The Baron-Cohens and the Problem of Evil

By Allan Nadler
Thursday, May 31, 2012

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.

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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