People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm [of wonder] if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges, which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense it has been said with profound insight that “beauty will save the world” (§16)
– Pope John Paul II in his Letter to Artists under the heading “The Saving Power of Beauty.”
We have opened our eyes to a world that is wicked. Humans have perpetually been responsible for abominable acts, such as the nefarious deeds committed by ruthless dictators, genocide, wars, slavery, and murder. It seems that our world is replete with suffering and misery. Why does evil exist? Is evil behavior only seen among humans? If we put religion aside for a moment, can we trace this evil trait to the evolution of our species? Philosophers, theologians, scientists and perhaps even you have often pondered these questions.
Experts, including a group of psychologists led by Del Paulhus and Kevin Williams at the University of British Columbia, have categorized “evil” behavior. They have defined a “Dark Tetrad” that includes Machiavellianism (manipulative and deceptive behavior), psychopathy, narcissism, and sadism. Paulhus and his team have looked at many studies over the years to see whether these traits are also present in animals.
A beast does not know that he is a beast, and the nearer a man gets to being a beast the less he knows it.”
– George MacDonald,
from The Princess and Curdie.
Dario Maestripieri from the University of Chicago has been studying monkeys extensively for 20 years. In one study on rhesus macaque monkeys, he found that their tactics for attaining power are not much different from those of infamous political tyrants.
Alpha males, who rule the other macaques in the troop, use threats and violence to hold on to the safest sleeping places, the best food, and access to the females in the group with whom they want to have sex. Like human dictators determined to hold on to power, dominant monkeys use frequent and unpredictable aggression as a form of intimidation. Maestripieri believes that every individual monkey appears to have the capacity for devious behavior. However, he claims that this behavior is part of who they are.
A much more basic Machiavellian trait exists among simpler species too, such as reptiles that camouflage themselves to avoid predators, insects that mimic others in order to catch prey, or flowers that give off scents to attract pollinators.
The famous animal researcher Jane Goodall made an alarming discovery when she was studying chimpanzees. She found a mother and daughter pair – known as “Passion” and “Pom” – who cannibalized eight infants over four years. Other experts looked into this case and labeled it as an antisocial personality disorder. However, it is still much debated whether infanticide is an actual behavior abnormality or an adaptive reproductive strategy among animals.
Sea otters also have been reported to show psychopathic behavior. California Department of Fish and Game biologist Heather Harris and her colleagues have reported 19 individual cases of male sea otters trying to mate with, and often fatally injuring and even killing, harbor seal pups in the Monterey Bay area between 2000 and 2002.
One reason for this phenomenon could be that sea otters are polygynous (meaning that males mate with multiple females, whereas females mate with only one male, resulting in competition during breeding season) in an area where the female otters may be outnumbered by the males. This means that during breeding season mature males are denied mating opportunities, so they take out their frustrations on the young harbor seals.
A study by Wilson showed signs of sadism being displayed by dolphins. He often observed dolphins swimming under the water striking seagulls that were sitting on the surface. It could be said that this was done as an act of play, without the dolphins realizing that it actually hurt the birds. Palhus associates the origin of sadism with childhood play. He observed that animals that play with their victims don’t kill them, but instead they torture them. Cats also occasionally do the same with mice. This means that young animals play with their victim as a child, and later on kill them when they become adults. It could be said that all sadists are displaying a form of innate behavior that originated in their childhood.
Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
When we think of vanity, we assume that this is a characteristic that is limited to humans, but it is seen among animals too, such as the male peacock parading its lavish tail or the sultry dance of the male bowerbird. These outward self-centered signs of “look at me” are part of evolution, which is related to the ultimate quest to mate in order to reproduce and survive. In other words, all living things are in a race for gene survival and the narcissistic behavior is a strategy.
While examples of evil behavior may be observed in animals, such behavior is generally beneficial for the survival of genes and species. Clearly it is more about survival for animals than it is about pure, unadulterated evil. This begs the questions: If bad behavior is natural and successful among animals, is it acceptable for humans?