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How many degrees of empathy? An interview with Simon Baron-Cohen

 

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen is a controversial figure. He is an internationally renowned autism researcher and famed for his many popular science books. The general public, at least going on book sales, seem to love his investigations into often untouched realms of psychology.

Among some feminists, however, his name is spat out with disdain; he is the man who wants to insidiously slip sexist science into the mainstream. And as for the psychologists, both peers and students, opinion is starkly divided. My time with Baron-Cohen was spent talking about the concept of evil, the ethics of his contentious research, and autism.

He leads me into his humbly sized office with his usual awkward and cold manner, ironic given his years of studying empathy. Our conversation begins with this topic, and specifically his 2012 book Zero Degrees of Empathy. My main goal is to understand human cruelty through the concept of empathy”, he tells me. His book takes the reader back to Nazi Germany, where his own relatives were murdered, and he frames these atrocities in terms of faltering empathy systems: “it’s part of the definition [of murder] that it wouldn’t be possible, if your empathy system was working”.

Is this a satisfactory explanation? Although “empathy erosion” might explain these atrocities, what is it that explains the original “erosion”?

Baron-Cohen is uncomfortably vague in his answer: “the empathy circuit is the mediator, a lot of factors impact on that circuit”. This is one of the flaws of the book: Baron-Cohen puts a great deal of emphasis on the “empathy circuit”, which spans almost the entire brain. Although his thoughts concerning evil are refreshing, a little more specificity wouldn’t go amiss.

I’m not sure science should be getting confused with the criminal, legal and justice systems” Professor Baron-Cohen tells me, after I quiz him on the use of his own research to decide who should be imprisoned.  Possession of “zero degrees of empathy” has been strongly linked to violent crime, with one study claiming that 47 percent of sexual offenders are psychopathic, one example of Baron-Cohen’s “zero degrees” category. Could this concept be used to protect people by keeping likely re-offenders in prison?

Baron-Cohen speaks firmly on the matter: “these two sorts of activities should not be blurred; scientists shouldn’t get in the way of the judges doing their thing”. This seems strange, given the growing integration between science and the law, but maybe Professor Baron-Cohen is less cynical and reductionist than many give him credit for.

Our discussion then moves onto his recent autism research. “We’ve been looking at correlations with hormone levels prenatally and behaviour postnatally, the very same hormone, testosterone, is negatively correlated with social skills, but positively correlated with things like attention to detail and obsessionality”.11

This is an exciting result, especially as it links two separate sides of autism. Even Baron-Cohen himself, however, is not convinced testosterone holds all the answers, “I’m very sympathetic to the idea that each symptom might have its own causes”. This less unified concept of autism has become popular in recent years and surprisingly, given his work with testosterone, Baron-Cohen subscribes to it.

His research into autism also features in his 2003 book The Essential Difference, where he investigates biological sex differences. For many this research is unsavoury. The idea that gender differences could be explained by anything but history and culture get many in quite a tizz, and Baron-Cohen understands this: “for some people, even a little bit of biology is too much biology”. So I ask him whether he, himself, worries about his work.

It would be irresponsible not to worry about it, because there’s been such a long history of sexism. The last thing scientists should be doing is perpetuating it”. But that doesn’t stop him from claiming, for example, that baby boys and girls have differential biological preferences for certain toys.

There are two sexes in nature, and scientists should be interested in natural phenomena”, he says, perhaps reassuring himself, as much as me. Although his work is contentious, he is, in a sense, progressive; when I ask him about a possible collaboration with the Gender Studies department, he smiles back confidently, “it is already happening”.

 

Will Lawn

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