2019, Books, Non-Fiction

Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side (2019) by Julia Shaw

So I listened to the audio book, which I think made a pretty big impression on me. I think I might have enjoyed the book more had I read it instead.

This is a wide-ranging examination of the nature of “evil” from the perspective of psychology and, occasionally, philosophy. (Nietzsche gets a lot of references.) Shaw covers both things I would expect and things I wouldn’t, sometimes straying into areas which I was surprised by. Most of it seems relevant, eventually, but there will definitely be parts where you are wondering why a book about the nature of evil would include such a topic.

I knew a lot of this already. And I must say that one of my criticisms is that this book sometimes comes across as a Greatest Hits of infamous psychological studies (and, occasionally, infamous philosophical takes). Covering the now debunked Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment may be necessary, but I’m not sure she adds anything to topics that have been covered ad nauseum. But much of the content I was unfamiliar with, and this does mostly feel to be an up-to-date summary of human knowledge of why people do bad things.

My biggest issue with the book is actually Shaw’s reading of it. She often comes across as too clinical and too cold. (Also, she horribly mispronounces at least three relatively common words and I kept wondering why somebody didn’t make her go back and pronounce them properly.) I recently read an Atlantic piece about why Michael Dukakis lost a debate to George Bush, in which Dukakis rationally defended being against the death penalty. The article referenced a recent study wherein they found that humans want to trust other humans based upon the way they appear to make decisions. People who appear to be making gut decisions or struggle with their emotions before deciding are more trustworthy because they appear more relatable. So Dukakis came off as overly rational, as unfeeling, etc. when he said he didn’t support the death penalty even for the killer of a family member. And I witnessed this myself as I reacted time and again to Shaw’s reading of the book, as I felt put off and sometimes outraged by her ideas, not because I disagreed with them – I often didn’t – but because of her tone. Her delivery is problematic also because sometimes she goes from clinical appraisals of bad acts to urging society to change. This feels particularly weird given how she has mostly sounded earlier. The short version is that they should have hired an actor.

But it’s still very much worth reading, especially if you are someone who still believes that there are bad people (or “bad apples”) and good people in the world, or you believe that bad acts are always conscious, deliberate (even rational) decisions.


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