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20210221 – Evilicious




The main idea of this book is to use results of the latest research in psychology to present author’s understanding of evil: what it is, who does it, why capacity to do it exists in humans, but not in other animals, and what combination of nature and nurture leads to actualization of such capacity in some individuals, but not in others.

The key understanding is that evil means intentionally causing harm to other for the sake of it and enjoy the process.


Prologue. The problem of evil
Author starts here by stating his understanding of what causes people to do evil: intentionally hurt others: “The idea I develop is that evildoers are made in much the same way that addicts are made. Both processes start with unsatisfied desires. Whether it is a taste for violence or a taste for alcohol, drugs, food, or gambling, individuals develop cravings but find the desired experience less and less rewarding — a separation between desire and reward that leads to excess. To justify the excess, the psychology of desire recruits the psychology of denial, enabling individuals to immerse themselves in a new reality that feels right.”

Author also provides quite specific definition of evil, how individuals’ personal development leads to evildoing, and why humans overall developed capacity to do evil things:

 “evil arises when innocent victims are subjected to gratuitous cruelty by individuals who either directly intend such excessive harm or allow it to happen when they could have prevented it. This view of evil includes specific means (gratuitous cruelty), consequences (excessive harm), causes (intentions, desires, and goals), and potential benefits, both short- and long-term.”

“Individuals develop into evildoers when unsatisfied desires accumulate and combine with a denial of reality, causing them to see others as morally worthless or dangerous.”

“The capacity for evil originally evolved as an incidental consequence of our unique intelligence, but once in place provided significant benefits to those who expressed it as a display of power.”

Finally, author provides here plan of the book:” In Part I, we will focus on the recipe for evil, examining both the psychology of desire (chapter 1) and the psychology of denial (chapter 2). In Part II, we will look at the evolutionary history of evil. Chapter 3 examines what makes us unique relative to other animals and assesses the possible adaptive function of seemingly wasteful acts of extreme violence. Chapter 4 explains why some people are more likely to develop into evildoers than others, based on a combination of nature and nurture.”

Part l: One Recipe
Chapter 1. Runaway desire
This chapter starts with jihadi and his desire to become martyr. Then author discusses research with rat and electrons in the desire area of the brain, which would not eat or sleep – just keep pushing the button to feel happy. Similar effect was observed in humans. Author then talks about dopamine, neuro-chemical reactions and experiments that demonstrate how it all works and how it all connected with strive for power and joy of violence that some individuals experience. Actually, violent fantasies are not unusual and they often could acquire addictive qualities. However, it is exceedingly rare when such fantasies are acted upon to make them real.

Chapter 2. Ravages of denial
Author begins this chapter with Abu Ghraib and then moves to idea of moral agents and patients:” the distinction between moral agents and moral patients. Agents have responsibility for others’ wellbeing, whereas patients deserve moral consideration and care. Moral agents are potential evildoers who can cause excessive harm to moral patients, but not the other way around. Moral patients may well cause harm, but they lack the cognitive wherewithal to both reflect upon the moral consequences of their actions and the reasons why certain actions are morally forbidden.”  This follows by discussion about two dimensions experience and agency:” Experience included properties such as hunger, fear, pain, pleasure, rage, desire, consciousness, pride, embarrassment, and joy. Agency included self-control, morality, memory, emotion recognition, planning, communication and thinking. Experience aligned with feelings, agency with thinking. With these dimensions, we find God at one edge, high in agency and low in experience. On the opposite side, huddled together on the landscape defined by low agency and high experience, we find fetuses, frogs, and people in a vegetative state. Clustered inside the high agency and experience space we find adult men and women, whereas robots and dead people land in the low experience and middling agency space; dogs, chimpanzees, and human kids are clustered together in the high experience and mid-level agency.” After that author presents results of experiments that incite anger against some group, which then combined with dehumanization of members of this group resulting in acceptance of idea of hurting members of this group. Author looks in details how these processes happen and how they are combined with natural propensity of humans of attach to their own group and repulse others. In doing so people deny reality of others’ humanity, which open door for aggression and evil. Author even comes up with formula for evil: E=D+D, that is desire + denial. At the end of chapter author states that it really quite complicated process that highly dependent on multiple parameters:” The idea that we are all endowed with the capacity for evil, and that this capacity requires the combination of desire and denial, in no way implies that the expression of this capacity is inevitable. Even in environments that promote a psychology of evil, some will resist. Resistance comes from individual differences in creating both unsatisfied desires and unconstrained systems of denial. Conversely, others are heavily predisposed to engage in acts of cruelty because their biology tilts them toward high risk, high reward, and low empathy. These differences originate in our biology, and with the evolutionary history of our species.

Part II. One History
Chapter 3. Kingdom of cruelty
This chapter on cruelty begins with pretty detailed description of gruesome torture to death inflicted by Shawnee Indians on captured settlers in 1791. Author then discusses reasons for inflicting pain on others starting with non-lethal cases when it happens in process of competition for resources, which is typical for all animals. Here is how author describes resent developments in biology related to this issue:” Novel insights into the dynamics of aggressive competition emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s due to two fundamental developments within evolutionary biology. The first was due to the evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith who recognized that for any competitive interaction, there are different strategies, each with different payoffs. Some strategies are more costly, but return greater benefits. Others are more conservative and less costly, but return smaller benefits. How well any given strategy does depend on its frequency in the population, and thus, on whether the particular strategy is dominant or rare. This is the logic of games, and game theory developed by economists. Maynard Smith’s central insight was to see these games as evolving over long periods of time, locked into epic arms races with predators battling prey, hosts competing with parasites, and males challenging each other for access to females.” After that author discusses psychology of causing harm to others, role of testosterone and cortisol in biochemistry of this process and dopamine as its reward. After dealing with non-lethal harm author moves to lethal and notes that nearly all animals are both: predators and pray. Author then looks at war in chimpanzees, which is evaluated by some biologists as adaptation leading to similar characterization for human wars. This application of biology to humans caused push back from “humanists” and biologists whose humanity overrides their science. They created 1986 Seville statement:

Author reviews the discusion of chimpanzee vs human wars and summarises it this way: “Unlike the lethal attacks by chimpanzees that are restricted to cases where groups attack lone victims, primarily from neighboring groups, we wreak havoc on a massive scale, with one on one, many against many, and one against many, including victims within and outside our core group. Unlike chimpanzees, even our young children have an appetite for violence that can be nurtured, as evidenced by the brutality of child soldiers around the globe. Unlike chimpanzees, individuals will sacrifice themselves for an entire group as evidenced most recently by suicide bombers. Our minds also generate ideological reasons to motivate violence at extraordinary scales — again, think of suicide bombers taking their lives for a God, as well as the reward of an idyllic afterlife. And when our minds break down, or when we are afflicted with particular disorders early in life, we are capable of experiencing bizarre appetites for violence, including the joy of eating the flesh of murdered victims. These novel and unanticipated ways of harming others are the result, at least in their origins, of new hardware that evolved only once in the history of this planet: a brain wired to combine and recombine thoughts and emotions. I will explain this idea in three steps, starting with a description of our brain’s special design. I then turn to a discussion of how our brain’s design incidentally enabled our species alone to punish moral transgressors and feel good about it. I conclude with the incidental birth of version 2.0 of harming others, a form of lethal aggression that was both extreme and enjoyable — evilicious.”

3 steps author refers to are:

Creative combinations – complexities of working of human brain lead to complexities of adaptive use of violence at levels not available to other animals.

Incidental Justice – hurting others to establish and enforce some social norm that humans believe is neccasary. In this cases torture and killing serve not only to punish violator of the norm, but also prevent future violation by others.

After reviewing kind of institutional harming others, author discusses case when violence becomes the source of pleasure in itself for some specific type of individuals – psychopaths. As everythinh else author links it to biochemical process, this time including oxytocin.  Author also discusses value of harming others as signalling and complete this chapter by summarising it all in response to the question “Why oh Why?”:

Why did we evolve the capacity for gratuitous cruelty? The answer begins, so I suggest, in a special property of the human brain. Some time after we diverged from a chimpanzee-like common ancestor the human brain was remodeled to allow creative new connections between previously unconnected circuits. Our newly connected brain enabled us to explore new problems using a combination of older, but nonetheless adaptive parts. Some of these novel explorations led to highly adaptive consequences, as when we developed the ability to self-deceive in the service of pumping ourselves up to do better in the context of competition; or when we invented new technologies to solve difficult environmental problems, such as using spears to capture prey at a distance; or, when we acquired the know-how to stockpile and enhance resources such as food, water and fertile land that are critical to individual survival and reproduction; or when we evolved the richly textured social emotions of jealousy, shame, guilt, elation, and empathy, feelings that motivate individuals to recognize the importance of others’ well-being and interests and to correct prior wrongs; or, when we tapped into the rich connection between reward and aggression to punish cheaters trying to destabilize a cooperative society. But these same adaptive explorations also resulted in incidental costs that have destroyed the lives of innocent individuals. The capacity to deny others’ moral worth enabled us to justify great harms, including self-sacrifice as living bombs designed to annihilate thousands of non-believers. The capacity to create advanced weaponry enabled us to kill at a distance, thereby avoiding the aversiveness of taking out those staring back. The capacity to stockpile resources led to the growth of greed, increasing disparities among members of society, the inspiration to steal, and heightened violence both to defend and to obtain. The capacity to experience social emotions such as jealousy led to blind rage and a driving engine of homicide, including cuckolded lovers who kill their spouses and stepparents who kill their stepchildren. The capacity to feel good about harming others enabled us to recruit this elixir in the service of causing excessive harm in any number of novel contexts, from ethnic cleansings to bizarre fetishes that include self-mutilation. And the list goes on. This is the yin and yang of a combinatorial brain. This is the natural history of evil, its ancestry and adaptive significance. It is a capacity that lives within all of us, but some of us are more likely than others to deploy it. This variation is also part of human nature, a critical component in the evolutionary process.”

Chapter 4. Wicked in waiting
In the last chapter author moves to the level of individual: genetics, nurture and cultural norms, mental disorders, biochemistry of self-control, and empathy. Author also reviews phenomenon of bullying, bringing in his own childhood experience.  At the end of chapter author summarizes it all this way:” The scientific evidence on individual differences suggests that we are born with different propensities for cruelty. These propensities did not evolve for cruelty, but rather, for different aspects of social life, including the important decisions we make to survive and reproduce. Individual differences in our capacity for self-control, experience of reward, willingness to take risks, response to stress, and ability to empathize have significant biological origins. Though it is difficult to pinpoint the original function of these capacities, they play an important role today in eating, mating, playing, defending, and killing. These differences are not noise in the system, but highly relevant to our evolutionary past and futures. Individuals who were impulsive, fearless, and aggressive were invaluable when fighting against enemy tribes, and they are valuable today in modern warfare. Individuals who were patient and anticipated great rewards from building up large cattle herds, were better able to provide for themselves and their families. But these same qualities were also deployed for less virtuous goals. Many of these cases, though despicable, are not difficult to explain once we look to individual desire to acquire or maintain power. Many of these cases are, however, more puzzling as the harm caused is extreme and seemingly unnecessary to achieve the targeted end. Some are cruel for cruelty’s sake. Some are cruel to intimidate the enemy. Individual differences push some of us toward gratuitous cruelty and others away from it, despite similarities in our upbringing and cultural norms.”

Epilogue. Evilightenment

Here author briefly reviews societal changes brought in with enlightenment, which led to development of laws, multiple restrictions on individual actions and on punishments for these actions often linked to individual’s age because people generally recognize that development of ability for self-control and maintaining proper behavior not in-born, but is result of development and maturation. Overall author concludes that capacity for evil is product of natural development and probably is not going away, but human development does show that realization of this capacity could be prevented or at least limited and that currently observed decrease in violence over time is real, but its continuation required serious work to be done because: “We must never give up on humanity”


My attitude to the problems of violence and overall causing is quite close to author’s. I believe that such behavior if evolutionary adaptation and is natural for all people. However, I see it as much more complex problem because in reality it is not easy to separate good from evil for any action if all consequences taken into account. One should always ask for any hurtful evil action:” Who will benefit from this?”

Take for example the biggest amount of harm caused to the greatest amount of people in the shortest amount of time – use of nuclear weapon in Hiroshima that instantly killed some and caused painful torture and slow death for others among tens of thousands of people. No amount of feel good condemnations of this action could remove the fact of its necessity because alternatives would be: millions of people both Americans and Japanese suffering and dying in case of invasion of Japan, or alternatively millions of Japanese dying from starvation and exposure if American leadership would decide to treat Japan to traditional siege warfare by preventing food and energy production to force surrender. Another solution that would be close to heart of emphatic people: leave Japan alone and just sign some kind of peace treaty leaving individuals that were in control over Japan in power. I think it is obvious that such solution would lead to nuclear explosions in American cities within as short period of time as it would require highly technologically developed Japan to create nuclear weapons.

In short, I think that existing biological predisposition to violence and causing harm to others is not going away, but could be rendered mute if every individual provided with opportunity to obtain needed resources by peaceful non-violent actions, while every act of harm caused to others, however small, would prompt immediate and slightly more than proportional retaliation. For example, a young bully that locked another kid in locker would be much less inclined to do so again if this act is inevitably followed by spending night locked in the locker. In short, I would not bet on “better angels”, but rather on obvious self-interest for vast majority of normal individuals and fast and effective elimination of very few that could not exist without hurting others.  

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