The Ecology Of Evil

In his book “Dark Nature – A Natural History Of Evil” Lyall Watson attempts to look at evil from a biological and ecological perspective. He makes some interesting points.

Point 1:
He says that in England, 52% of all babies killed in the home were beaten to death by stepfathers, who have no genetic investment in their offspring.
So you have an act that seems to us pure evil, but seems to follow a genetic logic.

But then again, he says that in the U.S., every year 1,300 children are killed by their parents or close relatives. Half of these victims are under the age of one, and most of these are murdered by their mothers. These mothers have half of their genes in their offspring, which, by the genetic theory of altruism, would make them reluctant to kill.

In more primitive societies, infanticide is sometimes seen as necessary for reasons such as deformity, or being born at the wrong time of year in a nomadic society about to make a major move, being a girl when a boy child is valued more highly, being a boy unlucky enough to be born at the same time as the chief’s son and heir; or simply having an unmarried mother.

Point 2:
The biblical admonition of “an eye for an eye” may seem outdated and primitive and immoral. But Lyall Watson points out that this rule does not provoke suicidal escalation of the kind one sees in blood feuds, not does it advertise weakness, which would invite exploitation. A typical sentence for manslaughter in the United States now (1995) is three to five years, with parole possible after just eighteen months. With the result that justice very often is not seen to be done and relatives still carry hate and feel an unrequited thirst for revenge.

Point 3:
Lyall Watson has observed some child murderers in person, and some other major killers on film, and he thinks their eyes are different. He says they have the look of a mind less than human. For instance, there was Robert Thompson, a ten-year old child who with a friend tortured and murdered an (almost) three-year old child named James Bulger. Lyall says: “As Robert left his seat, he looked briefly at the public seats behind him, and it wasn’t boredom or indifference that showed. Those are emotions, negative ones to be sure, but nevertheless emotional states that are suggestive of response. There was nothing in Thompson’s eyes. Nothing whatsoever. It was “dead skin over dead eyes.”

Point 4:
Another interesting item from Lyall’s book: three out of four serial killers live and work in the United States, where some FBI estimates suggest they kill 5000 people per year – fifteen people every day. Nine out of ten of these killers are men, and eight of these — even in the US where most homicides involve black men — are white. Some of these serial killers get moments of remorse, and turn themselves in and confess. But even when they do, they are seldom believed and frequently turned loose to start all over again. Most serial killers have had a violent upbringing and bad parenting, but there are plenty of people with a violent upbringing and bad parenting who do not become serial killers.

On the other hand, Lyall points out that though some evil acts may be adaptive in some sense (like stealing), serial killing and some other crimes make no sense whatsoever from a genetic point of view. But Lyall thinks that perhaps “strong evil” of the kinds that we may have dismissed as mental illness, might exist, and he suspects he has seen its face – as for example with Robert Thompson.

Point 5:
The psychologist Adrian Raine found correlation between birth complications such as breech and forceps deliveries (which can damage the brain) and parental neglect during the first year of life, and found that the 3.9% of the sample studied who had both traumas committed 22% of the serious crimes. So here is a study that says evil is not really the fault of the perpetrators – at least that’s my take on it.


One argument I have with Lyall is that he says “we need enemies. Without them, we would have only ourselves to blame.” I honestly don’t think I have to manufacture enemies, they exist, precisely because of the flawed nature of man. I’d rather not have any, and I’d rather face up to my own failings and faults. We have to remember that with all the impressive examples of evil and biological / cultural roots of evil that do exist, even the most good-natured and pacifist-minded individual is absolutely correct in seeing the need for self-defense.

Lyall says that “Evil is not simply an absence of good, it is an absence of balance with good, and becomes manifest by such disequilibrium in a human being.” This is one of the major points of the book, but I’m not sure I understand it completely, though some of his ecological examples shed light on that statement.

Nature is a way very often of all against all, in which ten percent of all known species are parasites, whose job it is to harass, weaken and disfigure the others. Lyall would like us to rise above our genetic-based morality. What is good for our genes is not enough to base a morality on, even if altruism toward close relatives does rise from genetic imperatives.

I do not see a good future for a gene-transcending morality. In one of Lyall’s examples, a paranoid Japanese man named Shoko Asahara attracted over thirty thousand followers in Japan, with over a billion U.S. dollars, and his scientists produced enough sarin gas to kill 8 million people, and was in the process of developing small remote-controlled helicopters to deliver the gas to attack major Japanese cities. The goal was to blame the attack on the U.S., which he believed was planning to take over Japan anyway.
When I say paranoid, he obviously wasn’t clinically paranoid, because he was not a candidate for a mental hospital, instead he was high-functioning enough to be a leader of masses of dedicated and competent people. Stalin was also paranoid in this sense – after all, he killed much of his army command, and then killed many of his communist followers, and according to the book “United In Hate”, was planning to turn his lethal attention to the Jews. Hitler may have been paranoid too – since he saw the Jews behind everything evil. On the other hand, he may have just been motivated by the idea that his ‘in-group’ (the Aryans) must dominate or destroy all others. But my point is, given the flawed understanding and motivation of man, we can say that man is born to trouble, and when we look around this world, we do not see much hope for masses embracing a higher morality. And I would add, from my own experience, that a percentage of mankind that can pass as normal at your dinner party, can have a personality that leads them to evil like a moth is led to a flame.

And as Lyall himself gives examples of, evil can be fun. Perhaps those two ten-year olds who led away the three-year old and tortured him to death were having fun. Nobody made them do it. And even American soldiers, in the My Lai massacre, bayoneted and shot innocent villagers, men, women, and children, while laughing and joking. It is true that they were in an environment where the enemy was often invisible and unidentifiable, and booby traps and mines killed or maimed 28 of their group’s fellow soldiers, and they were told that the villagers harbored or sympathized with the Viet Cong. But was that an excuse for what followed? And of the enjoyment that seemed to accompany the murders?

Perhaps our “dark nature” of selfish-gene-based morality made sense when we lived in small tribes. But “be nice to insiders and nasty to outsiders” doesn’t make much sense any more.

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