My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve been wanting to read the works of Dr Julia Shaw for quite some time now after reading about her research into implanting false memories – which was absolutely fascinating. Her book on this subject is next on my to-do list, but this one on evil – which is newer – grabbed my attention first. It certainly has the ‘ooh’ factor when you pick it up.
I have my tussles with morality. I’ve been through most stages of religious belief and disbelief and gone from believing in absolute evil to disbelieving it exists at all. Furthermore, my experiences and research over at least the last two decades leads me to believe that almost everyone’s sense of morality is ‘fluid’ and prone to persuasion. Evil and perversity are not set in stone – for anyone – no matter what religious or ideological beliefs they may subscribe to.
There’s no doubt this a deeply intriguing area and one which can’t just be answered by the cold logic of science…yet. Reason and philosophy have to be part of the discussion when it comes to evil, morality and the line between good and ‘perversity’.
Shaw makes a good solid attempt to tackle this. By her own admission, this is not a complete thesis but really an introduction to the topic. I think this is fair and can highly recommend the book to anyone who wants to begin thinking in this area and be challenged in doing so.
The first couple of chapters – on the neuroscience of evil and the motivation for murder – are particularly excellent. Shaw gives some great insights into ourselves and presents some jaw-dropping case studies. Chapter five – on sexual deviance – is an area I have been finding intriguing for a long time, as the way people obtain their sexual delights has changed over the last 10-15 years. In particular, the porn industry has changed beyond recognition and the acceptance in society of the use of porn and sex toys is something that would have been unimaginable forty years ago. What would have been a moral outrage twenty years ago, is now normal behaviour for most older teenagers.
It was a brave move then, in many ways, for Shaw to tackle this subject and I can imagine she has received criticism from closed and nervous minds thinking that seeking to understand that which we consider evil somehow means a ‘loosening’ of morals. In reality, the author ends up taking a surprisingly moral stance.
This is not necessarily a good thing. While it is clear and unambiguous that Shaw’s book is not a coldly clinical, academic thesis on evil (instead, it is highly readable and approachable for the non-psychologist), nevertheless the initial impartial stance she takes evaporates as the book progresses. From around the chapter on sexual deviance onwards, Shaw takes herself off the academic’s fence and makes her views plain to see. I don’t object to this per se, but eventually the tone becomes a little too ranting. At the points where she gives a rallying call for change I couldn’t help but feel this detracted from letting the reader consider the evidence she presents and make their own minds up about what to make of it all. Shaw, at times, seems to push for us to take her position, whether or not that coincides with our own.
But this criticism is, of course, rather subjective. For another reader, they may value Shaw’s passion for justice and fairness and be turned off by a cold, impartial style. Fair enough. I certainly enjoyed how her humanity and even, occasionally, her fragility come to the fore. So my criticism should firmly be considered a footnote – easily dismissible, but necessary to state.
Overall then, this book is an excellent introduction to the topic of ‘what is evil and does it actually exist’. Shaw presents considerable food for thought, her writing is lively and personable, and the subject matter has clearly been considered over very carefully to be as accessible as possible without causing offence. To do this without watering down some of the very difficult and traumatic aspects is admirable. I’m definitely a fan of Dr Shaw and will look forward to reading her book on false memories – it’s next on the list.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.