During the murderous 7 October attack by Hamas terrorists on Israeli citizens, including women and children, I heard commentators, struggling for words to condemn the killers, saying that they were behaving “like animals” or were “worse than animals” or occasionally that they were “mediaeval”. Comparisons with animals are plain wrong. Comparisons with mediaeval people are misjudged. Neither should be used.
Humans are animals. To be precise, we are apes. To be even more precise, we are a type of chimpanzee. The commentators mean that the bad men were behaving “like other animals”. But they were not. They were much worse than other animals. This is because no other animal is able to be evil. It does not have the consciousness to be deliberately cruel, to inflict suffering deliberately on others. Humans are able to understand and enjoy the suffering of their fellows. No other animal is. Animals are just pitiless. Only humans are cruel.
Humans are the only moral animals, the only animals able to tell the difference between right and wrong, concepts that almost all humans are agreed on. Religious people say morality comes from God. Atheists like me say it comes from evolution (we needed the concept for our survival; I can explain). But it doesn’t matter where it comes from: the fact is that all humans, except psychopaths, are moral beings. Furthermore, all adult human beings, regardless of race, sex or class, are equally moral, meaning that they should all be blamed in exactly the same way for the same crime. Unfortunately, this does not happen, but that is for another discussion.
My favourite animals are cats. I am besotted by them. I think they are beautiful; I admire their arrogance, style, self-reliance, and independence; I think that cats, pound for pound, from domestic cats to lions, are the best fighters of all animals. Any cat will beat any other animal of the same weight. Cats have played a big part in my life. But I have no illusions about them. By human standards, I know their behaviour is reprehensible. They not only kill other animals in the most brutal way but behave terribly towards each other. The expression “the act of love” is never less fitting than in the case of a mating tomcat. The male seizes the female, copulates, and then vanishes, never to see her again. (The female, though, is invariably an able and loving mother.)
Lions are even worse. A young male adult lion will invade a pride, kick out its ageing leader, take his place among the lionesses, and then kill all the cubs in the pride. He will keep on killing every new cub born to the lionesses until the time comes when any new cub is likely to be his. This is very common behaviour among a wide range of mammals. For many baby animals, the greatest threat is adult males of the same species. In evolutionary terms, this is logical.
Theory of evolution
The theory of evolution is based on two simple premises: that accidental mutations will happen in the genes and a tiny fraction of them will be advantageous; and that those with the most advantageous mutations will stand a better chance of survival than those without. Evolution is the survival of the fittest. What do we mean by the fittest? The strongest? No. The fastest? No. The most ferocious? No. The biggest? No. The fittest simply means those most likely to survive. In other words, evolution is about “the survival of those that survive”. The principle tenet of evolution is “what works, works”. It is a tautology. It is the most powerful tautology in all science. Tyrannosaurus Rex, weighing ten tons, four metres high, one of the biggest, most ferocious carnivores that ever lived, perished a long time ago. Doves, weighing 120 gm, eating seeds and berries, proliferate today. Both are dinosaurs. Doves and their forebears survived because they were fitter for their environments than Tyrannosaurus.
For a species to survive it must have fruitful grandchildren. It must be able to pass on its genes for the next two generations. When a lion takes over a pride, the existing cubs do not have his genes. So he kills them. Then he mates with as many lionesses as he can to ensure that his genes are passed on. Of course, he does not know this. It just happens that male sexual jealousy helps males to pass on their genes. As Richard Dawkins has pointed out so clearly, what matters in evolution is the survival of the gene, not the survival of the species. The more jealous the male lion, the more genes he will pass on. Male humans are also sexually jealous (a fact the great religions exploit) but morality stops them becoming murderous – to some extent at least, although surveys show that fathers are more likely to kill their adopted children than they are their biological children.
In my garden I have watched cats capturing mice and then playing with them instead of just killing them and eating them. They do this because they find it fun, like a child playing with a toy. It develops their reactions and accuracy, making them more efficient hunters. They have no concept of the mouse’s suffering. Indeed they have no concept of the mouse’s consciousness, or of any other being’s consciousness. Cruelty means deliberately inflicting suffering on other beings and enjoying their suffering. If a schoolboy is caned in front of the class, his enemies and sometimes even his friends might enjoy his suffering. If he screams in pain, the enjoyment is often heightened. Any public execution anywhere at any time in history always drew a big crowd. People enjoyed watching other people being beheaded, roasted to death, and hung, drawn and quartered.
All vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians) have highly developed nervous systems and all feel pain. When a fish is caught by a fisherman, when the hook goes through the roof of her mouth and comes out through her eye, and when she thrashes about on the rock or the pier for half an hour, gasping and suffocating, she is suffering unimaginable agony. The notion that fish don’t feel pain is evil nonsense. I don’t know about lower animals, especially the Chordata (insects, spiders, crustacea or so on), by far the most successful multi-celled animals. In my garden I see nightmarish horror. At a certain time of year, a black wasp, about an inch long, with orange wings, starts looking about. I know what she is doing. She is looking for a rain spider, also female.
When she finds one, she stings her underneath her thorax, where her eight legs join. This paralyses the spider. Does the sting also anesthetise the spider (to stop it feeling pain)? Probably not. But I don’t understand spiders’ nervous systems. Then she drags the spider into a hole and lays an egg on it. The egg hatches a baby wasp that proceeds to eat the spider alive, over quite a long period. I understand that Darwin, when he was investigating parasitism in animals, was sometimes overcome with horror, which might have filled him with religious doubts – although he never revealed his religious beliefs.
The fact that other animals are amoral doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have rights. They should, and we as the only moral animal have a moral duty to implement them. If I had the authority, I should ban all battery farming, especially the ghastly battery farming of poultry; I’d ban all animal acts in circuses; I’d enforce strict rules for pig farming to give these clean, intelligent and dignified animals a semi-decent life before slaughter; I’d allow only ethical hunting.
“Mediaeval” behaviour is more complicated. In some ways we are morally superior to the mediaevals, in some ways not. Today we don’t parade the mentally handicapped in shows or stage public executions, often with elaborate torture beforehand. But in the first half of the 20th Century we did persecute homosexuals in a way that wouldn’t have occurred to mediaevals, who just didn’t care about that sort of thing. The persecution of witches was fairly modern, in the 16th to 19th centuries. In the Middle Ages it would have been thought nonsense. Human nature has probably not changed in 100 000 years, and certainly not in the last thousand. But technology has; we now have better means for oppressing and killing people on a large scale. The terrible crimes of the 20th century, the extermination camps of Hitler’s national socialism, the Gulags of Lenin and Stalin, and the deliberate famines of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung surpass anything that happened in the Middle Ages.
Please stop comparing modern terrorists with animals or mediaevals.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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