fad" (an audacious criticism coming from a man who, unlike Baron-Cohen, bases his wisdom almost entirely on others' clinical work).  And when Science of Evil appeared, advocates for autistic children criticized it for lumping those children together with heartless murderers.

But Baron-Cohen is no reductionist.  He takes pains to make the moral distinctions between innocent and culpable and between positive and negative manifestations of what he calls ZPE (Zero Percent Empathy).  Those with autism and Asperger Syndrome, he makes clear, are innocently indifferent—literally, clueless when it comes to reading the feelings of others.  In extreme cases they treat others like inanimate objects; but they have no malice or intention of causing harm to others, let alone deriving joy from doing so.  Baron-Cohen illustrates with a story from Joe: The Only Boy in the World, Michael Blastland's memoir of raising his autistic son.  Joe was 10 years old:

Blastland and Joe were in an elevator in a local shopping center one day, and a mother came in with her baby in a stroller.  The baby started to cry, and Joe—to everyone's shock—punched the baby to shut her up.  Michael asks in his book: how do you explain to a complete stranger, this woman who cares about her baby more than anyone else in the world, that the pain your son has just caused was not malicious, bad behavior, but is because your ten-year-old son has no idea that another person can suffer pain or feel hurt by a punch?

Baron-Cohen is sympathetic to this plight; indeed, as a clinician and therapist, he has pioneered the field of empathy training.  Among his works is the DVD The Transporters, designed to enhance empathy in autistic children.

Baron-Cohen also points to potentially positive consequences of "zero degrees of empathy." Chief among them is a superior ability to systematize, which explains why many Asperger Syndrome individuals have unusually high aptitudes in math and science.  Their "remarkable attention to detail" and their "ability to concentrate on a small topic for hours, to understand that topic in a highly systematic way," Baron-Cohen argues, "can lead the individual to blossom in certain fields."

Strikingly, Baron-Cohen's Jewish upbringing and education and his liberal Zionist sensibilities emerge throughout the book as central—indeed, formative—in his thinking.  He begins by recalling the traumatic impact of having been told as a child that Nazis used the skins of their Jewish victims to make lampshades.  His early exposure to the Holocaust's evil triggered a life-long fascination with human cruelty—and, indirectly, his stellar career in neuroscience.  The book also describes Baron-Cohen's engagement with the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber's "I-Thou" paradigm as a way of framing empathy; and the final chapter includes a calm, cogent demolition of Hannah Arendt's thesis that the Holocaust is explained by the "banality of evil."

The final chapter also includes Baron-Cohen's ruminations, inspired by Shabbat dinner discussions and a Kol Nidrei synagogue sermon, about how increased empathy might bring about world peace, including Israeli-Palestinian peace.  Here Baron-Cohen reveals a political naïvete at odds with his scientific sophistication.

Baron-Cohen is a leading member of an international cadre of cutting-edge clinical scientists who painstakingly study the functioning of compromised human brains.  Antonio Damasio has done work similar to Baron-Cohen's, mainly with victims of severe head trauma.  Damasio's most philosophically intriguing book, Looking for Spinoza, describes the modern scientist's discovery that the 17th-century Jewish heretic anticipated all of Damasio's scientific findings about human emotions.  Spinoza's pantheism—his belief that God and Nature are one and the same, bound by immutable laws—leaves no room for any beings beyond the physical universe, whether angels or evil spirits.  The work of scientists like Baron-Cohen and Damasio substantiates clinically what Spinoza intuited philosophically: It powerfully debunks religious and metaphysical approaches that explain evil as a struggle between benign and malignant spirits within human souls.  Instead, for these scientists, the biological explanations of all our feelings, emotions, and deeds, good and evil, are so concrete and precise that they can be mapped by MRIs.

Yet, for Baron-Cohen, this work coexists with his deep affection for his Jewish identity and for Israel.  This, at least, he shares with his more flamboyant cousin.

Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and the director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University. He is currently on sabbatical in Montreal, serving as Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at McGill University and Interim Rabbi of Congregation Beth El.

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Jacob Silver on May 31, 2012 at 7:46 am (Reply)
A primary characteristic of human life, and the life of the world, which Spinoza's God created is the very fine line which separates normal behavior from abnormal behavior, zero empathy from adequate empathy, and love and hate. And the ecology is demonstrating the climatic conditions which sustains the life of plants and animals, and the slight changes which cause their extinction. In this world one cannot be simplistic or ideological about evil or adverse climatic change. And, although Sacha's parody of evil emphasizes it, Simon's work serves to explain it.
Bruce Bevitz on May 31, 2012 at 10:22 am (Reply)
Thank you for this article and so many like it. Pathos 'r'us!
Ben-Tzur on May 31, 2012 at 12:51 pm (Reply)
Neuroscience is not tsiniyusdik. The godolim do not approve of it. It is therefore forbidden in Judaism.
Benjamin on June 2, 2012 at 11:31 pm (Reply)
Why is there so much sickness, mental illness, hunger, violence, theft, murder, rape, deceit, embezzlement, lying and evil? The answer is unrighteousness and greed.
Righteousness is directed by a gene within DNA. The righteous gene within the DNA of Jews comes from the Father.
The gist of the Holy Commandments and laws given to Moses is to remove and prevent unrighteousness. Obedience of the laws is a promise to guard and protect the righteous gene.
Jews have migrated to all nations diluting their culture and consequently their genetics. Adultery is more than intercourse outside of marriage. Adultery is mixing righteous genes with the unrighteous. Adultery is forsaking the laws of righteousness and dwelling among the unrighteous for gain.
To love the Father with all your heart and soul is to love and protect the gene of the Father that lives in you with all your heart and soul.
It is not a transgression to hate evil and love righteousness. It is not a transgression to destroy evil and nurture righteousness. Transgressors of the laws are those who interpret the laws. The laws cannot command a people to righteousness but by obedience laws can cause a righteous people.
The Jews today are unchanged thousands of years after the laws and Commandments were given to them. Obedience of the Commandments and laws should have caused a righteous people worthy of salvation from destruction. Sadly though they are a people whose genetic pool is severely diluted and corrupted. Jews live the laws and Commandments but do not understand obedience.
The righteous gene within DNA of Jews outside of Israel is abomination. Had the Jews obeyed the Holy Commandments and laws the entire
Jacob Silver on June 4, 2012 at 9:01 am (Reply)
Ben Tzur, since when is thinking and science banned in Judaism?
    Ben Tzur on October 25, 2012 at 8:21 am (Reply)
    I appreciate Ben-Tzur's compliment in appropriating my name, or it may just be a coincidence that he has mine, but in any case I dissociate myself from his comment. There is nothing unkosher in science per se, as our greatest sages down through the centuries (and including the Talmud) have affirmed. It is not forbidden in Judaism. Never have we glorified ignorance, nor condemned increasing our appreciative understanding of the wonderful Creation HaShem has made.

    Specifically concerning the medical sciences, far from being unkosher, very many of our gedolim and other rabbis have been doctors (I have read somewhere that half the rabbis of the pre-modern centuries made their living as physicians, a very Jewish vocation, precisely because it is a mitzvah to alleviate human suffering), including one of the greatest of all, Rambam (Maimonides). Furthermore, many halakhic questions require expert knowledge of medical science, including Neuroscience. On this, see Immanuel Jakobovits, Jewish Medical Ethics (1975), particularly Chapter 1: "The Attitude to Medicine." On the Jewish attitude to science more generally, see the most recent, and as usual for him, truly brilliant and profound book by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks , The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning (2011).

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