Can we trace an evolutionary path for ‘evil’?
Are the traits of psychopathy, sadism, surely and manipulation really widely present in the animal world or does the concept of evil require a self-conscious mind which can actively decide to follow these impulses? We know that what we perceive as cruelty (a male lion taking over a pride will kill the cubs of the defeated leader, certain female insects bite the heads off their sexual partners after mating) may just be instinctive behaviours. But what about cannibalism in tribes of monkeys? Or your cat who plays with her mouse before killing it (and then not eating it but leaving it under the sofa for you to find later in the day)?
Many scientists regard such behaviours as advantageous: play enables more successful hunting, any source of food (or removing competition for food) might be a necessity in times of scarcity. But are we able to trace an evolution of evil? We may no longer want to ascribe cruelty to the ‘work of the devil’ or see good and evil only in religious terms (which so easily turns into ‘our religion justifies cruelty against your religion’ and we know where that leads) but would we want to say that its all about evolution? We all have choices. The children of abusers do not always turn into abusers themselves. Parents of children who die in tragic circumstances can find the possibility of forgiveness and a turning away from the perpetuation of evil by laying down hatred and refusing to be caught up in that destructive cycle. But its hard, and not everyone can find the way.
Arguably the real mystery lies not in the origin of "evil" behaviours but in the fact that humans now generally view these behaviours as distasteful – even though deception, selfishness and other "evil" traits appear to be widespread in nature, and generally beneficial for the survival of genes, animals and species.
John Armstrong, a British writer, and philosopher at The School of Life, sees a gulf between human aspiration for justice and ethics and the laws of nature. Often we feel that something that is "evil", against the natural order of things, or, as Armstrong put it, "at odds with everything one might hope for".
But perhaps the opposite is actually true: it is "bad" behaviour that is natural and successful. "What's surprising is how amazingly well (though still very imperfectly) human beings have tried to reverse this natural arrangement," he says. Read more here