Archive for November, 2008

Where Goeth Evil?

The Universe is neither good nor evil. It is indifferent. The Human race and all life on earth could disappear in a flash and the Universe would continue right along unperturbed. Here on Earth Mother Nature’s children are, for the most part, locked in a competitive struggle for continued existence. It’s an “each one eat one—he who hesitates is lunch—might makes right—survival of the fittest” kind of world. That’s just the way Nature works. Everything you ever ate was alive at one time and had to die to sustain you (salt is an exception).The terms “good” and “evil” don’t seem to apply in this context either.

Good and evil are moral abstractions derived from the attempts of human beings to cooperate and thus improve their chances of survival. “Good” is any human behavior that promotes or enables cooperation and “evil” is the opposite. This cooperation, known as “civilization,” is an exception to Nature’s general rule of competition. It’s like a fragile bubble of calm afloat in an often-violent sea.

Outside the bubble other species have developed rudimentary cooperative techniques. There is the symbiosis between species such as flowering plants and pollinating insects, and certain insects (ants, termites, bees, etc.) build organizational structures that are reminiscent of cities. These, however, are not conscious efforts but genetic adaptations. In addition, some higher forms of life are seen to cooperate at the family or larger level such as a pride of lions or a herd of bison. Furthermore, some of the higher life forms, when invited inside the bubble, become domestic and show a measure of cooperation with humanity. However, outside the bubble the predominate rule remains competition and nothing else comes close to the extent of cooperation found between human beings, imperfect as it is.

There is a temptation to project the moral terms of human cooperation onto Mother Nature. If one witnesses a mountain lion kill a fawn in the presence of the mother deer, empathy for the agony the mother must feel can tempt a person to apply the term “evil” to the mountain lion. But “Nature [is] red in tooth and claw,”* and such a usage is misplaced. In the great American classic Moby Dick by Herman Melville, the central and unifying theme of the book is just such a projection. Captain Ahab in an earlier encounter with the white whale was severely injured including the loss of a leg. He casts his intense desire for revenge in terms of “good” verses “evil,” and sees himself as similar to St. George in pursuit of the dragon. Eventually he does come up with Moby Dick again and sets out to slay the whale. The whale, however, fights back and wins. The ship is sunk and all aboard perish with the exception of Ishmael who lives to tell the tale.
Was the whale evil? Of course not, Moby Dick was simply doing what all life forms in Nature do, he was struggling to survive. If there was evil present it was Ahab himself whose obsession with revenge resulted in the destruction of his little piece of the bubble, the ship PEQUOD and it’s crew.

Occasionally, a natural event such as a storm or an earthquake destroys a piece of the bubble, but even though such an event can be bad for civilization, it is not evil. On the other hand, a disastrous natural event is often exacerbated by human actions such as looting and that is evil.

Originally the bubble of civilization was quite small and only encompassed the family, but over time we have learned to live in successively larger and larger societies. Now, the scope of civilization is world wide, though the quality is not perfect and competition still plays a subsidiary role within. . . We are still learning.

R. L. Mason
Mendocino, California
2005

*Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam

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