The anthropology of evil

I’ve written and said, the existence of Buddhist monks indicates we can power down with the tranquility of Buddhist monks. And I keep referring to this line, mostly because I’ve had damned few memorable lines that make any sense. My money, though, is on more human, less humane, behavior. Thus, my choice to stake my picket-pin in defense of the landbase and the community near the mud hut.

Positive reinforcement for my thoughts about our lack of civility as civilization unwinds comes from recent comments on this blog and, more scientifically, from Lyall Watson’s 1995 book, Dark Nature: A Natural History of Evil. The title of the current entry, along with most of the content, comes from chapter 4, “The Evil That Men Do: The Anthropology of Evil.”
Tellingly, the book was a going-away present from an honors student fleeing the empire. He came to us with perfect SAT scores. And he had only a year before graduation, but he wasn’t getting anything he wanted from this university and he knows the industrial economy is taking its last gasps, so he is leaving the country. But, I digress.
If you’re keeping score at home, I quote from the 1997 HarperPerennial paperback issue of Dark Nature. In this entry, I restrict my quotes to chapter 4, with the exception of a familiar quote from Shakespeare’s MacBeth that opens the book: “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” As this line illustrates, Watson is hardly the first to recognize the human potential for bad deeds.
I’m reminded of a seminar I attended recently in which the presenter claimed he could take any group of humans and turn them against any “outside” group within 15 minutes. A regular consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense [sic], he said he could take any group of 15 or so people, with any mix of ethnicity, race, creed, age, and gender, and within 15 minutes could make them turn upon any group that entered the room. There wasn’t much doubt in my mind about a competent person’s ability to turn humans against other humans, but reading Dark Nature made a firm believer out of me (pp.141-142): “This tendency to classify, to divide the world into ‘us’ and them,’ into members versus nonmembers, friend or foe, is one of the few true human universals.Something common to all people everywhere.”
Watson takes on the issue at a larger scale, too: “The recorded history of eleven European countries during the last 1,025 years shows that they were engaged on average in some kind of military action forty-seven percent of the time, or about one year in every two. The lowest scorer has been Germany with twenty-eight percent, and the highest Spain with a massive sixty-seven percent, waging war in two our of every three years throughout the last millennium.” A quick turn with Gore Vidal’s Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace indicates the U.S. has been the aggressor at a breathtaking rate of nearly four military misadventures each year between 1945 and 2000. The actions of the most civilized countries make the claims in Dark Nature seem, well, pale.
Watson takes us back in time, too, to illustrate the human capacity — perhaps penchant is a better word — for violence long before Shakespeare (pp. 165-166): “A man shot to death by arrows lies buried at the main entrance of Stonehenge. And just a few miles away, in the center of the Bronze Age circle known as Woodhenge, archaeologists found the body of a three-year-old girl with a split skull. The Greek historian Pausanias tells of the dismemberment and communal eating of a child sacrificed in the sanctuary of Zeus on top of Mount Lykaion …. the Judeo-Christian tradition began with the sacrifice of Abel by his brother Cain, the aborted sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, and the death of the son of God himself at Golgotha.”
The Judeo-Christian tradition approximately coincides with the birth of civilization: We got serious about agriculture some 6,000 years ago. I am not suggesting evil arose with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Only the most evil of structures, agriculture. On the other hand, according to Genesis, Eden was a garden, not a farm. So maybe I’m misinterpreting the whole tradition.
For a more recent assessment of the human capacity for cruelty, check out today’s essay by Chris Hedges, “Man is a Cruel Animal.” And for a reminder where we’re headed, view George Monbiot’s interview with Fatih Birol, the International Energy Authority’s chief economist.
And if you still think technology can save us, be sure to view this video. Just for fun, turn the volume up. Way up.

Comments 19

  • a garden is seen as a cultivated landscape,
    a place where culture meets nature,
    anyway listening to research on altruism
    the other day, science (bio chemistry,
    and measurable physiological changes) has shown
    that not only is altruism good for the
    recipient but also good for the provider,
    go figure!
    not withstanding your research into evil,
    now that was real circuit breaker,
    I was suggesting hope and compost,
    you are digging deeper into the misery
    of our misdeeds, I dont think the
    nihilists amongst us need any
    further confirmation

  • Isn’t Altruism by very definition then an oxymoron?
    Anywhoo… Altruism (and their pacificists) won’t be lasting long. Ghengis Khan once said that the best part of invading a pacifist area was the look of abject horror on the coward’s face just before beign cleaven by a sword.
    I like Roosevelt and Heinlein far more. “Speak softly and carry a BIG stick, you will go far.” – Theodore Roosevelt
    “‘Gratitude’: An imaginary emotion that rewards an imaginary behavior, “altruism.” Both imaginaries are false faces for selfishness, which is a real and honest emotion.” -Robert A. Heinlein, To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987)
    “Those who cling to the untrue doctrine that violence never settles anything would be advised to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Nations and peoples who forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms. -Robert A. Heinlein
    And last but certainly not least, nor off topic:
    Most people who sneer at technology would starve to death if the engineering infrastructure were removed. -Robert A. Heinlein, Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984)

  • to answer your question – no,
    that is from my understanding of the research.
    The physiological changes/differences measured against the
    general population were uncontrolled
    and involuntary, ie the provider was not aware of the benefits.
    Other than them apparently enjoying helping others.
    (my wife and her sister commit themsleves to ridiculous amounts
    of time volunteering – I have the selfish male gene, I tend to
    spend a lot of time helping mates, where as they tend to help strangers
    or organisations).
    The research was a long term epidemiological study.
    It was looking at long term volunteering in various
    aspects of community development.
    Perhaps the nuances of what it means to be human
    is much more complex than what we care to acknowledge.
    The point is we can write/right our own stories as every generation
    has done. Questioning the ‘certainty’ of others and ‘experts’ is always

  • All concepts of morals and ethics are artificial,unnatural,nice, ideas that have no relation to reality.The truth is man is a natural barbarian and nothing more.Good,evil,altruism bear no relevance to a human.No than they do to a cat,dog,or fox.All these abstractions were invented to furthur “civilization”. They were necessary to allow people from differnt tribes to co-exist without killing each other.The Ten Commandments were set down as minimum standards for co-existence –nothing more,and were given a religious cachet to furthur their legitimacy.
    This is the truth,and any higher attributes given to humans is just a false patina to
    be stripped away the first time there isn’t enough to eat.

  • if morals and ethics are a cultural ‘artifice’,
    then to the follow the logic, so is ‘truth’.
    Although subjectivity and deconstructionism has
    been rightly questioned of late. The inherent
    flaw of deconstructionism is the paradox of text (language) to
    deconstruct text. This legacy is still with
    us today, its called post modernity.
    To construct a system where truth or belief
    are subjective, you create a world view with no value,
    no beauty, no artistry, no craftmanship and no ‘vista’.
    It is not too difficult to argue that there are universal
    truths. Slavery is abhorent for one, along with child
    labour, female circumcision etc.
    To suggest these things are ‘wrong’ is not a subjective ‘abstraction’
    nor an invention concocted by ‘civilisation’. Clearly these activities
    still do occur, because they do exist they should not become legitimate
    nor should they be a part of our ‘reality’. These are not higher
    attributes. These are the conditions for civility.

  • Civility Matt?
    Has the same root as civilization.And both are irrelevant abstractions,bearing no relation to mammals.Can a fox or a rat be civil or civilized–of course not.Why do
    you think a human can?

  • One more Heinlein quote, just because I really love Heinlein and also it’s more than relevant.
    “A ‘pacifist male’ is a contradiction in terms. Most self-described ‘pacifists’ are not pacific; they simply assume false colors. When the wind changes, they hoist the Jolly Roger” – Robert Heinlein
    I’ve gotten to actually see a happy, pacifist liberal, anti war, anti violence of any type, intelligencia go from mild mannered college professor to bloodthirsty killer in seconds. It was quite revealing, and no, I’m not talking about our Professor Guy. This professor was a trial lawyer in another life, and I actually took three semesters worth of Criminal Justice classes from her when I was finishing up my Bachelor’s. I ran into her when I had to go to a “Community meeting” where the people were being told that a building of supportive housing was being located near their homes. This new building was to be for those that had received multiple Unlawful Detainers (Where they had to be forcibly removed from rental property by the police) and Sexual Predators (level 3). Granted, I don’t like the fact that these kinds of supportive housing are in abundance near my home, but I’m not going to go on a murderous rage to stop it. When she learned exactly what this housing was supposed to be, the professor went from hyper-tolerant liberal to someone advocating death in an extremely loud way!
    Her argument was that she moved out to the suburbs specifically to be away from the scum that inhabits the city (I’m paraphrasing here) and that there are far better places in the inner city where they could have their building. Objects began flying, particularly when one of the people doing the “sales pitch” admitted that he too was a sex offender! Had I not been there I honestly believe that he would have been lynched, with my professor at the head of the mob. Some had to be restrained, the professor was arrested and charged with 4th degree assault. (She hit one of the other officers with a thrown chair) It’s actually funny that she now is a strong supporter of the death penalty or instant life imprisonment for these monsters, when beforehand she actually believed that sexual predators could be helped through incarceration support programs and reduce the possibility of recidivism. It’s funny that she and I now totally agree on this issue now.
    Level 3 Sex Predators have an average of a 95% recidivism rate. That’s almost a sure thing. If the weather prediction person comes on the television and says that we’ve got a ninety five percent chance of rain, I’ll take bets on what kind of weather we’re going to get.
    Give people, especially those that claim altruist or pacifist, a reason to release the animal we all keep bottled up and you’ll get a self serving killer every time. What people seem to forget is that at the very base of our being, we are all animals. Regardless of what we may say or do, we’ll revert thus within seconds of finding a (relatively) good reason. Examples: L.A. Rodney King riots, Katrina Aftermath.
    Another quote from a book I read once but can’t place: “When your kind to someone, more often than not your actually being cruel.”

  • And yes I know that in the last quote it’s the possessive “Your” instead of the personal “You’re.” I was just too stupid to type [sic] before I leaned over and accidentally hit post. Dang…
    It’s from a book called “Deathlands” I read a couple years ago. The writing was bad and at about the seventh grade level, but it was very entertaining.
    I refound the quote at:

  • There you have it: “we are all animals”,Total Turboguy,12-24-08.He knows from actual experience.
    Oh,and Total don’t worry about your mistake.I’m perfect,so I never make mistakes,but occasionally “mistakes happen”.Therefore I understand.

  • Merry Christmas to one and all.

  • Memo to Professor Guy:
    Based on what Total Turboguy just told us,how are you going to deal with people in your Mud Hut? Anyone who disagrees with another is genetically,primordially inclined
    to kill the person they disagree with.How can we help you to find the way to manage this situation?We are all going to need to find the answer –we will all face this problem.

  • Haha Frank, you’re taking what I say out of context on purpose.
    There is an animal in all of us, give it a good reason to come out and watch, it’ll show its ugly face.
    Weird thing is that some people’s animal threshold is far lower than other’s. Where it’d take quite a lot to get me there, some others, like the Katrina aftermath, or the L.A. Riots, show that some are specifically looking for a reason to act like an animal.
    Weeding people that might decide to act like a freak is probably one of the things our dear professor does before he allows them to inhabit his hut, thus he doesn’t have to worry about it.

  • yes, we are animals to assume otherwise
    suggests a depletion of rationality,
    ie the religious may reason differently,
    however, we in western democracies have
    been the beneficaries of the enlightment
    and with around 200 years of ‘practice’.
    there is assumption here in many of the
    previous posts that we are soon to
    experience a muderous hoard of
    marauders traversing the landscape
    searching our coffers for cous cous
    and lentils. There is no denying
    that man is capable of the heinious.
    Recent example of this is what
    is now taking place in the congo.
    Some of stories would give you
    sleepless nights. (probably not
    you Frank).
    I guess the argument here hinges
    on whether the energy descent severe
    or otherwise will bring out the
    worst in us, given our diminishing
    time frame to overhaul the necessary
    infrastructure to support our
    fragile ‘culturally constructed’
    morality. (I know its a mouthful)
    best wishes to all

  • It’s a small world or as an astute friend tells me,there is no such thing as a coincident.I spent last night,Christmas Eve,with friends from Minneapolis.They were
    familiar with your neighborhood and Maria’s ,Total Turboguy.Your milieu is diverse,intellectual at times,inner city.My previous residence was in the Capitol Hill
    area of Denver.I frequented My Brothers Bar in LoDo.I believe it to be the world’s best bar.These quarters must be similiar.So I thought of you last night Total.
    It is not so much that I take things out of context,but rather my need to get to the main point–to distill to the essence of an idea.Occam’s Razor is my guide.This is the way I think.A Chess Grandmaster must be able to solve the most complex position on the board,even if it is enormously difficult.Distillation provides clarity.Let the Nobel Prize winning economists pontificate their nonscence.The 3rd Generation Rule adequately
    describes the world economy today.Nuf said.

  • Memo to Matt C:
    Thanks Matt,You accurately described my thoughts on the Congo.Again,we must always know ourselves.

  • That word is “nonsense” above in describing the twaddle of Nobel Prize winning economists.Mistakes happen.

  • Question for Professor Guy:
    Yesterday there were 17 comments to this blog,today only 16.Which one did you delete?
    Was someone naughty? Is there a lesson we might glean from this?
    Is Frank asking too many questions?

  • Reason for my last comment:
    I monitor this site by noting the number of comments at the start page.If there is no change in the number I don’t have to go any furthur–saves time.

  • Glitch:
    Now everytime a comment is added the server deletes one from the total.
    I surrender.