The evolution of evil?

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.

  1. Machiavellianism

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.

2. Psychopathy

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.

3. Sadism

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



Mindmapping the issues…

When it comes to mind maps, I was pretty late to the table. In fact I’d never heard of them before I started teaching. Now though, they are an invaluable part of my planning. I would use them to collect and organise the various ways to approach a particular issue before exploring it with my students. They are a common feature in revision classes and help students to collect and summarize their notes. However, they can also be a really interesting and effective learning activity. Have a look at some of these examples…


This is a mind map I made a while back to explore the issue of petitionary prayer. You can see how it differs from a brainstorm (“thought shower“?) as the scribbles are more organised. There are also multiple links between ideas. The most important thing for your students to appreciate is that there is no way an exam essay on the issues of petitionary prayer could include all of these points. The next step is to select those which are most relevant to the question they are tackling and then organise them into an order which they would then use as the basis for an essay plan.

The following mind maps are not mine, but they do show how they encourage fluidity and flexibility in philosophical thinking.


This is a good example of using a mind map to revise a particular topic. The main branches are clearly marked and it is less of an “exploration of ideas” and more of a visual summary of the topic.


This again, shows a mind map that has been used for revision. Nice use of colours!


This one is closer to my own example and tracks a student’s thought process as he prepares to tackle a key issue / question. It is far more fluid than the previous two, and poses many questions which presumably he intends to explore in his essay.

Mind mapping is a skill which once mastered, can prove to be extremely useful. Please let me know how you get on!


Organs for Sale?

If I want to sell a part of my body, should I be allowed to do so? Indeed, if a member of my family is in desperate need of, say, a kidney should I be allowed to go any buy her one? Afterall, if she needs a new pair of shoes I can just pop out and get them for her. Is there a fundamental difference?

The sale of organs, blood, gametes (eggs/sperm) or other bodily parts is currently illegal in the UK. But why? The donation of any of these is perfectly legal.

So what is the difference in ethical terms between the sale of organs and the donation of them?

Have a look at these common arguments (file available to print below) and decide which, if any, you agree with most:


  • There is a shortage of organs available. Offering a financial incentive will increase the number available and potentially save more lives.


  • It could be exploitative—those who are in desperate need of money could accept less than their true worth for their organs.


  • In a free, democratic society I should be allowed to do as I wish with my body. It’s my body; my choice. The state should not dictate what I can or cannot do.


  • It goes against human dignity—the body is not a commodity to be bought and sold like a pair of shoes. The human body is intrinsically valuable.


  • A financial incentive may lead to variable quality of organs being available; the healthiest organs being the most expensive.


  • Where do we draw the line? If it’s ok to sell my kidneys, is it ok sell  my right arm if I’m offered a good price?


  • How can we be sure that, once sold, the decision will not be regretted? The financial incentive becomes the deciding factor.



  • Altruistic donation is an expression of a genuine desire to help. This is a virtue that is not often witnessed in the 21st C and it should be celebrated.


Many of these issues are discussed by Tim Lewens in a PhilosophyBites podcast. He talks at length about the altruistic nature of donation, as opposed to the coercive nature of offering any financial incentive. For instance he mentions the practice of “egg sharing” whereby women receiving private IVF treatment can benefit from a reduced price in return for egg donation. Of the women who agreed to the scheme, many said they wouldn’t have done so, if the IVF treatment they received had been freely available. It suggests that any financial incentive skews a decision that would have otherwise been freely made. However, there are lots of examples of financial incentives skewing decision making and they are not necessarily a bad thing. Teenagers the world over are more likely to wash the car, vacuum the house or empty the dishwasher in return for a cash reward. Yes, we might prefer them to do it for free, but if it works then everyone is happy. Everyone benefits. So where is the difference? Lewens refers to what he calls the “nebulous” claim of Human Dignity. For many people the human body is not a commodity to be bought and sold; organ donation should not be reduced to just another service rendered. He suggests that many people may cite human dignity as their objection to the sale of human organs, but what they really mean is “I don’t really like the idea very much”.

In other words, the value of human life needs justification – perhaps Thomas Aquinas or Immanuel Kant could have offered arguments against the sale of human organs based on human dignity…

But what might Bentham, Mill or the Virtue Theorists (Aristotle, MacIntyre etc) have said about it?


Philosophy Bites episode – Tim Lewens on Selling Organs

Selling Organs – worksheet / discussion sheet


Islam: Fundamentalism, Extremism & Terrorism

In light of the attacks in Paris last week and a heightened sense of unease across much of western Europe, here is a collection of resources to explore some of the key issues.

Evaluating Fundamentalism–  powerpoint to support and guide class discussion about the nature of fundamentalism & the impact it has on the wider Muslim world.

terrorism – a one slide powerpoint with key definitions of Fundamentalist, Extremist and Terrorist

Islam – Fundamentalism and Extremism – article outlining the factors leading to the rise of fundamentalism and extremism in Islam

Traditional Biblical Marriage

When objecting to the suggestion that homosexual couples should be allowed the same marital rights as heterosexual couples, many Christians may cite the “traditional” image of marriage illustrated, and in many places, commanded in the Bible. That is, the life-long union between one man and one woman, in the presence of God.  Love and marriage are often praised and celebrated as an opportunity to delight in each other, to produce children, and (in St Paul’s view at least) as an outlet for sexual urges.

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. (Gen. 2:24)

He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favour from the Lord. (Prov. 18:22) Continue reading

REflect: The AlevelRE online journal

The first edition of REflect, the AlevelRE journal is now available to download! In this issue, you will find 3 articles aimed at providing some extra material to support your students’ learning.

In this issue:

Behind the Vale:  An examination of Hick’s theodicy


A Glimpse of the Numinous: Do religious experiences demonstrate the existence of God?


A Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness: The Problems of Petitionary Prayer


Just click Here to download your copy: REflect 1 Feb 15

Reflect 1


Je Suis Charlie & Freedom of Speech

In response to the decision by the newspaper Charlie Hebdo  to publish a cartoon image of the Prophet Mohammad on their front cover this week, here is a teaching resource you might find helpful to use when discussing the issue with your students.

Simply click to download 🙂

Je Suis Charlie – discussion sheet

Mummy, when I grow up I want to be a jihadi.


FUNDAMENTALISM – A usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to basic principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism

EXTREMISM – Groups and individuals who have become radicalized and use fear-mongering  tactics to encourage fear-based obedience to doctrines

TERRORISM –  The systematic use of violence and fear especially as a means of intimidation and obligation


What makes someone want to leave their home and family to fly to a strange country and join a group of terrorists? An estimated 3000 members of the terrorist organisation IS is made up of foreign nationals from the UK, the US, Canada, the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Germany, to name but a few.

But why? For some, it is perhaps “only natural” for Muslims to want to engage in Jihad. The current plight of the Muslim world is a consequence of years of oppression and domination by the West – historically in terms of colonialism and more recently exacerbated by the relentless support for Israel and what is perceived to be systematic discrimination against Muslims in the West. For this minority of Muslims, violent Jihad is legitimate as a means of defending Islam against the increasing tide of Westernization. But the crucial question is what impact does this have on the moderate Muslims of the Diaspora?

The Islam advocated by the extremists of radical groups is a long way from the faith practised in the majority of Mosques in the UK. The majority of Muslims feel little connection to the views of extremists who declare a war on the West in the name of Islam. For these Muslims, the West is their home and they experience no ambivalence in living a Muslim life within the context of a 21st Century secular society. However, for an increasing number of young British Muslims, the crisis of identity is having an impact. Berated by their extremist brothers for not being  ‘true’ to Islam and marginalised by a society that is growing increasingly suspicious and intolerant of the symbols of their religion, young British Muslims find themselves attracted to organisations in which they can feel valued and significant. They are left vulnerable to radical groups who are meeting the needs of a minority who feel forgotten and undervalued by their government.

The insistence on taqlid (literal belief of the Qur’an & Hadith) rather than advocating ijtihad (interpretation) further adds to the problem as the majority of Muslims find themselves unable to defend their more moderate faith against the propaganda of organisations like IS, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc etc.

Finally and perhaps most poignantly comes the terminology that is used to discuss this sensitive issue. When discussing the situation that modern British Muslims find themselves in, one girl told me she resented having to refer to herself as a “moderate” Muslim. She said she holds the truth of Tawhid and the words of the Shahada at the centre of her existence – shouldn’t that make her a fundamentalist? The idea of being “moderate” seems to be a dumbing down of her faith to make it more acceptable to a modern society and yet to be labelled “fundamentalist” brings with it all the stereotypical connotations of oppression, violence and brutality that most modern Muslims are trying so hard to distance themselves from. To many modern Muslims,  ‘fundamentalists’ like the Muslim Brotherhood and other similar movements are in fact losing sight of what it really means to be a Muslim – ie, believing in one God and practicing the 5 Pillars.

Far from uniting the Ummah, fundamentalist movements appear only to exacerbate the disparate and alienated communities of the Muslim Diaspora. However, until the West identifies how to best meet the needs of a disenchanted generation of young Muslims, these organisations will continue to pose a threat to Islam.

In a speech made during a recent visit to Turkey, Pope Francis declared that the only way to fight terrorism was to address the root problems in society: to alleviate hunger and poverty and thereby reduce the marginalisation of society which leads to many seeking refuge and status within the arms of religious extremism.

No doubt he is right, however it clearly doesn’t address the issue of why we hear of educated, affluent and popular members of our societies who are also being “radicalised” and recruited to terrorist organisations like IS.

Many of these wannabe jihadis are intelligent, educated, “westernised” individuals – they have friends and a bright future in their home countries which they are prepared to abandon in their pursuit of jihad.

So what is so attractive about it? And what is the wider impact on the Muslim world? Use these questions to prompt a discussion among your own students.

A quick note about terms: 

  • Fundamentalism is, essentially, the strict adherence to a basic set of principles within a religion.
  • Extremism & Terrorism are sometimes used interchangeably with fundamentalism (especially in the media) but are not identical terms
  • Not all fundamentalists are terrorists / extremists!

Evaluating Fundamentalism – powerpoint discussion questions & prompts

Evaluating Fundamentalism – focus TALIBAN – powerpoint, similar to above but with the Taliban as focus

Evaluating Fundamentalism – focus TALIBAN – Discussion sheet to accompany Taliban evaluation ppt


Guardian Article about Pope Francis’ call to fight terrorism

The rise of Islamism & the Arab Spring


With an increasing number of believers turning to fundamentalist forms of their religion, and the resulting schism between liberal and conservative ever widening, it seems necessary to ask what is it that makes fundamentalism so appealing in the 21st Century?

Is it the simplicity? the fact that it is not incumbent on the individual to engage with the finer points of theological doctrine? everything is taken at face value and what defies reason or logic is simply put down to the necessity of having “blind faith”. This may be more a feature of Christian fundamentalists – the unquestioning nature of faith is common among the Christian communities in the Bible Belt in the States, for example.

Is it the sense of status, belonging, importance, and value in a society in which they might otherwise feel marginalised? This perhaps is more prevalent among young Muslim men living in the Diaspora – in the UK where young Muslims feel marginalised by a society who is all too quick to stereotype, many find solace and solidarity in fundamentalist groups.

Or is it that other systems have failed and that a return to the basics of religion is the only way forward, the only means of meeting the needs of the people? In this series of The Documentary, Egyptian author Tarek Osman explores the pattern of events which led to the rise of Islamism (Political Islam) in Egypt, illuminated by the upsrising in Tahrir Square. He questions what made a liberal country where in the 1960s women were allowed to wear western clothing (including mini skirts) turn to the fundamentalism offered by the Muslim Brotherhood as the answer to the country’s problems. Why can fundamentalism succeed when nationalism and liberalism failed?

Click on this link to listen


You might also be interested in:

burqa    British IslamArab SpringDivine_Ep1_iNLINE

Arab Spring: The impact on Islam

When the trouble in Egypt first started being broadcast on our screens, it was hoped that the “cultural revolution” would give rise to a new democratic Egypt. Indeed, as the civil unrest became more widespread throughout the Arab world, the West began to *tentatively* hope for this to be a new era in Arab politics.

However, while it does appear that a new era is on the horizon, it is not necessarily shaping up in the way it was hoped it would. The liberated political scene is providing the ideal platform for extremist groups to grow in popularity in a way that would not have been possible under previous political dictatorships.

In this episode of File on 4, Jenny Cuffe investigates the growing popularity of Salafist movements – an ultra conservative branch of Islam which has been blamed for being behind many of the recent violent protests over an anti-Muslim film which appeared on the internet. Jenny explores why they are so popular, and asks what kind of threat they pose to democracy in the region.

To accompany this is an article I wrote in March 2011, when the civil unrest in Egypt was at its height. In it, I outline the political background and ideology behind Islamic extremism and explore the impact Salafist movements have on modern British Muslims.  Just click on the link below.

Modern Muslim Fundamentalism