Breaking Bad – The Evolutionary Perspective of Evil

A blurred photograph featuring the face of an angry ape chimpanzee. Image: NaturPhilosophieEvil as an Evolutionary Advantage

There is a side of us that is not unique to our own species.  Evil.  Why?  How did it start?  The first time.  Asking why evil came into existence is a valid question.  Evil behaviours are categorised into four distinct groups.  Of course, it gets pretty dark.  But what is “Evil”? 

From the point of view of Nature and evolution, we get many of our behaviours from our animal ancestors.  If this includes ‘evil’ behaviours, could there be some evolutionary advantage to some  known scenarios?

Asking why evil came into existence is a valid question, provided we steer clear of any religious connotation to the definition.

We mean to talk about evil, not as a moral transgression against the divine, but rather as behaviour that is simply bad, cruel, even vicious…

Is evil a behavioural abnormality or an adaptive reproductive strategy?


Pom and Passion

A photograph showing a pair of female and baby chimpanzees in their natural habitat.
A pair of female chimpanzees. Source: LiveScience

In 1975, Jane Goodall studied two chimpanzees, named Passion and Pom – a mother and daughter.  Over four years, the pair systematically cannibalised eight infants from their species.  Do these acts causing intentional suffering, destruction or damage make those apes psychopaths?


A photograph showing Jane Goodall with an Infant chimp.
British primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall has been studying the social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees for the past 55 years. Source:

Adult males will kill an infant of a neighbouring group, and even, on some occasions, have partially eaten that baby.  But that’s to do with inter-community aggression, and the mother is the one that they’re actually trying to kill.  But within the community, these attacks seem to be like hunting, just like hunting a young monkey, so we have absolutely no idea why they do it.  And the following day, the hunter, Passion or Fifi, may sit down peacefully with the mother whose baby they tried to kill the day before, or whose baby they have killed the day before.  It’s very strange.  And you know, there is so much we still have to find out about chimpanzees.  So much.” explains Goodall.


The Emotions Profile Index

Emotions Profile Index (RPI)

Buirski and Plutchik, 1991 used the Emotions Profile Index (RPI) to study Passion.  Passion’s ratings were compared to the profiles of the other adult females from the same community at Gombe Stream National Park, in Tanzania.  They were also analysed in terms of her subsequent infanticidal and cannibalistic behaviour, observed from 1975 to 1977.

The index includes such traits as deceptiveness, callousness, aggressiveness, absence of emotional ties and fearlessness.

This combination suggested that Passion exhibited socially deviant behaviour.


Psychology in Great Apes

A 2006 study entitled ‘Psychopathology in great apes: Concepts, treatment options and possible homologies to human psychiatric disorders‘, which also considered the case of Passion and Pom.

The researchers agreed that the pair had cannibalised with such persistence that a human psychiatrist ought to be tempted to qualify the set of actions as being typical of antisocial personality ‘disorder’.

The killing of infant wild chimpanzees by female adults may be more common than was previously thought.


Behaviour Abnormality OR Adaptive Reproductive Strategy?

Recent fieldwork revealed three more infanticidal attacks by females in the Sonso chimpanzee community in the Budongo Forest of Uganda, hinting such “lethal aggression may not be anomalous behaviour.

Townsend et al. 2007 speculate an unusual influx of females into the Sonso chimp community in the past five years might have precipitated this deadly aggression, as females face greater competition for limited foraging areas.  Like the Passion and Pom infanticides, two of these killings were perpetrated by coalitions of females deliberately targeting infants, likely because it is difficult for a lone female to overpower a mother and attack her infant.

Whether or not infanticide is a behaviour abnormality OR an adaptive reproductive strategy has long been a matter of controversy.  However, chimpanzee apes are not the only ones that have been suggested to display some psychopathic tendencies.

Apparently, dolphins do too…


The Dark Tetrad of Personality

About 15 years ago, a group of psychologists at the University of British Columbia and his student, including Del Paulhus and Kevin Williams,  defined a ‘Dark Triad of Personality‘, which included such traits as:

  • Machiavellianism,

  • Psychopathy, and

  • Narcissism.

The Triad was later extended to a Tetrad, to include so-called “everyday” sadism – the enjoyment of cruelty.

Of the offensive yet non-pathological personalities in the literature, three were defined as especially prominent:

  • Machiavellianism,

  • subclinical narcissism, and

  • subclinical psychopathy.

Subclinical psychopaths were distinguished by their low neuroticism.  Machiavellians and psychopaths were low in conscientiousness.  Narcissism showed small positive associations with cognitive ability.

Narcissists – and to some lesser extent psychopaths – exhibited self-enhancement on two objectively scored indexes.  Back in 2002, Paulhus & Williams concluded that  the Dark Triad of personalities, as currently measured, are overlapping, and yet distinct constructs.


Characteristics Overlap

Recently, Paulhus (2014) argued that it is precisely because Machiavellianism, psychopathy, narcissism, and everyday sadism overlap, that they ought to be studied in concert.

A graphic showing two words into one, illustrating the duality of Good and Evil.
The Duality…

We are deep in the realm of Psychology.  We must tread carefully.

Along with his research group, Paulhus studied the ‘constellation’ of these dark personalities – Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and everyday sadism – under the label “Dark Tetrad”.  The term dark personalities refers to a set of socially aversive traits in the sub-clinical range.  Not quite extreme enough to invite clinical or forensic attention, they can get along, and flourish in everyday work settings, scholastic settings, and the broader community.

Here we deal with such personality aspects as

  • Machiavellianism (manipulative, self-interested, deceptive)

  • Psychopathy (antisocial, remorseless, callous)

  • Narcissim (grandiose, proud, lacking empathy)

  • “Everyday” Sadism


The Machiavellian Principle


A photograph showing Rowan Atkinson incarnating Machiavellian character Blackadder in the BBC series.
Rowan Atkinson as Sir Edmund Blackadder

Machiavellianism is characterised by a duplicitous interpersonal style of interactions, doubled with a cynical disregard for morality, and a focus on self-interest and personal gain.  Usually, this will involve combining intelligent strategy and cunning to gain power, and quite simply ‘get one up’ on a rival.

Machiavellianism is a normal part of political life.  This appears to be true even if the participants are not human.


Twenty years of studies have revealed Machiavellian-like behaviours in Rhesus monkey societies.

Alpha males engaged in threatening behaviour and violent tactics to protect sleeping spaces, females and food.  The dominant monkeys used unpredictable bursts of aggression to rule over subordinates.

Alliances were formed and female monkeys looked out for their own daughters by mating with the alpha male – but they also mated with other males behind his back to ensure they would be protected if the alpha male died or was deposed.

Secret artifice.  Conspiracy.  Stratagems.  All the elements of a Shakespearean intrigue!


From Resus Macaques to Humans: Part of Who We Are

Rhesus macaques behave this way because they seek to establish power.  And Machiavellian behaviours turn out to be an effective way to establish and maintain dominance, or alliances with dominant individuals.

Every individual monkey seems to have the capacity for Machiavellian behaviour.

It just seems part of who they are.

It is not as if there are Machiavellian individuals in societies that display this sort of behaviour all the time, and others who never do it.  Just like in humans, it is part of their nature.

Wherever tasks are done cooperatively, Machiavellian strategies can work in virtually every social situations, like foraging, feeding, caring for the young or defending the group.  Hence there is good reason to believe that the intentional deception underlying Machiavellianism has very deep evolutionary roots, making it a useful survival strategy.

Survival strategy


But it is far from being a risk-free strategy.  If they get caught cheating by their peers, there is retribution.



A photograph showing actor Bryan Cranston playing Tv series "Breaking Bad"'s character Walter White.
Changing the Equation…  Bryan Cranston plays Walter ‘Heisenberg’ White – a chemistry teacher diagnosed with Stage IIIA lung cancer who resorts to making meth in order to secure his family’s finances in American TV series ‘Breaking Bad’.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder, characterised by enduring antisocial behaviour, diminished empathy and remorse, and disinhibited or bold behaviour.  It may be defined as a continuous aspect of personality, representing scores on different personality dimensions found throughout the population in varying combinations.

And just like some humans, some animals come across as genuinely unpleasant individuals.


Dolphins and Porpoises

In 1996, a team from the U.K. observed evidence of violent interactions between bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises.

Porpoises washed up on the north-east coast of Scotland, and later on the Welsh and Southern English coasts.  In Monterey Bay in California, the porpoises showed signs of injuries inflicted by the dolphins.

Later, direct observations of aggressive interaction between an adult bottlenose dolphin and a dead bottlenose dolphin calf, provided strong evidence to scientists for infanticide in this population. Patterson et al. 1998 suggested that the harbour porpoise attacks could have something do with infanticide in bottlenose dolphins.

The similarity in size range of the harbour porpoises and dolphin calves that showed signs of attack by bottlenose dolphins suggested that previously reported interspecific interactions, could be related to infanticidal behaviour in cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises).


Chimpanzee Psychopath Measure

A study in 1999 took 34 chimpanzees in captivity, at a research centre in Georgia, as the subjects of its ‘Chimpanzee Psychopath Measure‘.

The team found that there was “evidence for the psychopathy construct in chimpanzees”.  They concluded that certain features of human psychopathy, such as risk-taking and absence of generosity, were also found in great apes.

Just as in humans, male chimps received higher scores than females.


There are good biological reasons for various mammals to kill young.  When a male lion takes over a pride, getting rid of offspring can be a smart idea because it allows the female to be available for reproduction if she is not busy looking after a cub.


On Narcissism

A cartoon illustrating the effect of 'Selfie' Culture - a mouse is being eaten by a cat who's posing in front of his cell phone camera. The mouse is also using a tiny phone.Narcissism is defined as the  pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s own attributes.  As a personality metric, narcissism can be considered as being four-facetted: leadership/authority, superiority/arrogance, self-absorption/self-admiration, and exploitativeness/entitlement.


The Power Hungry Narcissist

Studies concerning power-hungry narcissists suggests that narcissists typically display most, and sometimes all, of the following traits:

  • An obvious self-focus in interpersonal exchanges

  • Problems in sustaining satisfying relationships

  • A lack of psychological awareness

  • Difficulty with empathy

  • Problems distinguishing the self from others

  • Hypersensitivity to any insults or imagined insults

  • Vulnerability to shame, rather than guilt

  • Haughty body language

  • Flattery towards people who admire and affirm them

  • Detesting those who do not admire them

  • Using other people without considering the cost of doing so

  • Pretending to be more important than they really are

  • Bragging, subtly but persistently, and exaggerating their achievements

  • Claiming to be an “expert” at many things

  • Inability to view the world from the perspective of other people

  • Denial of remorse and gratitude


Behaviour is observable, but intention is not.


Intention is not Observable

A photograph showing an embroidered word picture which says: "I told my therapist about you".Thus, this classification requires assumptions which need to be tested before they can be asserted as fact, especially considering multiple explanations could be made as to why a person exhibits these behaviours.

Psychoanalyst Sandy Hotchkiss (2008) identified the ‘Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism’ as shamelessness, magical thinking, arrogance, envy, entitlement, exploitation, bad boundaries.

For in vivo human examples, check your Facebook-sphere.

Go on!!  You know WHO they are!


Assortative Mating – “Self Seeking Like”

Evidence for assortative mating among humans is well established.

Humans mate assortatively regarding

  • age,
  • IQ,
  • height,
  • weight,
  • nationality,
  • educational and occupational level,
  • physical and personality characteristics, and
  • family relatedness.

In the “self seeking like” hypothesis, individuals unconsciously look for a mirror image of themselves in others, seeking criteria of beauty or reproductive fitness in the context of self-reference.  Alvarez & Jaffe, 2004 found that facial resemblance between couples was a strong driving force among the mechanisms of assortative mating: human couples resemble each other significantly more than would be expected from random pair formation.  Since facial characteristics are known to be inherited, the “self seeking like” mechanism may enhance reproduction between genetically similar mates, favouring the stabilization of genes supporting social behaviour, with no kin relationship among them.

A photograph showing the bower of a Vogelkop Bowerbird (Amblyornis inornata) ornated with bright decorations.
The Bower of Vogelkop Bowerbird (Amblyornis inornata) with bright decorations. Source: BBC

From the animal world, enters the absolutely over-the-top bower bird and its nest.  You’ve heard about birds building nests… Well, sure enough, there’s building a nest, and then there’s… building a NEST.


The Bower Bird – Show-Off of the Avian World

The Vogelkop Bowerbird belongs to a unique family of birds famed for their construction of complex structures known as ‘bowers’.  The cone-shaped bower of a Vogelkop bowerbird can reach a metre high, with a one and a half metre diameter. This bower has its entrance, or lawn, decorated with bright flowers.  The craftsmanship is purposely grandiose!!

An animation showing the sultry mating dance of the male Bower bird trying to impress a female.
The Flame Bowerbird (Sericulus aureus) has some smooth moves with which to woo his female mate.  Source: Smithsonian Channel

And then there’s the courtship display…

The male orange Flame Bowerbird twists his tails and his wings to the side, and then shakes his head quickly.  Whilst performing his dance, a male Flame bowerbird produces wheezing calls from his throat and pulses his pupil size in an effort to seduce a female in Papua New Guinea.  The courtship behaviour of the flame bowerbird was filmed by Japanese photographer Tadashi Shimada in Dancers on Fire, a documentary that aired on the Smithsonian Channel.

This little guy is the Michael Jackson of the avian world.  Who’s BAD, baby?

Although the male appeared to court females twice, no successful mating was filmed by Shimada, as the female moved away when the male mounted.  Shimada filmed other peculiar behaviour, such as a male courting a juvenile male, and several juvenile males as well as an adult male appearing to share one bower, only to be destroyed by another juvenile male.


The Joys of Hurting Others


A photograph of super villain Dr Evil as portrayed by Mike Myers in movie "Austin Powers".
Canadian actor Mike Myers portrays Dr Evil in the popular movie “Austin Powers”.

Sadism may allow a person to maintain power and dominance.  Fifteenth century Prince of Vallachia, Vlad the Impaler – the inspiration to Bram Stoker’s Dracula – was said to deter his enemies from entering his kingdom by hanging bodies on the border, showing invaders what might happen to them if they continued.

Traditionally, the phenomenon has been discussed in its most extreme forms, whether in criminal or sexual contexts.  However, sadism is increasingly being treated as a more common behaviour with evolutionary roots.  Although we no longer consider it acceptable to torture animals for our amusement, a milder version – “soft sadism” – remains evident in contemporary human societies and may even be normally distributed.

“Everyday sadism” is a dispositional tendency to derive pleasure from others’ suffering.


From Vlad III to passive-aggressive villain Dr Evil and his deadly ill-tempered mutated sea-basses, is sadism a behaviour aspect we can recognise in non-human animals?

Animals who play with their victims do not kill them.  Instead they torture them.


Arrested Development

To learn how to become an adult animal who has to kill, the young has to play first.  Somewhere between play and becoming an adult who has to kill, there’s a line.

That play aspect carries over to some adults, they never got over it.  They remain fixated at the play stage.

A photograph showing a very real game of cat and mouse.
A real game of cat and mouse…

Sadists are really displaying a form of arrested development.  If this is the case, it might seem odd that the behaviour can exist over the long term in adult societies.

“Like sadism, schadenfreude involves an inappropriately pleasant reaction to someone else’s suffering.  From this description, schadenfreude might seem like a good starting point for investigating everyday sadism, but it is more of a natural human response than something sinister” says Buckels, 2009.

Allow me to recapitulate.


The Dark Taxonomy of Evil Behaviour

The Machiavellian takes care, while taking advantage.

Psychopaths impulsively grab what they want, caring little if others get hurt in the process.

The “everyday” sadist actually seeks out opportunities to observe or even induce suffering in other people.

Dark personalities could be compared to parasites in several different ways.  This may surprise many but…

In evolutionary terms, parasites serve a very positive function in animal communities.

A morally troubling argument can be made that they clean up the less adaptive individuals – those individuals from the herd who do not quite have the qualities to contribute to societies.  As cruel as it may sound…


Evolutionary Benefit

And paradoxically-speaking, perhaps this constellation of dark behaviours are actually beneficial to human and animal societies by encouraging other individuals to be on their guard, and think carefully about guarding their trust.

Those behaviours are precisely what keeps the species on their toes!

Paulhus’ work on the “dark side” stands in stark contrast to the popular work on positive personality traits.  In his view, dark personalities are more fascinating than shiny, happy folks.  Research has a pressing need to understand these dark characters.

“One intriguing possibility for future research would involve measuring both positive and dark personality traits in the same people.  We suspect that they are not polar opposite.” says Paulhus.

From the point of view of genetic evolution, it seems the Machiavellian and the psychopath may have more chances at reproduction, because of a greater tendency towards promiscuity associated with their typical behaviour.

Meanwhile, the narcissist feels special and exudes confidence that people react to.

As to sadists, the primitive notion is that more power leads to more reproduction.

It’s completely Freudian.


Trolls Just Want To Have Fun…

A cartoon illustrating the deadly hunting technique of the Angler fish.
Trolls are much like anglerfishes. Be smart and don’t take the bait!

Two online studies of Internet users’ commenting styles showed strong positive associations emerged among online commenting frequency, trolling enjoyment, and troll identity, pointing to a common construct underlying the measures.

Both studies revealed similar patterns of relations between trolling and the Dark Tetrad of personality: trolling correlated positively with sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.

Of all personality measures, sadism showed the most robust associations with trolling and, importantly, the relationship was specific to trolling behaviour.  Enjoyment of other online activities, such as chatting and debating, was unrelated to sadism.

Outright cyber-trolling appears to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism.

The current step in the natural evolution of human evil, if you will.

In the deep sea, the anglerfish dangles the long filament protruding from its head, with a growth on the end which resembles a fish or a worm.  This appendage deceives foraging smaller fish into an unwise attack, and they are summarily gobbled up by the angler fish.  Evolutionary advantage.

And cyber-trolls are much like anglerfishes.  They lurk in wait.  By the way, don’t take the bait!


Which one are you?

Machiavelli’s rightful heir?

A casual psychopath?

The occasional sadist…?

Or the biggest narcissist who’s ever been known to post on Facebook?

Because there is no point denying it.  It’s part of our human nature, and rooted deep in our evolution too.