The human immune system keeps us healthy and alive through violence against intruders who would do us harm. “Natural killers,” aptly named, are one type of cells in our immune system. Without the benefit of any prior exposure, they naturally seek out and destroy harmful cells. We rely on such violence within our bodies to be healthy.
Externally, our ability to be alive and healthy also depends on us doing harm to other organisms. Invasive species can make other species extinct. Insects destroy trees. Beavers destroy habitat that some species depend on while their actions aid other species. It is the nature of the reality we are in on planet earth that doing harm frequently aids in survival, and thus is rewarded by evolution.
In competing for resources, those with greatest power, technology and material resources, tend to exploit those who have what they want. While we can fault greed, it is true that the accumulation of resources tends to reduce existential stress, benefit survival and reproduction. European colonization of lands previously home to indigenous peoples is a case in point. It is easier to acquire wealth when you are willing and able to exploit others and the environment. Many wonders of the world and many grand economies were built with slave labor, for example.
Reproduction benefits from aggression. Many human beings play with this in sex games that involve domination and sadism. Being aggressive and violent can be exciting and pleasurable, which reinforces those behaviors even beyond their effectiveness in getting what we want. Rape and sexualization of power are so effective that in 2003 a study estimated that 16 million males had DNA traced to Genghis Khan, who ruthlessly built a vast empire characterized by rape and pillage.
Because we participate in these dynamics, Christian ministers frequently refer to us as “fallen” or in a state of “brokenness.” The obvious implication is that human beings were once “whole.” The Garden of Eden explanation has us beginning in a state where all that we needed was supplied by the environment. As they myth goes, our ancestors were safe, with no predators. Food was plentiful and easy to obtain. But there is no evidence that our ancestors ever lived in such a state of safety, with all their needs met by the environment itself.
Most species on earth live under threat of predators and under conditions where they must devote much time and effort to meet their needs for food and shelter. It is not just human beings that live in stressful conditions. There are, however, birds that live in such ideal circumstances in Papua New Guinea that they are called Birds-of-Paradise. They have plenty of food at all times of year and they have no natural predators or diseases, hence the reference to Paradise. Reproduction, however, is not guaranteed. To reproduce, males must put on elaborate displays for the females, who routinely reject more males than they agree to have sex with. But sometimes a rejected male will simply not take “no” for an answer and will hop on the female and quickly impregnate her. Rape in paradise.
For aggression to succeed, it must be paired with effective power. When it is, it goes a long way in determining which individuals and which species will live and reproduce and which will not. Aggression has reproductive value, so many successful species exhibit adaptive aggression. Even in extremes, it can be rewarded by survival and reproduction. But things we regard as virtues can also have survival and reproductive value. While Genghis Khan’s method of control and expansion was noted for its brutality, rape, and pillage, after gaining domination over a population, he used tolerance and generosity to maintain control. Social intelligence also has survival and reproductive value.
While the ability and willingness to do harm are evolutionary adaptations to the stressful conditions of life on earth, when they are activated without being suppressed by compassion, individuals and groups can inflict harm that is not necessary for their survival, which is evil. Typical suppressors of doing harm can be overridden by fear, delusion, and seemingly benign social pressure. Social conformity is also important to survival and reproduction. When people expect us to do harm, we are likely to comply. This is how isolated groups, like corporate cultures, can spin off into doing evil, like predatory business practices. Whole societies can also, like Nazi Germany. Outsiders are more able to see the evil insiders are doing.
Evil is done from a state of moral imbalance. Self-interest is not counterbalanced with concern for others. Twenty-six centuries ago, the Jain religion was formed around the realization that we cannot survive on earth without doing harm. They vowed to live as well as they could while doing the least amount of harm possible. The motivation is compassion for all sentient beings, including themselves. With such compassionate awareness, there can be the recognition that even altering the environment to benefit ourselves can make it unsuitable for other life forms who previously thrived.
Psychologically, we are more likely to strengthen our compassionate awareness when we are not faulted for major things outside our control, namely that life on earth requires doing harm. The guilt imposed by the belief that humans are at such fault (original sin) tends to only motivate us to relieve that guilt and secure our good standing with divine beings. The concept of original sin is an example of blaming the victim in order to deflect responsibility from where it lies, the objective reality life on earth evolved from. The concept of original sin also provides a means for the church to control others. Original sin does not motivate us to increase compassionate awareness of other life forms with concern for their wellbeing. Better to simply recognize that the roots of evil are in what it takes to survive and reproduce in the environment of this earth. We have the option, though, to commit to doing the least amount of harm possible and learning the self-discipline to do so. By counteract destructive needs with compassionate awareness of other life forms and the earth itself, we are less likely to exploit or do harm. Then we are more likely to sacrifice some fulfillment of our own interests for the sake of others.