Several months ago, I was in one of those deep, pensive moods, and I started thinking about the nature of evil and why it exists in the universe. I wondered how evil was actually defined, whether it exists outside of humans, and what possible evolutionary role it could play since it seems to be a rather persistent thing.
I googled something like “does evil exist in nature,” and I found a whole slew of articles talking about examples of animal behavior that could be seen as “evil,” and some theories on why such behavior exists.
One BBC article defined “evil” as “acts that cause intentional suffering, destruction or damage to B for the benefit of A,” and it broke down such acts into four basic categories called the Dark Tetrad, first described by a group of psychologists including Del Paulhus at the University of British Columbia.
The Dark Tetrad of evil consists of:
- Machiavellianism (manipulative, self-interested, deceptive)
- Psychopathy (antisocial, remorseless, callous)
- Narcissism (grandiose, proud, lacking empathy)
- Everyday Sadism (the enjoyment of cruelty).
The article mentioned several examples of human beings and events commonly considered to be evil, like Adolf Hitler, Ted Bundy, and the Rwandan genocide. It also gave many examples of behavior in wild animals that could be seen as evil, such as a pair of mother and daughter chimpanzees that “systematically cannibalised eight infants over four years,” and dolphins that repeatedly attacked porpoises or “popped off” seagulls sitting on the surface of the water for no clear reason.
The article cautioned against overly moralistic or religious explanations of such animal behavior, and instead gave several other theories grounded in biological evolution. For instance, the dolphins could be attacking porpoises because they are competitors for prey (although they don’t seem to attack seals who are also competitors), and they could be punting seagulls as a form of mindless play, like us popping bubble wrap, “simply for the personal pleasure it brings without recognising that the behaviour is also cruel to the birds.” In this way, Paulhus posited that sadistic behavior could really just be a form of play, which serves to teach a young animal how to be an adult but that carries over into adulthood, like a form of arrested development.
To explain why such a developmental dysfunction might persist in a species, Paulhus gave another possible explanation: “You could consider the dark personalities to be parasites in different ways,” he says. “In animal communities parasites do serve a very positive function. One argument that could be made is they clean up the less adaptive individuals, those in the herd who didn’t quite have the qualities to contribute.”
This theory, while unsettling and horrifying in some ways, actually makes a lot of sense. If the survival of a species depends on its individuals being as strong and productive as possible, then it helps to have challenges that increase their skills and resilience, while also eliminating those who don’t make the cut. What doesn’t kill you truly does make you stronger.
We can find numerous examples of this in nature. Fast and strong predators force their prey to be as fast and as strong as possible, and in turn such prey require the predators to stay on top of their game, or risk dying off.
The implications seem more ominous in the case of humans. But if we move away from the anthropocentric over-glorification of humans over other animals, it seems clear that humans are really just animals that happen to be much smarter, and irrespective of our big brains, we have the same biological evolutionary dynamics at play: bullies in the playground teach kids strength and resilience, heinous murders teach compassion and justice, and strict parents teach the skills and discipline necessary to thrive in the real world. There’s even the saying, spare the rod, spoil the child.
One hopes that the phrase above is meant figuratively and not literally, and there are clearly better and worse ways to say, teach a child how to be strong and competent. One could use a literal rod, or a figurative rod in a form of discipline and non-abusive consequences.
All of these life influences and lessons can be summed up as tough love, love that can be difficult and painful to experience but that ultimately benefits us in the long run. If love could be defined as a force that promotes our highest good, and evil is one of the ways that leads to that good, then evil is a form of love.
To be sure, evil may look nothing like love on the surface. Predators, bullies, and murderers certainly don’t look like love. But they can be life’s way of making us stronger, wiser, and more loving as a whole. Without evil, we wouldn’t know the value of anything like peace, compassion, connection, generosity, or justice. Without evil, we would all probably become self-absorbed, lazy, and complacent, floating around in perpetual comfort like the blob-people in the movie Wall-E.
One important thing to note here is that the theory of “evil” having an evolutionary purpose is descriptive, not prescriptive; it is simply a way of describing and explaining how the world is, not necessarily how it should be. The point here is not to condone abuse or violence in any way. But the fact is that abuse and violence do exist in the world, universally and persistently, and this is a strong indication that they serve some sort of an evolutionary purpose. At the very least, there must be a reason why evolution is not weeding them out.
Maybe life and evil are inextricably linked, and we can’t have one without the other. It’s striking to note that those words are near mirrors of each other. Or maybe life just hasn’t figured out a better way to evolve without the use of evil. Maybe one day, we will live in an ideal world where we will learn all the necessary lessons without any evil, without any pain or suffering. Until then, we are stuck with evil, and maybe that’s not so bad.