What is ‘evil’? Traditionally, the word has religious overtones – that which is contrary to the Divine Will. However, it is more broadly used to mean anything which is bad, vicious or cruel. Is ‘evil’ inherent to the human conditiona – something we inherited from our more primitive ancestors, and still observed among animal species today? And if so, is it because it is somehow advantageous to be evil?
In this article from the BBC, Lucy Jones explores this idea and suggests that the darkest human character traits are rooted in our genetic ancestry and are key to the success of a species.
Derived from the name of Nicolo Machiavelli, author of the 15th Century political treatise, The Prince, Machavellianism means using cunning to gain power of a rival. In modern psychology, it is one of the Dark Triad personalities, characterised by being manipulative, self interested and deceptive. Dario Maestripieri from the University of Chicago identified Machiavellian tendencies among a group of rhesus monkeys. The alpha male would use unpredictable bursts of aggression to rule over subordinates. The females would protect their own self interests, and those of their daughters by mating not only with the alpha, but also by mating with other males who may one day take his place. This desire to establish and maintain dominance or alliances with dominant individuals is clearly advantageous in furthering the interests of the individuals and ensuring the propagation of the species.
Characterised by persistent lack of empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, egotistical traits, a psychopath is genuinely unpleasant. A observation that has also been made by primatologists such as Frans de Waal and Jane Goodall among chimpanzees. De Waal described one chimp as being “two faced and mean” or “deceitful and mendacious”, universally disliked by researchers. Goodall, on the other hand, studied a mother/daughter pair of chimps who systematically cannibalied 8 infants over 4 years. A study in 1999 took 34 chimpanzees in captivity at a research centre in Georgia found that there was “evidence for the psychopathy construct in chimpanzees”, and concluded that certain features of human psychopathy, such as risk-taking and absence of generosity, were found in great apes.
Sadism involves the enjoyment or pleasure gained from inflicting cruelty, or from seeing others in pain. It can include the use of emotional cruelty, purposefully manipulating others through the use of fear. As such it can allow a person to maintain power and dominance over another. There have been observations of apparent sadism among animals. Take for example, the way in which a cat toys with a mouse before killing it. Such behaviour is clearly tortuous to the mouse, however there remains the question over whether the cat is really aware of the suffering it is inflicting. Indeed, a similar example can be found among dolphins, swimming under the water popping off seagulls that are sitting on the surface. Are the dolphins doing this because they enjoy the activity (like us popping bubble wrap) or because they enjoy the suffering of the seagulls? The answer is unclear.
Del Paulhus of the university of British Colombia, says that paradoxically, the ‘evil’ behaviours exhibited among animal societies may actually be beneficial – encouraging individuals to be on their guard and to think carefully about trust.
Ultimately, the evolution of these character traits comes down to the ability of the genes to perpetuate down the generations. People possessing Machiavellian, psychopathic or sadistic tendencies may well have been more promiscuous: “You can persuade and manipulate partners a lot better if you think strategically without empathetic concern for hurting another’s feelings,” says Paulhus. According to Maestripieri, these ‘evil’ tendencies may just be one part of a complex nature. It’s not that there are some people who are ‘evil’ all the time.
Read the whole article here: How Did Evil Evolve, and Why Did it Persist? by Lucy Jones