Review: Evil – The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side by Julia Shaw

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Abrams Press | 2019

Filed Under: Apparently, evil is just a misunderstanding

I really wanted to like this and I’m having a hard time with the rating because I didn’t like this, and frankly parts of it are so off-putting I want to toss it out a window.

But it’s not a bad book either in terms of writing quality.

My biggest problem really comes down to the fact that this book is not about the science behind humanity’s dark side, as the cover suggests.

I wanted to learn about the brain, human chemistry, nature vs nurture; I wanted case studies and scientific journals and theories and experiments. What I got was the author explaining why evil is subjective and nothing is really bad because all humans fuck up. The overall theme boils down to “rethinking evil.”

While that may be a provocative topic to tackle, I wouldn’t have necessarily started the book with the argument that we should reconsider labelling Hitler as evil.

There is actually very little science-backed study and explanation in this book. The author invokes the Milgram Experiment to discuss the banality of evil, and then uses the Stanford Prison Experiment to explore group-think, but never mentions the many issues with that study that led to it being discredited. Shaw doesn’t do a very good job at tying the referenced studies to the points she’s trying to make; they are loosely thrown together and barely make a correlation.

There’s a passive defence for everything from pedophiles and bestiality to the idea that words like “murderer” and “rapist” are hypocritical and “heinous” definitions we as a species label people unfairly, when really we’ve all made mistakes as human beings.

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I probably should have stopped reading after that shit, but nevertheless, I persisted, and what I found was a shallow argument against the idea of “evil,” and a swath of the author’s biased opinions and personal background. While I admire her dedication to speaking her truth about her sexuality, it seemed to act only as a jumping-off point for the author to become preachy to the reader.

She approached her writing with an occasionally “holier-than-thou” tone that came across like, “I know this is how the world should work and the rest of you should just shut up.”

While I agree with her on topics like the LGBTQ community or the industrial prison complex, I have to wonder who exactly she thought she was preaching to? Who was the audience for that? Hellooooo, I wanted to read about science and bad people?! You already got me on the liberal principals.

Shaw also goes on to take some strange soap-box stances on things such as normalizing abhorrent sexual practices and suggesting that people harm animals because we’re protecting our brains from cuteness overload. And to me, that’s fucking stupid. Sorry, but also not sorry because it’s seriously fucking stupid.


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I was looking for actual science-based non-fiction that would enlighten me on the “evil” aspects of humanity, and on why people do the fucked up things we do. Instead, this is a lot of personal speculation by the author meant to support her opinion that nothing is really evil, we’re just misunderstanding the human condition.

Whatever. Maybe that’s true. Everything is subjective and there are no firm, black and white rules that tell us how this shit is supposed to work, so we make it up as we go along with the basic understanding that we should do our best to not hurt anyone. We learn, we grow, we allow marriage rights, abortion rights…we continue to evolve as we learn what is doing the most harm and the least.

We arrive at the conclusion that murder is wrong, hurting animals is wrong, exterminating an entire group of people because you don’t like their religion is wrong, and so is sexually abusing children.

Shaw momentarily brings up the idea that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” but abandons the point without too much exploration. Again, subjectively true, but in purely rational terms, there must be some kind of agreement on what is right and what is wrong or else we fall apart as a society.

Within those terms, dying on the hill “pedophilia is just misunderstood” is not a good look.

There was also a lot of contradicting arguments in the book. One that stood out to me was Shaw’s stance on porn – it’s not that bad and we should stop being so critical of the porn industry and those obsessed with it, and maybe we should allow porn to be used in health classes. But later in the book, she goes on to wag her finger at misogyny, chastising society for allowing ourselves to become over-saturated with images of women that promote an unhealthy idea of sex and women’s bodies, ultimately leading to demeaning women in society.

How are those two positions not in conflict with each other?

I just…

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This whole book is filled with Nietzsche quotes in between Shaw opening up a can of worms with an opinion and then dropping the follow-up real fast without giving a full argument for her point.

Overall, I found the arguments made in the book to be super lame, easy and lacking any kind of real conviction or solid backing evidence. It’s like she just sat down and wrote a bunch of offensive questions and called it a day.

After all the op-ed style writing and soap-boxing, everything comes down to the semantics of the word “evil,” instead of the actual science behind people who have dark, objectively negative impulses and how science explains these things.

That’s the book I wanted to read, but that’s not this book.


What is it about evil that we find so compelling? From our obsession with serial killers to violence in pop culture, we seem inescapably drawn to the stories of monstrous acts and the aberrant people who commit them. But evil, Dr. Julia Shaw argues, is all relative, rooted in our unique cultures. What one may consider normal, like sex before marriage, eating meat, or being a banker, others find abhorrent. And if evil is only in the eye of the beholder, can it be said to exist at all? In Evil, Shaw uses case studies from academia, examples from and popular culture, and anecdotes from everyday life to break down complex information and concepts like the neuroscience of evil, the psychology of bloodlust, and workplace misbehavior. This is a wide-ranging exploration into a fascinating, darkly compelling subject. 

4 thoughts on “Review: Evil – The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side by Julia Shaw

  1. How disappointing! And it has such a cool cover! Like you, I would’ve liked case studies, because I find this/these subjects quite interesting. Two books I have on my shelf by Janet Malcolm are Psychoanalysis and The Journalist and the Murderer. Also, The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson. Have you read any of these?

    Liked by 1 person

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