In his book The Science Of Evil, Simon Baron-Cohen describes finding genes that affect empathy. He says studying “evil” is less useful than studying the bell curve shaped spectrum of empathy. Empathy is “our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.” So there are two stages in empathy – if I can see in your face that you are struggling to lift your suitcase onto the overhead rack in the train and I just sit there and watch, then I have failed to respond to your feelings.”
So Simon and his colleagues developed an empathy quiz to produce an empathy quotient.
Empathy is a spectrum, and Simon divides the spectrum into levels. Level zero means zero empathy, and that can be divided into negative (psychopaths) and positive (very analytical systemizers). Some people with zero empathy just find relationships very difficult but have no wish to harm others. For others, even when it is pointed out to them that they have hurt others, this means nothing to them. They cannot experience guilt because they don’t understand what the other person is feeling. (All this raises a question though to me – if zero empathy is not always correlated with evil, then there must be another ingredient that is necessary for evil behavior).
Level five is a greater than average empathy, and more women are at that stage than men. Thanks to functional MRI, ten different parts of the brain have been identified as being connected to empathy (and to each other). In one of these regions, a difference between men and women was found where men showed less activity in this region when they see someone in pain whom they do not like or regard as unfair. Women in general score higher on “empathy quotient”. And the higher a fetus’s prenatal testosterone is the more the brain is masculinized to stronger systemizing and weaker empathy.
There is a type of zero-negative person called “borderline” (what Simon identifies as empathy level zero type B) which shows abnormalities in scans in empathy areas. Many of these people had a very bad childhood. But the different zero negative and zero empathy positive types must have some physical difference that we don’t know of yet, though we can list attributes that differ between them.
I disagree with Simon Baron Cohen on his description of some of the zero-positive types – these are people with low empathy who are great at finding patterns in nature and elsewhere. It seems to me that just because a disease exists where the two features of systematizing and low empathy co-exist, does not mean that they are related in normal people. Surely you can be an analytical scientist who is great at finding patterns and still have empathy.
We may not like the idea that evil behavior is gene based, and of course there are other factors. If whole countries can follow evil leaders and evil ideologies, we are likely to reason that the entire population can’t be inherently and genetically evil, and that environment must play a role. For all I know, I myself might be a jihadist, if brought up in a certain unthinking propagandistic background. But there are (controversial) claims for genes being found. For instance, a gene that mops up extra neurotransmitter in the synapses comes in several forms. MAOA-L (L for low) is a version of the gene that makes a mop-up enzyme for neurotransmitters that is underactive. So there is more serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the synapse, and the people who have this are more aggressive. In fact, this gene is more prevalent in warrior cultures like the Maoris. The problem with this hypothesis though is that a majority of Chinese also have the gene. It is true that two regions in the empathy circuit are smaller in people who have this gene.
In one particular brain segment involved in emotion – the amygdala – there is at least one gene that affects how it responds to fearful facial expressions, another gene that affects how it responds to angry faces, and a third gene, discovered by the author of the book, that affects how it responds to happy faces. (but see caveats in the book on page 133).
There is a hormone, oxytocin, which if you inhale it through your nose, goes straight to your brain and improves your score on tests of empathy. It also makes you more trusting. (Oxytocin is knows as the ‘love’ hormone, for various reasons, including that a species of vole (a furry rodent) that have it in the brain is more monogamous as well as more sociable than a species of voles that have much less of it (and less of another hormone, vasopressin)). (My note: This raises the science-fiction spectre of con-men giving you hot tea with oxytocin in it before asking you to buy their insurance policy. Or the spectre of that boyfriend/girlfriend who you really don’t want to hang around with but you feel you should be nice to – who also offers you that spiked cup of tea. But I digress.)
Though there are genes for empathy, Simon shows evidence of the need to bring up children with early secure attachment, which gives them an internal pot of gold, as he describes it.
In a normal individual, empathy may decrease transiently – the empathy system turns off briefly. If for instance you go to an embarrassing movie of a person you don’t like and join other audience members in throwing rice at the screen (this actually happened), your empathy circuit may be turned off, for a while.
But in some people, it’s permanently off. For instance, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold carried out the killings of their classmates and teachers at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Their homemade bombs were intended to kill six hundred people in the cafeteria. Consistent with Zero-negative theory, Klebold was a depressive suicidal type (Type B), whereas Harris was a classic psychopath (Type P), a diagnosis confirmed by psychologist Robert Hare. Harris wrote in his journal “Isn’t America supposed to be the land of the free? How come, if I’m free, I can’t deprive a stupid fucking dumbshit of his possessions if he leaves them sitting on the front seat of his fucking van out in plain sight and in the middle of fucking nowhere on a Frifuckingday night? Natural selection. Fucker should be shot.”
People like Eric Harris will always sprout up, so that raises another question – should we show empathy to people like him. Simon seems to feel we should have at least some empathy, otherwise we become no better than a zero-empath. But I recall a saying in Judaism that “He is merciful to the cruel, ends up being cruel to the merciful.” It seems to me that even if we are dispassionate, once we identify people who are going to commit evil acts, that we should prevent future evil acts – by either incarceration or execution. Moreover, there may be a deterrent effect on other empathy-deficient N-types when they see harrowing fates befall people who commit evil acts. We are designed (or evolved) with a desire for revenge, and that is because revenge makes sense in the world we live in. And that is true even if the bad guys in some sense can’t help it – and even if some day some surgeon armed with stem cells can flush out their empathy circuits.