The Evolution of evil

Neuroscientists believe that all we are – our memories, our temperament, our feelings, our thoughts, are created by the electric patterns of a large number of cells in our brain.  This is quite controversial – many people believe there must be something more.  And no neuroscientist has been able to explain why the color red appears ‘red’ to us, and why the feeling of ‘awe’ feels like ‘awe’ and is not just an emotionless, blind set of patterns.  But let us proceed with the neuron hypothesis, and also say that the brain is a product of evolution – that it evolved to give organisms an adaptive edge.

If this is the case, then, there may be an advantage to the acts we consider evil.  For instance killing a rival, or a rival tribe, might give us the resources of that tribe – their land, for instance.  On the other hand, such an attack might be dangerous for us, abruptly ending our ability to reproduce. 

We have seen the murders of tens of millions in countries like Stalinist Russia or Mao’s China.  In such countries there seems to be a selective disadvantage to thinking independently from the ruling clique.

In tribal societies like the Amazon’s Yanomani, some claim that there was selective advantage to the man who killed the most people in rival tribes.  Such a person got status and access to mates, for example.

The primates who are closest to us (Chimpanzees) have gang fights, and male Gorillas are known to kill the offspring of female Gorillas that they want to mate with.  We are opposed to gang fights in our society, and infanticide seems completely evil, but we don’t consider Gorillas evil.  We consider them just a product of their evolution.

Perhaps we are too, in which case we are just carrying out the program of our genes. Whether we have free will or not, our actions would be determined by who we are, which in turn would be determined by our genes.   Twin studies do show a genetic influence on criminality, but they also show an environmental influence.  In other words a person could have a genetic predisposition that only gets expressed in a certain environment.

In history, we can see that people who were capable of murdering other peoples did sometimes gain from it.  The raids of the Vikings were profitable, for example.  The Spanish conquest of Latin America gave vast territories and population expansion for the Spanish Conquistadores. 

And Genghis Khan, the fearsome Mongolian warrior of the 13th century, may have done more than rule the largest empire in the world; according to a recently published genetic study, he may have helped populate it too.  According to the study, he has 16 million descendants living today:

“Khan’s empire at the time of his death extended across Asia, from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea. His military conquests were frequently characterized by the wholesale slaughter of the vanquished. His descendants extended the empire and maintained power in the region for several hundred years, in civilizations in which harems and concubines were the norm. And the males were markedly prolific.”

So here, aggression and ruthlessness paid off in the genetic pool.

More recently, when civil war broke out in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1998 until November 2002, 3.3 million people are reported to have perished according to the International Rescue Committee. Most of the deaths are attributable to sickness and famine.  My guess is that the actual fighters get enough to eat – because they take it by force.  Its the ordinary peaceful civilian who dies of famine.

 Religious wars, on the other hand, seem to have no advantage to gene pools at all.  They just result in vast numbers of people, many quite related, getting killed.  

Another interesting question is whether a welfare society encourages irresponsible people to have many children.  If there is no price or responsibility for a man to have children by irresponsible women, then many such children will be born.  Such children might not have the self-control and attitude to work hard, stay married, provide a solid home for their own children, etc.

Finally, are the brains of evil people different than the brains of regular people?  There is some evidence for reduced areas responsible for impulse control in some criminals, and we know that psychopaths respond differently to electric conductance tests of the skin, and MRI studies of their brains in action show differences.  But other than that, I have not heard of any studies on the subject.  We could speculate that some section of the brain that had to do with feelings of guilt and conscience might be missing in some people.

I showed the above post to a friend who disagreed that people’s temperament can be genetic.  So here is an excerpt from an internet article on man’s best friend, which has been bred from a wolf to have a variety of temperaments, which must be genetic:

“The first consideration that most people evaluate when choosing a dog breed is general temperament. Some breeds, such as Golden Retrievers and Cocker Spaniels, are known to be more outgoing and friendly. Others, including the Bull Mastiff and Bull Terrier, are well known for their aggression.  Temperament characteristics to examine include:

  • Aggression and protectiveness
  • Energy, activity level, and playfulness
  • Intelligence
  • Loyalty
  • Sensitivity
  • Compatibility with other animals”

If genetics can create such differences in one species, couldn’t it create those differences in us as well?


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