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How did evil evolve, and why did it persist?
‘Evil’ behaviours can be categorised into four basic groups – and they are far from being unique to our species
By Lucy Jones
Evil, it can seem, is all around us. Hitler. The Rwandan genocide. Ted Bundy. Every time you read the news or watch television, bad behaviour that causes harm is on display.
These days, the word ‘evil’ has religious connotations. It’s tied up with morality and transgressions against the will of a divine being. But in its original Old English it meant anything that was simply bad, vicious or cruel.
Very interesting! @andarthas-web sounds like information you’d like to read sometime. It divides basic evil behaviors in Machiavellianism, psychopathy, sadism and narcissism, and focuses on evolutionary explanations. I’m not sure if it’s the best conceptual model, but it’s a good read.
On a related note I’d like to add that the examples provided, namely war/terrorism and crime, need a broader scope than the individual reductionism. Psychopathology is very mediated by the social level, to the point that we have a concept of culture-bound sickness, such as running amok. In a war, what is barbaric and atrocious for one party, can be revolutionary and heroic for another. Societies behave in a certain way that can’t be reduced to the individuals, and this influences how we interpret historical events.
It is true however that there surely are evolutionary bases for violence, manipulation, psychopathy, and explanations for sadism (perhaps the scariest as it is apparently purposeless violence). On a meta-ethical level it’s salient that what is often seen as unambiguously evil behavior, what some call malum in se, is the one that threatens our nature as social beings. Or, evil is about antisociality.
So it’s salient ethics are tied to biology in this manner that I’ll unroll now. There’s a fundamental concept in sociology known as “solidarity”, which is the property of a group of people such that if, say, someone finds you unconscious on the street, they’re more likely to help you than to let you die or hurt you. “Anti-social” behavior is by necessity coded as immoral. Sadistic violence, infanticide, lack of empathy…; all sorts of horrors that are tied to the idea of selfishness and lack of selflessness, failure at following social regulation. Because if a generation of beings like us were all like that, we’d die out.
It’s tempting as a reaction to assume that the opposing pole, is where the ultimate good lies. But, funnily enough, only a different kind of degeneration lies there for human beings: fanaticism. Rather than being two poles representing good and bad, the balance between selfishness and selflessness represents the balance of a social being that is still geared for individual survival and a predilection for their kin (and here I mean family) as their evolutionary strategy. When one is “absolutely unselfish”, that means their consciousness only considers one end, only values what is good to “the social”. But exactly the way that an individual interest can be harmful, so can a collective one be: a political ideology, a tyrannical government, an organization, a religious cult… does that ring a bell?
This holds true for very different contexts. A queer person being expelled from a community because their sexual identity is a sin; a murderer shamed for killing his spouse’s lover. The “social good”, what that social order dictates is the norm, isn’t necessarily good. The “individual interest”, what that individual’s tendency for self-preservation is, isn’t always bad.
There’s a reason we use the word “hivemind” for cult-like phenomena, and that’s what ties to the biology. Humans exist in a middle ground between beings who a asocial (like, say, ticks - called ‘solitary’), and those who are “eusocial” (like, say, bees). If we had the social biology of bees, with an intelligence sufficient to ponder that - society, ethics and “evil” would look very different. Things like individualism and plurality would be unthinkable, and far from being a “degeneration”, absolutely serving the social good would be the only moral orientation. Imagine the reproductive or civil “rights” if huge contingents of the population were constitutionally sterile, less intelligent or with a lower lifespan; if one gender had half the genetic information, was cloned, etc. Dystopian nightmares to us, because we’re not eusocial.
Outside of the bees, the point is that evil is about antisociality, but also about “hyper”sociality. So while we exist in the ambiguity, noticing the evil in both directions, we’re left without a perfect answer in our biology to make choices. We’re left being mostly social in a world of plural minds that don’t agree on what a good society is supposed to be - and that’s where I think most suffering comes from, most wars, most atrocity, most “bad behavior that causes harm”… ironically not even “evil”.
okay so if harry potter was born in 1980, and went to hogwarts in like 91, that means he was in his sixth year in 1996
do you think he knew about the spice girls? i mean.. i know he had shit going on with horcruxes that year but wannabe isn’t something that happens without you taking note of it
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