Prologue
Chapter 1: Cruelty
Chapter 2: The desire to acquire
Mirroring
Nucleotides
The beginning of the universe
Competitiveness
Social Order
Truth & Lies
Death
Fate

Cruelty

How did cruelty evolve?

If you give a status-obsessed animal a big enough brain it will become cruel. The step is simple. It is the capacity to cognitively over-ride empathy. If we see somebody suffer we can understand that they are in pain and discomfort. All of us (even psychopaths) know that the situation they are in is not a good one. We know this because we can recreate their experiences within ourselves. It's called mirroring and we might go onto it later (depends on how this goes really). ******should separate mirroring*******Mirroring is a neat little short cut to learning that all animals (even fish) seem to have evolved. The logic is really simple. If I see someone go up to a something hot and pull away and look very hurt I will know not to do that myself. It saves me having to do it myself. Similarly if a rat sees another rat do something that ends up hurting it it will avoid it too. This is not rocket science. It's simple common sense. This mirroring allows us to understand the outcome of an action in another without having to complete the action ourselves. It increases our capacity to learn by multiples of who knows. Mirroring also has a motor component. Fish mirror the actions of other fish when in a shoal - simple imitation allows for the shoal to happen, birds do it in flocks, horses do it in herds and we do it too - you have seen other people mirror each others actions when they form a bond or recognise each other as similar. We do it without thinking.
So the rats, probably released the other rats because it alleviated their own distress. Similarly too for the monkeys and similarly for us when we do nice things. The distress had been recreated in the observer and the only way to alleviate it was to reduce the distress in the animal in distress.
But if the observer is really intelligent it can reduce its own distress without reducing the suffering in the animal it is observing. The first would be to see them as being different. Remember a rat will only let a rat out of the trap - it won't free a mouse. If we can see the other thing as being unrelated to us and that their fate could not befall us we can reduce the distress. So we often distance ourselves from those who suffer. Another not so nice piece is that we are programmed to see a potential advantage in the suffering of others. If they fall there's more for us to take. There's another rung we can climb or another person we can feel dominant to.
All social animals have their fights and their jostling for position. We are no different. But we are more complex. We can use more tools. The suffering of others becomes such a tool. The displays of dominance that other animals use such as chest beating or shouting were replaced, in us, with displays of cruelty. We understand that the display of cruelty would provoke discomfort in those watching and that they would try to avoid that discomfort by avoiding challenging the perpetrator of the cruelty. It is the logic of terrorism. It is an attempt to try to assert dominance. And unfortunately there is a great advantage in being cruel in this way. A cruel leader does not have to expend his energy killing hundreds of people if he can make them too afraid to challenge him. In addition he can use the labour of his terrorised subjects to support him.
Fear must be worth a million guns sometimes! And it would be nice to say that cruelty doesn't work - but unfortunately it can - at least in the short term

We could begin to see an advantage in the suffering of something else.

The problem with cruelty

Cruelty is a uniquely human way of asserting dominance. It is a very serious departure from the rest of the natural world. Most of the rest of the natural world actually tries to avoid real harm or killing in competitions for dominance. It means that overall numbers and diversity is left in tact. The problem with cruelty is that it moves from displays of potential harm to actually inflicting real harm. Those who observe the cruelty are traumatised by it. Their world becomes one of suffering and of harm. Cruelty can increase the chances of survival of an individual or small group but at a great cost for the society itself.
The problem for us is that we are part of a never-ending cycle of cruelty.
When we disregard the suffering of others we are on a slippery slope.
We would like to think that kindness and empathy are what sets us apart from other animals but I'm afraid a lot of other animals show kindness and empathy. No other animal shows cruelty though. Cruelty is what sets us apart as human beings.
Rats show empathy. The beauty of writing this on the internet is that you can see this by clicking here and a nice video here. This is not an isolated study - there's another here. It's not just rats either - monkeys show empathy too - here. And anybody who owns a dog will know that they show empathy too.
What is surprising is that we are surprised? What is also surprising is that we find it so hard to explain? We get so worked up about how these "lower" animals can show empathy and its related qualities of altruism and kindness. It's a real kick in the teeth for us to think that we are not the "nicest" or "kindest" or "most considerate" animal. In fact we are the nastiest, meanest and cruelest of them all. But that's not to get down on ourselves. It's just to understand ourselves a little better and to stop us from wiping ourselves out. Cruelty could be our ruination!
 

What is cruelty

Cruelty has a few steps. The first is choosing to disregard the suffering of another. The next is seeing an advantage in the suffering of another and the third is inflicting suffering on another for advantage.
The difference between human cruelty and animal acts that cause suffering is that in human cruelty the "suffering" is the desired result. In animal acts that cause suffering the suffering is a necessary side-effect of the action. A tiger killing a gazelle is not cruel - it may be painful but it is not cruel. The tiger does not view the suffering as an outcome. It view the satisfaction of hunger as an outcome.