Book Review — Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side

There is an old illusion. It is called good and evil.
Fredrick Nietzsche

Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side

Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side by Julia Shaw is a study of evil and an attempt to define evil. Shaw is a German-Canadian psychologist and popular science writer who specializes in false memories. She started a BSc in psychology at the Simon Fraser University. She went on to complete a Masters in Psychology and Law at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. In 2009, she returned to Canada and was awarded a Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia entitled “Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime.”

Shaw opens with Hitler, someone that nearly everyone considers as evil; the question is why. There was no trauma in his childhood. He did not torture small animals. Even to the last, he was kind to his dog. Yet, he is responsible for the deaths of millions. Others seem to fit this mold like Charles Manson, or Josef Stalin. They have little in redeeming qualities.

What is evil? Is there a definition that can be applied — a tipping point for actions. Shaw does punctuate the chapters of the book with Nietzsche quotes that tend to imply that the answer is no. The Trolley Experiment is an excellent example of the sliding scale of right and wrong, and that experiment can be played on many different levels and settings. These experiments have no right answer many times. If letting a child die to save a person wrong, what about if ten people were saved, or one hundred? Where is the line drawn? Is someone who kills a person by accident or negligence deserving of the title of “murderer” the same as a serial killer? We all have a dark secret of some kind or something we are not proud of in our past. Should that label be made public and remain with us for our entire lives?

Shaw does take some twists that are unexpected such as with Jeffery Dahmer and those who commit murder. Recidivism rates for murder are extremely low, and most murders are between people who are close. Someone who kills is doubtful to kill again. Her search for why sometimes clouds the actions. However, some crimes are of necessity. Would anyone considers Jean Valjean to be evil?

Evil has changed over time. Homosexuality was considered a crime or a mental illness. Some people thought it was contagious. Some aspects of sexuality today were considered crimes in the recent past. Others remain on the taboo list. Shaw also likes using lists that make the reader feel increasingly uncomfortable to the point that each reader comes upon an action they consider evil. We all do not stop at the same point. We oppose slavery in the modern world but where is the line drawn. Paying someone a non-living wage is permissible, but slavery is evil. Killing puppies or kittens is considered evil, but the industrial slaughter of cows, pigs, and chickens is allowable.

Nietzsche said, “There is no such thing as moral phenomena, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena.” Although many of us can agree that evil exists at one edge of the spectrum, how far does it extend to the center? Shaw gives examples and situations to show how large the grey area is between good and evil. Time moves the marker. Differences in our own thinking and experiences create different tipping points for each of us. We all agree are that there is evil, but what is evil varies between people.

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