Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Origin of Evil: One Theory

“Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed—”

—Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H. (1849)

Where does evil come from?  Various answers have been offered over millennia, some more satisfying than others.  None of the traditional answers provide a final, reassuring word on the subject.  Outside of religious establishments—which tend to avoid the unpleasant subject these days—only horror entertainments of various kinds continue to wrestle with evil’s presence and persistence in our lives.  So the origin and nature of evil is of some importance to creators and consumers of horror, science fiction and fantasy.

A very interesting book on the subject is Lyall Watson’s Dark Nature: A Natural History of Evil, which was written in 1993.  Watson is an eco-biologist and naturalist, and so brings a unique perspective to what has been considered an ethical, religious and spiritual topic.  The book is a satisfying read because of its thoroughness and clarity, even if one does not agree with the world view of its author.

In some ways, Watson’s book was a response to spectacular examples of human evil that were current at the time:  the genocides in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, the exploits of celebrity serial killers, and a continual list of brutal murders.  As a progressive and a biologist, he naturally turned to the theory of evolution, as well as comparative studies of human and animal behavior, for an understanding of the origins of evil.  In Dark Nature, he avoids the familiar and traditional explanations offered by organized religion and instead bets on Jung and Darwin as having the most compelling explanations.

Watson defines evil as behavior that is ‘out of balance’—too much or too little—and which harms both the ecology and the survival of individual species.  Studies of animal behavior confirm that humankind shares the same motivations and capacities for destructive behavior.  These originate in our genetic make-up, which presumably was fashioned in the forge of evolution, and developed to ensure the survival of the human species. 

According to Watson, human behavior is technically not good or evil in itself—it is a part of nature, so how could it be wrong?—but becomes evil in so far as it exceeds certain biological parameters that keep our race within the limits imposed by ecology.  The author’s answer to the question about evil’s origin is to reframe the issue in terms familiar to the more liberal leaning progressives and environmentalists.  Basically, people just need to become more self-aware and lead balanced lives.

At one point he defends one tribe’s practice of ritual slaughter and cannibalism as an elegant solution to the challenge of living with limited resources.  This solution has to be taken ‘in context’, without imposing Western, Judeo-Christian values on it.  “Thou shalt not judge…”

But what about culture?  Can human beings learn to circumvent their biogenetic programming?  Watson believes that we can up to a point, though he is dubious about our overall prospects as a species.  Ecological parameters are simply not enough to keep such a rapacious species as ours in check.  He makes use of the notion of ‘memes’, a concept that came into popular use in the 90s. 

A meme is basically an elaborate metaphor, a “unit of cultural transmission” that is spread throughout a society by way of imitation.  Containing ideas and understandings about a particular topic, a meme has been compared to viral infection, passed around the members of a society and inculcated in their youth.  The term was originally coined by biologist Richard Dawkins. 

Watson claims that Christianity is one example of a meme—he actually calls the faith an infection.   Conceivably, such ‘isms’ as nationalism, militarism, racism, capitalism and so forth also fall into the category of memes that need an antidote.  Thus evil at a cultural level can be inoculated against.  His hope is that increased self-awareness combined with the judicious application of new and more enlightened memes will help prevent apocalypse.

Dark Nature argues persuasively that human evil, especially greed and violence, has its roots in our biological evolution.  These traits combined with a superior intelligence ensured the survival and fitness of the species, and continue to do so today.  Since they are natural traits, they cannot be evaluated as evil in a traditional sense.  Yet if this is so, by what criterion can wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony, (i.e. the seven deadly sins) be considered negative or undesirable traits?  Watson would agree with the rest of us that these things are somehow wrong—evil—but given his world view, cannot rely on traditional reasons to say why this is so.

As a progressive, Watson is critical of warfare, the excesses of capitalism, the right to bear arms, genocide—but these would seem to be the logical implications of a world that is “red in tooth and claw” and subject to ecological parameters.  Why not let nature take its course?  From what authority can enduring values—even practical values—about ‘right and wrong’ be derived?  The best guideline the author can come up with is the notion of balance, the ‘middle way’.  Does that mean that violence, aggression, theft, greed, and deceit are acceptable means of restoring balance?  How would a human society know when it has achieved balance?  When it is victorious?  When it is defeated?

To be fair, Watson does explore altruism as an example of genetically and meme driven behavior that can be considered ‘good’ in his world view: sharing, protecting and nurturing offspring, helping an injured peer.  It would be helpful to the discussion to see more research into this fascinating area of human biology—if for no other reason than to balance out the work done on evil.  At the end of Dark Nature, readers will have a clearer and more dismaying understanding of where evil comes from.  But the more intriguing question is:  Where does good come from?  Why does it even exist?

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