The Moral Lives of Animals

Inside the hearts and minds of other creatures.

The Problem of Evil Part 1: Osama bin Laden and Passion Chimpanzee

Are only people capable of evil?

We all know the story of Osama bin Laden, and we are left wondering: How is such evil possible?

We might ask much the same question of Passion, the female chimpanzee at Jane Goodall's research site in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, who during the 1970s, with the regular assistance of her two offspring, perpetrated a horrific series of killings for the apparent purpose of cannibalism.

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Jane Goodall first became aware of Passion's disturbing proclivities in August of 1975. Before that moment, she had seemed to be an ordinary female, a mother of average size and middling social rank, who had never done anything very unusual. But then, as Goodall's field staff reported, Passion had snatched away the three-week-old baby of another community mother, Gilka; killed that baby with a bite to the skull; and consumed the flesh and even shared portions of it with her daughter, Pom, her son, Prof, and a young orphan named Skosha. It was bizarre . . . and only the beginning.

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Gilka soon became pregnant, and a year later, in the summer of 1976, she delivered a son who was named Orion. In early October, Passion leapt on Gilka, while Passion's adolescent daughter Pom grabbed and ran off with little Orion, killing him with a single bite to the forehead. With Passion then taking possession of the corpse, the whole family, once again accompanied by orphan Skosha, fed for the next five hours, biting, tearing off pieces, chewing slowly.

Gilka was not the only mother victimized by the Passion family. About a year earlier, Melissa had lost a baby under what were then mysterious circumstances. Members of the field staff found the body of Melissa's baby, killed by a bite to the head: modus operandi for Passion and family. The field staff also found Melissa huddled in the middle of a party of adult males from the community, as if seeking protection, while at the same time she seemed to be disturbed by the presence of Passion and Pom lurking nearby.

But soon Melissa became pregnant again, giving birth to another baby in October, 1976. By November, Passion and Pom had killed and eaten that baby as well. . . .

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Infanticide. Cannibalism. Violence at this extreme appears to be the very antithesis of positive morality, and indeed we might refer to the sixth commandment (Exodus 20: 13), "You shall not kill," as our guiding principle. Killing is bad. Killing is wrong. Killing is immoral.

Was Passion a chimp version of the human psychopath or criminal? At the least, we can say that her acts were unusual. Just before she began her quiet killing spree, a three-year study of the predatory habits of the Gombe chimpanzees in two communities found that the adult females rarely hunted. Around 15 adult males actively hunted, though, and they killed an average of 205 prey animals per year. The prey species ranged from rodents to juvenile bushpigs and bushbucks to monkeys of four different species. Passion's killing of one to two chimp infants annually, then, would amount to 1 percent at most of the two communities' total predatory activity--assuming that "predatory activity" is the best way to describe her actions. That she was female, while males are nearly always the active predators among chimpanzees, makes her peculiar acts doubly so.

As later events made clear, Passion was not quite so anomalous as she at first seemed. During the decades following the first reports of this female's violent inclinations, researchers documented some predictable patterns of infanticide (followed in some instances by cannibalism) among a number of mammals, including several primate species. Among chimpanzees, we now know, infanticide is rare but not unheard of, and it can be perpetrated by both males and females operating as individuals or in small groups. The total number of documented deaths from infanticide among chimpanzees now amounts to around three dozen: a figure based on scientists' observations in four different chimp communities from three different geographic locations in East Africa. It appears that the logic of chimpanzee infanticide, followed sometimes by cannibalism, is a complex one, probably involving more than one sort of competition that has turned violent.

Such acts and facts may be disturbing, but they do not demonstrate a chimpanzee world devoid of restraint. At least one misguided commentator has cited the case of Passion as part of an argument that chimpanzees cannot possibly have morality. If chimpanzees are a moral species, this person has rhetorically asked, how can they include an individual like Passion, whose behavior was so blatantly evil? Yet the very same question could--and should--be asked in the case of Osama bin Laden.

We are our own favorite example of a moral species, yet we are also a species capable of chilling acts of violence. If we see our own morality serving as a barrier against violence, therefore, we must admit that the barrier is an imperfect one. That animals also have barriers (likewise imperfect) against killing members of their own kind is not a new idea, by the way. In his 1963 book "On Aggression," the Nobel Prize-winning ethologist Konrad Lorenz introduced the idea that social animals possess behavioral systems designed to inhibit lethal aggression against members of their own species or social group. Lorenz described such inhibitory systems as "behavioral analogies to morality."

For both cases, both bin Laden and Passion, we should remind ourselves that neither humans nor chimpanzees are cloned machines working strictly through "hardwired" systems based on the "mechanisms" of instinct and reflex. No, both species include diverse individuals who are complex psychosocial beings, the complex and varied products of both nature and nurture. Nature: born with a considerable degree of inherited variability. Nurture: provided, through experience and learning, with much more variability. Variability means that some individuals will nicer, kinder, more thoughtful, more narcissistic, more cruel, than others; and, of course, there will be extremes.

Osama bin Laden and Passion Chimpanzee show through personal example what humans and chimps can be at their very worst. Bin Laden and Passion thus, in their evil acts, do at least one socially-positive thing. They give us a benchmark for what evil is, and in doing so, they demonstrate the contrary existence of good.

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You might say that the difference between bin Laden and Passion was that the former committed mass murder against humanity, while the latter only killed a few stupid apes. But to my mind, the big difference--the big psychological difference--between the two is this: Bin Laden was a reasonably well-adjusted member of his own social group, while Passion, I believe, was not. Bin Laden mated and married, had friends and associates and devotees. I will guess that most of his friends, associates, and devotees, rather than thinking of him as the embodiment of great evil, instead saw (and still see) him as the embodiment of great good: even a martyr, perhaps, for a sacred cause.

Thus, while we might imagine Passion as a chimpanzee psychopath, a lonely, twisted, socially-isolated individual, Osama bin Laden might not represent psychopathology at all. How strange. And given that strange twist, what can his case possibly have to do with the sad example of Passion or any other chimpanzee? Stay tuned.

Dale Peterson, Ph.D., has written nearly a dozen books about conservation, natural history, and animal science and scientists.

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