Saturday, August 1, 2015

Higgs the Cat Guest Posts on The Evolution of Good and Evil

In several recent pieces of writing, humans tried to paint themselves as uniquely capable of charity and evil. Higgs the cat has his doubts

Higgs the Cat Guest Posts on The Evolution of Good and Evil


Several news items about animal behavior caught Higgs’ attention recently. He’s asked for a chance to comment:

Higgs: It never ceases to amaze me that humans focus so much energy looking for ways to set themselves apart from other animals. Some construct arguments to show that they’re more emotional than we are, or more altruistic and empathetic. Then sometimes the pendulum swings the other way and they talk about “evil” or “sin” as uniquely human capabilities. The issue came up this morning in a column by David Brooks that ran today the New York Times. It was called, When the Good Do Bad.

The column started with a reference to Robert Bales, the sergeant accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians after he “snapped.” Brooks quotes evolutionary psychologist David Buss, who has surveyed students and found that most had fantasized about killing other humans:

"David Buss of the University of Texas asked his students if they had ever thought seriously about killing someone, and if so, to write out their homicidal fantasies in an essay. He was astonished to find that 91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women had detailed, vivid homicidal fantasies. He was even more astonished to learn how many steps some of his students had taken toward carrying them out.

One woman invited an abusive ex-boyfriend to dinner with thoughts of stabbing him in the chest. A young man in a fit of road rage pulled a baseball bat out of his trunk and would have pummeled his opponent if he hadn’t run away. Another young man planned the progression of his murder — crushing a former friend’s fingers, puncturing his lungs, then killing him."

Here’s what David Buss says about these fantasies: They occur because we are descended from creatures who killed to thrive and survive. We’re natural-born killers and the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so.

I can answer that. Humans are social animals whose survival depends on interdependence. I think the more difficult question is what prevents cats from killing each other more often? One answer is that we fight over sex, and as soon as the obstacle cat is out of the way, we want to get to business asap. It would be counterproductive to waste time inflicting more damage than is necessary.

But Brooks takes this column in a religious direction, connecting the students’ violent fantasies, Sgt Bales’ killing spree, and the religious notion of sin:  

In centuries past most people would have been less shocked by the homicidal eruptions of formerly good men. That’s because people in those centuries grew up with a worldview that put sinfulness at the center of the human personality.

John Calvin believed that babies come out depraved (he was sort of right; the most violent stage of life is age 2). G. K. Chesterton wrote that the doctrine of original sin is the only part of Christian theology that can be proved.

This last bit adds nothing, IMHO. Humans and cats were both shaped by evolution, and both species may have inherited competitive tendencies, which can become violent under some circumstances.  

On the other extreme is a story that ran recently in the news section of Science, under the title, “Killjoys Challenge Claims of Clever Animals.” (It’s behind a paywall). Much of the story focused not on smarts but on generosity and altruism among one of my favorite prey animals – rats.

In a study that got much publicity last December, scientists at the University of Chicago put a rat in an enclosure as cramped as my cat carrier. The “cage” could only be opened by a latch from the outside, and when they put a second rat outside, he or she usually opened it. When the scientists offered chocolate chips to the rats outside the cage, they’d usually free the caged rat before finishing the treats and then share what was left.

Other scientists were skeptical of the way this experiment was interpreted because they said the rats weren’t being altruistic or caring and this judgment was just “folk” psychology. The humans were skeptical that rats could be generous like humans. I’m skeptical that humans would be as generous as those rats.

I’d like to see a similar experiment on humans. I’ve lived among humans and they are pretty generous about food only because it’s plentiful in their world. My human companion and I only got into a fight over food once and that involved a real butter croissant. (It ended tragically when my human companion wrestled the treasured pastry from my paws and threw it in the trash.)

So to test the idea on humans you’d have to offer them things they really desired. I’m certain my human pal would temporarily lock another human in a cage for a more exciting job, or even, IMHO, for a great pair of shoes. Before my contraceptive procedure I would have locked all the male cats in the world away if I had the opportunity. Maybe I’d let them out later, maybe I wouldn’t.

I tend to agree with Charles Darwin when he said that “The difference in mind between man and other animals is one of degree and not kind.” It may be true that humans are both better than other animals and worse, but that’s not because of any supernatural endowment. They have bigger brains with which to think of ways to be nice or mean, good or evil. And they have more opportunities to act on their thoughts. Thank you for letting me express my opinion – Higgs.

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About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at Reach Planet of the at

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