Since the dawn of cave graffiti, humans have polluted their stories with personal biases, usually because they have falsely labeled all other humans into erroneous categories. And this can be entertaining, seeing how an interesting and provocative character has noted differences in the behavior and appearance of other humans (the reason, incidentally, reality TV shows like to group together conflicting/strong personalities). However, if these perceived differences become more than anecdotal stories, have no factual basis, and become an integral part of ideology and worldviews, these ideas of difference can flourish into sinister prejudices. Within the human canon, this has led to horrific lies about women and those whose skin is not white.
But humans do it with non-humans, too. We have developed a species-ism, comparing all of the things we attribute with ourselves to the gamut of the animal kingdom, and we always find the other animals lacking. Clearly, humans have decided that it is their intelligence that is so superior to rest of the animals, after all, no donkey has built a skyscraper. As an interesting side note, it is only those humans on the far side of the intelligence bell curve that achieve the things that we boast about as a species.
Anyway, to pull myself back on track, it is often said that humans are the only species that are cruel for the sake of being cruel. Humans can be cruel because they like to be cruel. Ironically, I think this is another way we have decided that humans are superior to the rest of the animal kingdom. It’s the price of being so advanced that you have to deal with other humans indulging in abject cruelty. What a strange compliment we pay ourselves!
The question of why humans engage in cruel behaviors can be debated at length, although I think there are three main categories, and they can become interchangeable over time. First, humans are forced to be cruel to other humans. Second, ideology has convinced some humans that the lives of others (usually of a particular group) are not worth as much as their own, and while they might not *like* being cruel to these people, the conscience scarcely vibrates. Thirdly, some humans derive pleasure in being cruel to others. As cruelty typically implies intent, I am ruling out devastating behavior that results from accidents.
We think that all of these reasons are missing in the rest of the animal kingdom.
However, I think it would be a tall order to rule out all of them, even perhaps the most challenging – ideology that devalues the life of others (I refer to this as sociopathy). It has already been widely demonstrated that many other animals use language to communicate with others. Given that humans use language the most to understand their own thoughts, I don’t think this can be ruled out in other species, especially the neurologically complex species. If there are thoughts, there is the potential for worldview, and thus ideology. Couple that with all the ways that animals recognize difference, particularly the use of smell, and there is the potential for very strong and motivating thoughts about those others who are different, and that perhaps provoke thoughts of a threatening nature. These ‘thoughts’ then project necessary behaviors as a response, given the immediate context in relation to those an animal does not like, and this a basis for prejudice. Do other animals value their life and the life of those similar more than those that are different? Of course they do.
What about coercion into cruel behavior?
Within other species, can some members force others into being cruel to other members of the same species? In rat colonies, there is often an aggressive struggle for domination. Aggressive neck grooming, biting, and chasing is very common. In this environment, some rats become dominant, and others subordinate. There are two types of subordinate, those that stay close to the dominant rat (betas), and those that avoid the dominant rat (omegas). If the dominant rat is removed, it has been observed that the omega rats, over the betas, are more likely to become the new dominant rat. The experience of the omega, of being dominated (a history of stress and abuse), results here in the omega now acting dominant. This is somewhat an oversimplification, but it shows how members of the same species can “groom” others into behaving intentionally aggressively to others, no doubt resulting in distress (cruelty).
How about cruelty for pleasure?
This is usually what people mean when they say that humans can be cruel for the sake of cruelty. Nobody is cruel for the sake of being cruel. That’s like the outdated idea of people being evil for the sake of being evil. There are individuals that derive pleasure by doing things that cause another pain and distress, but this can also fall into three categories. First, the pain and distress of the other might be what causes the pleasure, such as the pleasure derived from watching another cry. Second, the action(s) that result in the pain and distress cause the pleasure, such as hunting another human for sport, and thirdly, a combination of both, such as a pathological rapist.
I am willing to grant that humans might be the only species that take pleasure in the expressions of suffering and pain in others, but it is worth noting that from a perspective of power and dominance, fear in the faces of others is affirmation and validation of one’s dominance, which is perhaps *enjoyable* in other species, too.
I am also willing to wager that where you find intellectual curiosity in other species, you will also find pleasure derived in actions that cause others distress. Cats, for example, do not seem all that interested in eating the things that they kill (and in some cases, literally torment to death), such as some of the larger bugs, mice, and birds. A mouse is entertainment, not dinner. And within species, there are other apes that will kill the young offspring of females to make them sexually viable for their own sexual coercion. This is obviously an immense distress for the aggrieved mother, and it was done to facilitate the drives and desires of the murderous male, leading to his own fulfillment.
So, the next time you find yourself wondering if humans are the cruelest species on the planet, just remember that there are plenty of bastards in the animal kingdom, too.
*I also wonder if the bite delivered to human swimmers by sharks is sometimes more than a ‘curiosity’ bite. It is widely known that sharks can hone in and become excited by such a tiny amount blood in the water, and so even though biting a human wouldn’t result in a satisfactory meal, the shark has to get something akin to a buzz from the mouthful of blood. Would it be a stretch to say that at least one shark, in some place and time, enjoyed it?
** Intellectual curiosity has an interesting dampening effect on empathy, with perhaps the best example being the behavior of Nazi scientists. After the war, the scientific research community sought to protect human research subjects, and a first step was in creating the Belmont Report.