Thursday, April 07, 2011

Defective empathy genes

graphic by TildSpot’s alter ego, Sigmund Spot, has theorized for some time that defective empathy genes cause conservatives to believe a lot of the things they believe.

George Bush the Elder held a similar view, declaring famously (so famously that I don’t need to provide a link) that some conservatives were “extra gene” conservatives. He may have crafted his theory watching W.

Now, it seems that the pioneering work of Sigmund and George the Elder is receiving some confirmation from a study by Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, as reported in the U.K. Independent. Here’s the lede from the article:

Lucy Adeniji – an evangelical Christian and author of two books on childcare – trafficked two girls and a 21-year-old woman from Nigeria to work as slaves in her east London home. She made them toil for 21 hours a day and tortured them if they displeased her. The youngest girl was 11 years old. [Since there were two girls, and one woman, it should have been “younger girl.” But I digress.]

Sentencing her to 11-and-a-half years in prison last month, Judge Simon Oliver [the judge’s name is how you know it was a case from the U.K.] said: "You are an evil woman. I have no doubt you have ruined these two girls' lives. They will suffer from the consequences of the behaviour you meted out to them for the rest of their lives."

Most people would probably agree with Judge Oliver's description of Adeniji as evil, but Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, would not be one of them. In his latest book, Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty, Baron-Cohen, argues that the term evil is unscientific and unhelpful. "Sometimes the term evil is used as a way to stop an inquiry," Baron-Cohen tells me. "'This person did it because they're evil' – as if that were an explanation."

Baron-Cohen believes that the principle cause of evil behavior is a lack – sometimes a stunning lack – of empathy.

At zero degrees of empathy [on a scale developed by the professor and described in the linked article] are two distinct groups. Baron-Cohen calls them zero-negative and zero-positive. Zero-positives include people with autism or Asperger's syndrome. They have zero empathy but their "systemising" nature means they are drawn to patterns, regularity and consistency. As a result, they are likely to follow rules and regulations – the patterns of civic life.

Zero-negatives are the pathological group. These are people with borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. They are capable of inflicting physical and psychological harm on others and are unmoved by the plight of those they hurt. Baron-Cohen says people with these conditions all have one thing in common: zero empathy.

The question is: did people with these personality disorders lose their empathy or were they born that way?

One of Baron-Cohen's longitudinal studies – which began 10 years ago – found that the more testosterone a foetus generates in the womb, the less empathy the child will have post- natally. In other words, there is a negative correlation between testosterone and empathy. It would appear the sex hormone is somehow involved in shaping the "empathy circuits" of the developing brain.

Given that testosterone is found in higher quantities in men than women, it may come as no surprise that men score lower on empathy than women. So there is a clear hormonal link to empathy. Another biological factor is genetics. Recent research by Baron-Cohen and colleagues found four genes associated with empathy – one sex steroid gene, one gene related to social-emotional behaviour and two associated with neural growth.

This has, of course, implications for the utility of trying to reason or argue with conservatives.

A thump of the tail to Roger Ebert for a tweet linking to the article.

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