Can animals be evil?

Ard: So when Bertje showed real, what I would consider loving behaviour, and he would hug you and be very affectionate, very loving. So they have a loving side.

JG: Absolutely: love, compassion, true altruism. I mean, there are wonderful stories of chimpanzee altruism. Like a young male at Gombe, a twelve-year-old adolescent, and he adopted a motherless three-year-old who had no older brother or sister who would normally look after an orphan.

But little Mel didn’t have an older brother or sister, and we thought he’d die. Three, just beginning to be able to survive without his mother’s milk, just. But we didn’t think he’d make it, and then Spindle waited for him and let him travel on his back, even clinging below if it was cold or Mel was frightened. And then Mel would creep up to his nest at night, and Spindle was lying in the nest and Mel was always a little bit apprehensive. And he’d, ‘Ooh, Ooh,’ and Spindle would reach out and draw him close.

David: And they weren’t related?

JG: Not at all.

David: So this was just genuine care and generosity?

JG: Yes. I think when you have the long-term family supportive bonds they have, which can last through a life of up to 70 years in captivity, then all of that behaviour – of nurturing and caring for another – is kind of, now, inbuilt, so you can extend it, like we do, out beyond the immediate family.

David: Do you feel that because we are related, chimps and us, that when you see that we have the ability for empathy, and they do that… Does that then say to you that this is something that is in our nature?

JG: Yes, I think so. You know, Louis Leakey sent me just to learn about the chimps because he was digging up the remains of early humans, and a lot fossilises. You can tell a lot about what the creature was eating from the tooth wear, whether it’s upright or not from the bone, the muscle attachment, and so forth, but behaviour doesn’t fossilise.

So he believed in a common ancestor about six million years ago. Louis Leakey believed in a common ancestor: ape-like, human-like, maybe six million years ago, something like that, and he argued that if I would find behaviour that was similar, or maybe the same, in modern chimp and modern human, then possibly we had brought this along our separate evolutionary pathways from that common ancestor, and therefore he could then imagine his early humans behaving like that. That was his whole theory, and, of course, it turned out even better than he might have dreamed, all the different things I was seeing: kissing, embracing, holding hands, using tools, making tools – all of these things.

Ard: Yeah, it’s amazing.

David: Which does suggest that, somehow, you’ve got to find an evolutionary theory which says how this can have happened, because it has happened.

Ard: Here’s another thing I was wondering that really struck me when I was a child. So we had some pet goats that also ran around the area.

JG: Dogs?

Ard: Goats.

JG: Goats.

Ard: They were goats, actually quite cute little goats. And one day, one little goat was wandering close to him, and he jumped up and grabbed it, ran up into the tree and just wrung its neck and killed it. And then he started poking out its eyeballs, and it was just… It was cruel. It was mean. And the other goats were bleating and he just, kind of… It was actually cruel behaviour. And I remember looking at that and thinking, ‘That’s bad. That’s evil.’

And later, I’ve thought about it and thought, was he morally responsible for that kind of gratuitous killing? What do you think?

JG: I’ve personally decided that only humans are capable of true evil…

Ard: Okay.

JG: …because we can deliberate and do it, knowing the harm we’re inflicting. For him it was just, sort of, curiosity: ‘what is this creature?’

Ard: So I’ll tell you another story of our chimpanzee. We had chickens as well, and one day there was a mother hen with little chicks, and he kind of sat there pretending to mind his own business until they got very close and he grabbed the chick. And, of course, he was playing with it, and his hands were so strong, he just killed it, and then he got bored because it wasn’t doing anything. And then he noticed that the mother hen was coming, very protectively, trying to get the chick. So what he did is, he would hold the little chick out like this and entice her to come. And then when she got close, he tried to grab her: bang! And so this poor mother hen was trying to get her chick back – her dead chick – and he was just teasing her with it. And I was shocked by that behaviour. I thought, that’s morally outrageous: you take someone’s young and you basically used it as a game.

David: And how old were you at that time?

Ard: Four… three or four – I was small enough to realise that that was a bad thing. I was morally outraged. I thought that was…

JG: I’m sure you were.

Ard: …a bad thing to do.

JG: And I’m sure in your upbringing there was enough that you’d been taught, that you would have that feeling.

Ard: Yeah. I just felt it was evil, it was wrong. But he just thought it was a funny game.

JG: Yeah, a funny game.

Ard: Did you see any of this in the wild as well? What we might call cruel behaviour.

JG: Yes. Well, they can… I mean, they have a very dark, aggressive, brutal side, just like us: their intercommunity conflicts; these gang attacks, horrendous... leaving the victim to die of the wounds inflicted.

Ard: Oh, wow!

JG: You know, descriptions of twisting around a leg. I mean, really awful, awful stuff.

Ard: While the animal is still alive?

JG: While the chimp is… This is another chimp…

Ard: Torture.

JG: And this was one who they had known, because the community split, and so seven of the males who had split away and two of the females were savagely attacked like this once they had taken up part of the range that previously all had shared.

And it was the most horrifying thing. I mean, it’s bad enough when they’re attacking a stranger, but to attack somebody who you groomed with, and fed with, and travelled with, was horrifying.

David: Yes. So you saw that –your description of the little baby chimp – they were capable of tremendous empathy and, I don't know, maybe love, but then also capable of a much darker set of emotions as well.

JG: Yes, they share that with us. I used to think they were like us, but nicer, and then I realised that, just like us, they have this terrible, dark streak.

Ard: But you would say they’re not morally responsible for that behaviour, even…

JG: I don’t believe so. I don’t think chimpanzees, or probably any animal, is capable of torture, which I would define as premeditated, planned intention to inflict pain, mental or physical. That’s torture, and that’s evil.

Ard: Sometimes hey show what we might call evil behaviour, but it’s not… We are much more evil?

JG: It’s cruel behaviour.

Ard: Cruel behaviour, sorry. Cruel behaviour.

JG: We have the true evil, which is the premeditation, the plan, the knowing, the completely understanding. We have greater capacity for understanding the effect of our actions, I believe.