Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it. It is a trait that is not known to the higher animals. –Mark Twain, “The Lowest Animal,” (an essay).

Those ideals and convictions which resulted from historical experience, from the craving for beauty and harmony, have been readily accepted in theory by man — and at all times, have been trampled upon by the same people under the pressure of their animal instincts. –Albert Einstein (“Ideas and Opinions,” Broadway Books, reprint edition 1995.

A friend read my last post and pointed me to Mark Twain’s essay, “The Lowest Animal.”  It’s a commentary on Man’s singular penchant among other animals for cruelty greed, rapaciousness, and other uniquely human hobbies. Twain pushed me to consider this further.

Somewhere in our evolutionary ascent (or, per Twain, descent) humans seem to have gone over the edge.  We changed from instinctual automatons to objective, sentient beings who can consciously participate in overt acts of extreme selfishness, regardless of their effects on others.  Recognition of this penchant for personal excess predates, or at least coincides with, the origins of Judaism. The modern western idea of good and evil probably originated in ancient Zoroastrian dualism, around Persia, some three thousand years ago. Original Sin, a Christian invention, was the early Church’s statement of Man’s darker nature, conveniently blamed on Adam and Eve. The Catholic Church even categorized it in the “Seven Deadly Sins:” Pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Conveniently omitted were wanton murder, gratuitous cruelty, and other evangelical tools the Church favored in those days. But that’s another conversation…

Societies have taken different approaches to dealing with this aspect of our psyches. Some have embraced it, glorifying war and retribution, torture and slavery, and its many other manifestations. Others, notably the modern West, suppress or deny it. Virtually all, consciously or unconsciously, channel it into acceptable outlets. In the olden days, public executions like hanging or burning at the stake or drowning were great entertainment. Even better were participatory executions like stoning. There were the Romans’ gladiator games, and their public sport of killing criminals; ancient Sparta’s mandatory militarism, and the Mesoamerican natives’ ballgames and human sacrifice. The list is long, and the U.S. has its own, though we publicly decry many: team sports, boxing and cage fighting, animal fights, auto racing, gambling and lotteries, prostitution and pornography, violent video games, the glorified acquisition of money…and, all too often, actual war.

I doubt any society has ever successfully suppressed our dark side. And none ever will, however much we ridicule, isolate or kill offenders. It’s too ubiquitous, too strong, a seed of selfish desire within each of us. Throughout our lives, we each engage with it. But the balance between the interpersonal norms of a civilization and the baser drives of the individual is extremely tenuous…maybe less a balance than a constant tension towards darkness against which society is constantly straining. And as we move towards a singular global society approaching seven billion, I don’t see the good guy winning.