Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Evolved Capacity for Evil, Part Two

Here are some more thoughts that came to me as a result of reading the book by Barbara Oakley Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend. For part one, see the previous blog entry.

In the previous entry, I established that behavioral differences among individuals are due to genes, which influence brain chemicals and brain structures; to environment; and to habitual reinforcements. By describing the physical basis for behavioral differences, we in no way excuse them. Clinical psychopaths have to be stopped. And subclinical psychopaths, the kind that abuse others, often from positions of business or religious or governmental authority, need to be relocated into some position where their evil will harm as few people as possible. Oakley presents good evidence not just that many evil leaders, such as Slobodan Milosevic and Mao Zedong, had brain problems but just what some of these problems might have been. Failure to stop them has resulted in the gruesome deaths of millions of people.

I mentioned that human populations have plenty of genetic variation for behavior that evolution has clearly produced it. I have written a lot (and I’m not done) about altruism—evolution has given humans an instinct to be good, however imperfectly. But how could evolution favor genetic variation that makes people bad, at the same time? Which is it?

Well, it is both. Most people, through time, have obtained direct personal benefits by cooperation and by even more intense forms of altruism. But some people have obtained direct personal benefits by being evil. In many cases, they pretend to be good, while being evil. A psychopath knows that people have emotions; they just don’t care. They know right from wrong, which is why they can pretend to be good.

Natural selection favors successful reproduction. Good people are successful when their cooperation gains them status and resources and mates. Evil people can be just as successful. After all, according to some figures, about one out of every 200 men in the world have the Genghis Khan Y chromosome.

And there is more to it than this. Human behavior is a spectrum. We all know people who, if their genes were just a little bit more evil, or their amygdalae a little more defective, or under slightly different conditions, would be monsters, but they are able to function in society—we just know to not trust them. (A former colleague from a previous job described a mutual acquaintance who temporarily rose in the field of academic administration, in this way: “And then all the little horns started coming out of his head.” She was tipsy when she told me this but I believe she was correct.) And, in addition, each of us moves around on the good-evil continuum.

The conclusion from this blog entry is that human populations have heritability of behavioral characteristics, and evolution has worked upon human behavior. This is why we have always had and will always have good and bad individuals. Natural selection maintains genetic variability. But there is more. In the next essay I explore the question of whether natural selection can result in good vs. bad populations.

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