Audiobook Review: Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side

Evil.

Tackling a book about evil is quite the task, as evil can encompass a wide array of moral, social, cultural and political institutions, systems and individuals. However, Dr. Julia Shaw, a psychological scientist attempts to do that in the popular science genre with, Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side.

If I had to somehow distill this book down to two theses, they would be:

1.) We need more nuance in how we understand the bad acts of individuals and the way in which society shapes those bad acts (not excuses, but shapes); the applications therein are myriad; and
2.) Evil is a subjective determination, with no objective, science-based and empirical understanding; ergo, calling someone “evil” is reductive, dehumanizing and lacks the aforementioned nuance, so we should disregard such a label.

I was with Shaw on the first thesis, but I primarily took issue with the second one. I also have one other major criticism of the book.

That said, the book primarily excels on the back of the first thesis and attempting to introduce more nuance into a discussion of bad acts, as well as a thorough attempt to explain why it is people do bad things, something we still don’t quite understand fully.

To the latter, Shaw explains that there are two primary channels through which people are capable of committing bad acts. First, by deindivuating, where you see yourself as anonymous and part of a group, thus not responsible for any deleterious outcomes of said group; and second, by dehumanizing the Other and no longer seeing whomever that Other is as fully human. Both of these channels lead to the “birth of wrongdoing.”

Certainly, no scientific understanding, or rather attempt to explain, evil can be complete without addressing the brain. Shaw turns to the science on the vmPFC, the region of the brain binding together “large-scale networks that subserve emotional processing, decision-making, memory, self-perception and social cognition in general.” There could be something to a so-called “evil-doer” having damage in that region of the brain, but Shaw is quick to slap on a disclaimer, that one can’t put bad acts at the foot of the brain. After all she says (to paraphrase), you could look, if one were able, at Hitler’s brain and it probably isn’t going to look much different than the average person’s brain.

I was surprised Shaw went into the science behind how a decrease in glucose (sugar) levels can cause aggression without mentioning the famed Twinkie defense! I forgot, until refreshing my brain with Googling, that the Twinkie defense was actually was the opposite. Dan White, who murdered San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, argued that too many Twinkies impaired his decision-making. I would love to see those two contradictory claims parsed out.

Brains are weird, though, and I never heard of “care aggression” before. Shaw explained that care aggression is how we can look at a baby or dog and think, “Gosh, they are so cute,” and have almost an aggressive impulse toward the baby or dog. Not because we actually want to harm them, but because our brains get emotionally overwhelmed by the cuteness and over-compensate, giving us a spike in aggression.

Something Shaw mentions as an aside on at least two occasions is that easy access to guns is a problem for homicides. Yet, as she points out, crime, unbeknownst to the wider public, has been dropping significantly since the early 1990s peak. Not just in the United States, but nearly everywhere in the world, and it’s worth pointing out, we still don’t quite know why. Alongside that significant decline in crime in the United States was an enormous increase in the amount of guns available in the United States, i.e., access to more than 330 million guns. That would disrupt the easy access argument to some extent.

Perhaps the most eye-opening section of the entire book was the one on creepiness and how we judge creepiness. Our brains almost instantaneously judge faces before we consciously judge a face, despite the adage of “not judging a book by its cover.” We do it all the time. And of course, a wide array of things, such as acne, tattoos, piercings, messy hair, etc., fall under people’s definition of “creepy,” while attractive people are seen as more trust-worthy, but not people who are too attractive, as that’s also seen as suspicious. The most problematic part is that when we do judge someone’s face and find something off about it, we begin deconstructing the face. Instead of seeing that person as the “whole,” we take each bit of the face piece by piece and thereby dehumanize that person to establish said judgment of creepiness or untrustworthiness or even evil.

I’m not sure how we counteract that instantaneous judgment our brains do, but perhaps if we as a society stopped ascribing acne, tattoos, messy hair, etc. as characteristics that represent someone’s character and personality (and judge someone based on said character and personality), then our brains wouldn’t turn to such a snap judgment.

A note I made sure to jot down as I was listening to the audiobook, is that nearly everything comes back to unpredictability. Our brains and our social structure relies on predictability and patterns. Anything that deviates from predictability and our expected patterns is seen as, well, deviant, or creepy, or even evil. I’ve written about this before, how predictability is underrated and the COVID-19 pandemic exposed how much we rely upon it.

Throughout the book, Shaw navigates different areas wherein “evil” can manifest, whether individually (although she didn’t want to dig too deep into familiar cases since there are plenty of existing books for that), in corporations, through the internet, our sexual relationships, as expressed in misogynic acts and so on. I’m not as down on technology, and specifically, the internet, being a problem per se. Or that porn is doing something awful to our brains and society. That said, I do think Shaw made a good point I hadn’t thought much about. Cybercrime seems to be one of the last vestiges of blame-the-victim crimes. “Well, why didn’t you take better precautions and set better passwords?” Or worse, validating the crime itself in the form of, “They stole from big corporations. Who cares?”

Shaw is right to question those assumptions and allowances for wrongdoing.

Speaking of allowances, again, our brains are weird with cognitive dissonance. That is, two contradictory elements we can hold in our heads. If I filmed myself walking up to a cow and shooting it in the head and uploaded it it the internet, I would be rightly castigated for behaving cruelly. However, if I dawn a butcher’s apron and do it within a factory farm setting and then sell you the meat, that’s normal. Shaw, again, is right to question that cognitive dissonance.

On the front of corporations, though, I felt that was the weakest part of the book. I get her point that money, and more specifically the quest for money, leads to people engaging in wrongdoing. However, at one point in her book, she seems to approvingly use the adage, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Here, though, she seems to make an argument that “money kills people (or at least, causes one to do harm).” That if only we could eliminate the profit motive in certain facets of life, like pharmaceuticals (she brings up “pharma bro” Martin Shreli to hammer home that point), we could eliminate much of that wrongdoing.

Not only do I fundamentally disagree with that for a whole host of reasons, primarily that the profit motive is responsible for making our world more wealthy and therefore, much safer from wars, the environment, each other, diseases, etc., but for a book that is as comprehensive as Shaw’s is — this goes to the aforementioned major criticism I have of the book — to ignore the way wrongdoing is justified by public servants, i.e., by doing so in the name of the government or society or the people, is a major gap in her coverage. Yes, she talks about Hitler and Goebbels, but those are obvious examples.

I’m talking about, for example, a United States government that carries out and justifies the bombing of wedding parties or a 16-year-old American citizen. To me, that is more the definition of Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” than the almost caricature evil of Hitler and Goebbels.

On the same track of corporations and the seeming plight of low-wage workers, such as undocumented immigrants, Shaw draws a rather unfortunate, in my view, line between that and the slavery of old. By definition, making a wage, even if it’s considered low, is not slavery. That’s it.

Moving forward, another area of Shaw’s book and evil in general I find fascinating is that of the bystander effect. Wherein, humans often will not intervene during a crisis or violent act of some kind because they assume someone else will and that mentality ripples across all the individual parts making the blob inactive. However, there’s more to that story, as Shaw explains. Part of it is just humans freezing: Not wanting to be socially embarrassed by overreacting and not sure what to do.

I also think there’s another basic reason people don’t get involved in violence occurring. Fear of harm to themselves. If I come onto the subway and see a man being pummeled by another man, I don’t know what’s going on. What’s the context? But worse, should I risk bodily harm to physically intervene? I don’t know if that person will brandish a knife or a gun to repel me. Of course, I can think of scenarios where it would be morally obligatory to physically intervene.

But yes, I do take the point that at least in that situation, we could call 9-1-1. Or not be one of those ghoulish types who films it.

Shaw seems to contradict herself by asserting at different times that we are all a “little sadist” or a “little evil,” while also pushing back against other scientists or philosophers who have argued that we are all capable of evil. That if the latter is the case, then that flattens and renders the term “evil” meaningless.

She even explicitly says we are all capable of murder. Again, I disagree with that, particularly because murder is a legal term. I know that’s pedantic, but, I could understand claiming we are all capable of killing, such as in self-defense, but murder is different.

Between that and Shaw’s closing argument for her second thesis that evil is subjective is where she loses me. Despite saying she’s not a moral relativist (and that the book wasn’t going to be a treatise on morality or philosophy), Shaw’s argument reads relativist to me. As soon as you say evil is subjective, we lose our capacity for moral judgment. How can I morally condemn, say, female genital mutilation, when by Shaw’s own argument, people within those cultures believe it to not be evil? I get that she’s saying these different perspectives make the label “evil” rather useless or fraught with problems, but that it is difficult doesn’t make it useless.

Yes, she’s right that calling people “evil” is intellectually lazy and lacks nuance. I’m on board with that. I particularly appreciated the nuance Shaw brought to that subject as it concerned pedophiles. That was bold. A quick perusal of reviews for her book shows that not to be a popular perspective for obvious reasons. You’re not going to make a lot of friends standing up for among the worst of the worst. But I’m glad she did. I’ve written at length myself on the subject that understanding and treating pedophiles isn’t to downplay those concerns with the safety of children, but quite the contrary, to better protect children. Shaw’s argument is also convincing, compelling and much appreciated. In fact, you could have built the entire first thesis on the back of understanding pedophiles better.

As our society continues to address criminal justice issues, I would absolutely love if everyone heeded Shaw’s first thesis and call to action to apply more nuance and humanize criminals. That itself has a negative connotation. You can’t humanize these monsters! That’s hurtful to the victims. But I disagree. Humanizing those who commit bad acts is not necessarily for their benefit, but for our own benefit. Because as soon as we dehumanize those individuals, we accept bad acts of our own.

Finally, since I consumed the book in audio form, I have to give kudos to Teri Schnaubelt for doing a commendable job of reading the book. It can be dense (but still accessible) by covering a great many studies and Schnaubelt handled the narration well.

There’s so much more I could say on Shaw’s book, both favorably and areas where I vehemently disagree, but that’s what makes this such a great book. It makes you think! Even when you disagree, and folks, it’s okay to disagree with someone and still respect the argument put forth, as I do with Shaw.

I highly recommend this book if you’re into this subject. It will challenge you in the best way.

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