What is the evolutionary benefit of evil ?

I know it is easy to explain the evolutionary benefit of people doing 'good’ and 'moral’ acts especially as it relates to society. If we view human society in a similar way as we view an ant farm than sacrificing ourselves for the betterment of the society is a 'good’ thing.

So what do you think the evolutionary benefit of evil is? Since a lot of Atheists do not really believe in evil it is a hard question to ask but for the sake of argument let us say that evil is the fulfilment of ones own desires over the needs of another. Let us say rape, stealing, adultery, and murder fall under this concept of evil.

Posted: January 9th 2010

Reed Braden www

Your question assumes that evil is something that exists objectively within human thought, like the chemical processes controlling joy, euphoria, anger, etc. However, to assume that evil is objectively real is to assume that there is a certain version of morality that is intrinsically right. Given the proposition that there is no God or gods to dictate morality, and given that man evolved a very primitive sort of morality in his early millennia from scratch; there is no basis for a “correct” morality and therefor no intrinsically evil action. However, some people are total assholes.

Posted: September 20th 2010

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George Locke

There are a lot of assumptions about atheism buried in your question, but I think my colleagues here have done a pretty good job of exposing them.

I wanted to address one of your assumptions about evolution, namely that all traits in an organism must provide a selection advantage. Natural selection isn’t all there is to the theory of evolution. Besides selection, the main “force” shaping evolution is genetic drift. I think it’s fair to say that our understanding of drift is the main advance in evolutionary theory since Darwin. The point of drift is that traits with no selection advantage can become fixed in a population for no reason besides random chance. Even disadvantageous traits may proliferate through drift. Genetic drift is a very deep subject and I won’t embarrass myself attempting to explain it any further, but it suffices to say that traits of a given species need not provide a fitness advantage.

Okay, so now I am actually going to try and answer your question! I don’t think it’s hard to see that natural selection might actually favor a certain amount of “evil” behavior. Evil behavior is like predation, and there’s nothing confounding about how predators evolve. Perhaps parasitism is a closer analogy. A parasite basically robs its host. The trick is that in this case the host is the same species as the parasite: a species as a whole can’t specialize in killing itself without, er, killing itself, but it can support a few such dastardly specialists.

Imagine a caveman who rapes every woman he sees. He may be an odious figure, but he’s got an excellent shot at spreading his genes around provided he’s clever enough to avoid retribution and maintain the cooperation of his tribe. If all men behaved the way he did, women would probably abjure men altogether and the species would die, and natural selection would never allow that. So long as there aren’t so many evildoers that the species collapses, evil will provide a selection advantage – if you manage to get away with it. This is the evolutionary benefit of evil: clever criminals succeed. If you want to make a creationist’s day, you might even say that evolution causes evil!

Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene covers this conflict between altruism and selfishness very well. He shows how a balance may be struck between the number of parasites versus hosts and addresses a whole host of complications involving cooperation, family bias, etc. The book is a lucid, readable exposition of a complex an important subject, and I recommend it to everyone with an interest in evolution. (Those uninterested in atheist polemic will be glad to know that for this book Dawkins kept to the science, not reaching too far into its theological implications.) Incidentally, my main problem with the book is its failure to adequately address genetic drift though I suppose the subject of the book is natural selection per se.

Posted: September 18th 2010

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Blaise www

The problem with looking for an evolutionary advantage to something like “evil”, is that evil is a construct of the human mind, not a real thing.

Murdering babies seems pretty evil to you and me, but many societies through history have willingly sacrificed babies to their gods, and thought themselves doing “good”, as defined by their own morals. The same dichotomy exists for helping/enslaving your neighbors, rape, theft, etc.

So no, there’s no evolutionary advantage to evil, because we invented it long after we evolved as a species.

If you want to ask about the evolutionary advantage of a particular behavior, like theft or rape, you’ll probably get a more definite and scientifically defensible answer.

Posted: January 22nd 2010

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Mike the Infidel www

The problem with your elaboration is that viewing human society in a similar way as we view an ant farm would be viewing it as something that it isn’t. Human social structures are vastly different from ant social structures.

I understand that many people like to try to wholly explain moral behavior from an evolutionary standpoint, but I think that’s a mistake. I feel it’s more likely that there’s a base set of instincts that have grown into all of us because they provided evolutionary benefits to our populations – cooperation, reciprocal altruism, etc. – that, combined with man-made social contracts, lead to the more complex matrix of moral behaviors we have now, which is always changing along with the zeitgeist.

Posted: January 22nd 2010

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Akusai www

I don’t really think evil, however you want to conceive it, requires an explanation any more than the blind spot in the eye. What to some may appear “failures” of evolution are actually expected results because one very important (and often overlooked or misunderstood) facet of evolution is that it does not optimize. Evolution is a least-worst process. It does not, as a rule, generate organisms that reproduce as best as possible; rather, it generates organisms that reproduce just as well as they need to continue the species.

To put it a bit more pithily, evolution is not, in fact, survival of the fittest. It is survival of the least unfit. Thus apparently “maladaptive” traits can survive so long as they don’t seriously endanger an individual’s chances of surviving until sexual maturity and popping out a couple of offspring.

Posted: January 11th 2010

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I think you’re confused.

Not everything facet of animals needs to have an evolutionary advantage for it to persist.

There are two possibilities.

First, it might be that the things you mention aren’t common enough to have much evolutionary impact at all.

A more likely possibility is that there are more important advantages tied to the same thing that you call evil. That’s common in the physical realm – the same genetic code that causes sickle-cell anemia is very advantageous if you live in an area with malaria.

Posted: January 10th 2010

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Eshu www

The 'good’ behaviours you mentioned all apply only to social creatures. Those within the group must play by the rules and help others or be kicked out.

The 'bad’ behaviours might be evolutionarily helpful to a creature which has no social group (either because they’re not a social animal or because they’ve been kicked out). In the latter case it could be seen as a last desparate effort to get some food or a mate.

As an aside, I’m not sure what this has to do with atheism, and you’d probably be better off asking an evolutionary biologist (which I’m not).

Posted: January 9th 2010

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Paula Kirby www

There is a very interesting video of a conference talk on morality from an evolutionary point of view.

Tests performed on groups of people from the widest possible range of backgrounds, cultures, races, religions, ages, education levels etc, have consistently shown that 4 out of 5 of us will choose the 'moral’ option. And, pretty consistently, 1 out of 5 will cheat if they think they’ll get away with it.

It’s pretty commonsensical, when you think of it. We have evolved as social animals, which means that, for Mr or Ms Average, doing what conforms to society’s values probably will give us our best chance of success in an evolutionary sense (ie. retaining our lives and our freedom long enough to be able to pass our genes into the next generation).

However, for those people who are cunning enough to stay one step ahead of the rule-enforcers and can therefore generally avoid getting caught – this is the 1 in 5 – BREAKING society’s co-operative 'moral’ norms may well give them the best chance of success.

And so we find both traits surviving, in those proportions. The absolute consistency of the results of the 'moral testing’, regardless of culture, age, religiosity, nationality, race, gender etc etc certainly points towards an evolutionary explanation rather than a cultural one; and certainly not a religious one, since whether someone is religious or not, and which religion they follow if they are, makes no difference whatsoever to the moral choices made by the people being tested.

Posted: January 9th 2010

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