The “Science” of Evil

The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of CrueltyMy bestie bought a book called “The Science of Evil: On Empathy and Origins of Cruelty” by Simon Baron-Cohen, a few years back. My interest in the book quickly turned into disgust when I read the book description:

“Borderline personality disorder, autism, narcissism, psychosis, Asperger’s: All of these syndromes have one thing in common–lack of empathy” -The Science of Evil, 2011

I swore off reading the book, offended that someone wrote about how BPD (and by connection, me) was lacking empathy and therefore evil. That was about 2 years ago. Last week I borrowed the book from the library because I figured it was best for me to know what I was up against.

At first I was interested. It was great learning about the parts of the brain that are involved in empathy and hearing the research behind it. I knew though that as soon as I got to Chapter 3 entitled, ‘ When Zero Degrees of Empathy is Negative’, I would begin to struggle. That is the chapter were BPD is discussed or Type B as the author calls it. I took a deep breath and began to read.

“I group these categories together as Zero-Negative because they have nothing positive to recommend them. They are unequivocally bad  for the sufferer and for those around them.” -pg. 44-45 (original italics)

Excuse me? My interpretation is that the author believes there is nothing good about BPD. I would have to disagree. The pain for me comes though in knowing that many out there who read this book may never have met someone with BPD and their first exposure will be that sentence and the examples that follow.

I am next faced with a case study of Carol, a 39-year old with BPD. Baron-Cohen begins to describe Carol’s behaviour which he does so mercilessly despite acknowledging the neglect Carol experienced as a child. I personally feel that the author completely lacked Someone call the doctor, got a case of love bipolar, staccato, rollercoaster, can't get off this ride.empathy while writing about Carol.

I can relate to Carol.

“However nice people are to her, she feels she can never quench this simmering rage, which even today can come out as hatred toward anyone she feels is disrespecting her. Often people she perceives as disrespecting her are simply people who disagree with her, and she senses that they are doing this in a confrontational way.” -pg. 46

“If someone is silent, even for a few minutes, she assumes they are being aggressive. If someone makes a joke, she assumes the other person is attacking her. If someone is caring, she assumes it is not meant. If someone apologizes, she assumes this, too, is not genuine. She will lash out with her accusations at other people’s insincerity so that, no matter how hard they try to persuade her that they care or are sorry for their apparently hurtful actions, she does not accept their well-intended approaches and pushes them away.” -pg. 48

I do this. I don’t like it but it’s hard to think otherwise. I know it hurts other people. That is not what I want.

Baron-Cohen uses unemphatic language to describe Carol’s behavour:

  • absolute selfishness
  • totally ill equipped for parenthood
  • tyrannical, self-centered behaviour
  • extremely difficult
  • self absorbed
  • highly manipulative
  • childish

Carol’s  story has been written in such a way that I believe that Baron-Cohen thinks Carol is full of garbage.

Chronic Feelings of Emptiness in Borderline Personality DisorderThe problem I have always found with experiencing BPD/identifying with the symptoms is that it appears that no one ever bothers to look beyond the symptoms and understand their roots in pain.

As added pain this book also uses my friend’s murder as a case study for exploring if a empathy can be developed if it is missing as a child/teen (pg. 176).


“The Science of Evil” is an offensive book that continues to perpetuate the discrimination faced by those experiencing with BPD. I would like to try and finish this book but I would have to do so slowly.

Is this science or discrimination?


28 thoughts on “The “Science” of Evil

  1. I am really sorry you had to read that, although I understand why you had to. It’s so easy to demonize BPD, because most people are unable to understand the excruciating pain that causes the symptoms. As you probably know by now, I live with a mother who suffers from NPD. I have been running from her for 60 years, because she is so unpredictable, sweetness and light alternating with unbelievable cruelty. I know how horribly she was abused as a child, and I really do feel sorry for her, and I really do recognize her many talents and the good she does in the community. And yet, it’s impossible for me not to revert to the helpless baby that she intentionally burned, etc., etc….but still, I am outraged by books like this that program readers who have no knowledge or experience with PDs or Autistic Spectrum Disorders (I am an Aspie, and I think I have a healthy empathy generator) or any neurodiverse people….or think they don’t, because “we are everywhere,” to fear us and think that just because we are different we are automatically dangerous to society. In fact, this author himself lacks empathy, and should be called out on that.

    • In cases like BPD or NPD you will never once hear my say that it is an excuse for poor behaviour. It can provide a reason and hopefully a course of action for making everyone happier because that’s what we deserve. Also, the fact of the matter is, if we do not feel good around a person, regardless of a diagnosis, we do not have to be around them. Your Mother sounds like someone who doesn’t always build you up positively and you deserve to be around those who make you feel amazing way more often then not. I am sorry you experienced everything you did because of your Mother’s issues. It’s unacceptable (the child advocate in me is getting all worked up!!!).

      You are clearly an empathetic person 🙂 You have always shown me great empathy and have helped me! The author must be fearful himself, or have his own issues or be on a power trip…

      • Thank you so much for your kindness and support! I’m glad you’ve felt my admiration for you, and I’m glad I’ve helped you. You deserve help and support, I deserve help and support–we’re all trying to do our best, and what we DON’T deserve is to be torn down by some jerk in a “doctor suit” or a “mother suit”–people who don’t even deserve the titles they have tacked onto themselves. I went to medical school with a whole lot of people that made my blood run cold, thinking that they would become “go-to” people, “experts” that would make life-and-death decisions on behalf of the powerless and disenfranchised. And it sounds like that’s what this dick-head author is doing. I did buy his damn book (and it irked me to put $9.99 in his pocket!), just to see what he is saying about US, and hopefully I will make myself read it and write a review. If the book is as bad as it sounds, I think it might be helpful to send a review to the Huffington Post, where it can be seen by lots of people who might have no idea that such irresponsible garbage is being sold as legitimate “science.” Stay tuned.

        PS–I also went to med school with a whole lot of lovely, compassionate, empathetic people who I wish were my doctor.

        PPS–Oops! I just noticed I’m posting from my “other blog,” A Runaway Life.” I forgot to change it. This is Laura from Bipolar For Life!

  2. Are borderlines even supposed to be lacking in empathy? You, and two other people I know with this diagnosis, do not even strike me as such. I recently read an article saying that people with BPD & those on the autism spectrum, actually have much empathy and thus are highly sensitive compared to others, too much for them to handle sometimes…

  3. For that matter, does this guy realize “psychosis” and “psychopathy” are not the same thing, despite sounding similar? Psychopathy is considered a lack of empathy while psychosis is what they call delusions or breaks with reality. What exactly are this guys credentials?

  4. Ok, one last comment since I googled him, he’s a professor of psychopathology & does work with autism, which means the guy would HAVE to know the difference…so is he just being sensationalistic to sell copies?

    • He actually labels autism was Zero-Negative Positive, meaning the lack of empathy is caused by a brain that didn’t hook up properly. I interpret this as him putting us into horrible categories such “at fault” vs. “not at fault”, deserving vs. undeserving, and the obvious good vs. evil.

  5. I think it is very hard to write about things like this. I agree with you that a book like this does nothing to reduce stigma, if anything it creates more of it… but I can also see where the writer is coming from, strangely enough.

    I too, describe my symptoms in the most derogatory way possible, because I want to emphasize that it what I have is bad, Bad, BAD, if you get what I mean. No euphemisms.
    It is something I’ve encountered among many people, and that I am guilty of myself as well: trying to shame yourself or someone else into behaving differently by describing your/their symptoms in the most disgusting, unpleasant way possible.
    It makes no sense, rationally, but I have seen and felt it often enough to know it really is a thing.

    The writer of the book has little to no empathy to spare for people with mental illness, that much is true. It makes me wonder if perhaps he has issues himself…

    • I cannot deny the chaos that some of my behaviorour has brought, this is true. But yes, his empathy is lacking. You and I, for example, still have out beautiful and positive qualities and this man neglects to mention those in what I have read so far.

      • He reduces people to their problem.
        If you wrote a book about amputees, you wouldn’t discuss only the many ways in which they can’t lead a normal life; you would also give examples of how they cope and how they are valuable people despite their lack. If you wrote a book about people with cancer, you wouldn’t only write about how their sickness is horrible and a burden on everyone around them, you would discuss how these people lead life despite a debilitating and possibly lethal illness. I could go on, in virtually every field of medicine there is the idea that people are more than what makes them sick… except in psychiatry. It’s as if being mentally ill makes a person less human in the eyes of “sane” people.

      • True. I find it especially sad that it’s not merely coming from ignorance; often the people who are causing the most stigma are the people who know most of it.
        It seems to me that the more some doctors know of the biology of mental illness, the less compassion and care they find for the person suffering from it.

      • Hmm, can’t seem to reply to the last comment in this thread but this is what I want to say: I feel the basis of stigma is fear, and people fear whatever is different from them. Like in your wonderful example of an amputee, they are often marginalized and ostracized too. Especially if they’re poor or from a minority group. We who live with mental illness are clearly different from “neurotypicals,” which can be a significant advantage if we are able to be functional, i.e., with work, school, social engagement, etc., but the moment we step outside the boundaries of society we become “different,” and that provokes fear. I always think of the character Boo Radley in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He was a kind, gentle man who suffered from an unspecified illness that caused him to self-isolate because he was mocked and abused in the small town he lived in. His only “crime” was that he was different, and people fear difference, for some reason. I have always celebrated my own difference, but unfortunately I have not done such a great job of being functional in society, largely due to lack of insight. And unfortunately, that is one of the defining features of mental illness: lack of insight. Sigh.

  6. It’s “doctors” like that who make me feel horrified at who the mental health community “lets in.” The author talks about no empathy let he has no compassion for people struggling with personality disorders. It’s discrimination. 😦

  7. Adding to Amazon wish list. Personally, I think at most times I am very unempathetic. I’m too wrapped up in my own feelings. I’m extremely selfish. Depending on the situation, I may provide comfort and support, especially if it’s something that will benefit me. I obsessively look at anorexic girls (I’m not, but I have trouble eating with my cycling and I’m 86 lbs) that are bigger than me or too skinny and I just want to send them a message telling them they’re fat. My ex boyfriends sister’s dog (she’s had 13 years) had to be put down and I didn’t try to reach out to her because I knew she’d ask about me and my boyfriend and I didn’t want to talk about it. I lie, cheat, steal, and assault people but rarely feel remorseful. The only thing I feel bad about is that I’m this way. Sociopath? Narcissist?

      • I could be wrong. I do probably read into my behaviour to much lol I do know that when I do not empathize it’s because I’m tried of giving too much and getting nothing. And then I start hating you and you go into my bad books never to be seen positively again….if you ever were.

  8. Ahem. I must weigh in here…..Kylie, the fact that you are aware of your “lack of empathy” rules out Narcissist. By definition, Narcissists are not aware that they are selfish or self-serving. I can tell by the way you describe yourself that you do, in retrospect at least, feel bad about things you have thought or done. So you have lots of places that can be entry points for introspection and healing. Most of us would love to love ourselves, and that is a very healthy thing. But if we have suffered damage/abuse, the path to healthy self-love becomes murky and twisted. We have a lot of work to do to find it, especially when we have never had it. You have the gift of insight, which is a big leg up on many of us: you can see where you have acted insensitively, and you even know why, which is huge. I’m on board with you, because I know that you are looking for goodness in yourself.

  9. Pingback: Good Morning Discrimination! | Pride in Madness

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