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True   Likely   Speculative
Human Uniqueness Compared to "Great Apes": 
Absolute Difference
Human Universality: 
Population Universal (Some Individuals Everywhere)
MOCA Domain: 
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Torture is defined as "the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain." The act of torture is thus primarily characterized by the motive underlying the pain inflicted, and is contingent on recognition of the recipient's capacity to experience the act as painful (i.e. sadism, coercive torture, and torture as punishment all derive their value from the recipient's experience as negative). As such, torture presupposes intentionality and theory of mind, and is likely unique to humans by definition. It should be noted, however, that intentionality and theory of mind in other species would be virtually inaccessible by empirical methods, so the practice of torture cannot be definitively identified as human-unique on these criteria alone. Nonetheless, torture is conceptually familiar to nearly all human cultures, though its practice is often dramatically limited by societal constraints.


Timing of appearance of the difference in the Hominin Lineage as a defined date or a lineage separation event. The point in time associated with lineage separation events may change in the future as the scientific community agrees upon better time estimates. Lineage separation events are defined in 2017 as:

  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and old world monkeys was 25,000 - 30,000 thousand (25 - 30 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and chimpanzees was 6,000 - 8,000 thousand (6 - 8 million) years ago
  • the emergence of the genus Homo was 2,000 thousand (2 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and neanderthals was 500 thousand years ago
  • the common ancestor of modern humans was 100 - 300 thousand years ago

Definite Appearance: 
200 thousand years ago
The Human Difference: 

Although some primate species have been shown to enforce physical punishment as a penalty for trespassing or stealing, the motivation of this behavior is as a deterrent against future infraction, rather than the suffering of the subject. The vast majority of animal species are capable of inflicting pain in some manner, but without the theory of mind to understand that one's actions would be perceived by the subject as painful, the inflicting of pain cannot act as the motivation for the behavior, and thus cannot be considered torture. In this manner, human torture is fundamentally unique.

Universality in Human Populations: 

While torture as a practice is severely limited by societal constraints, the concept of inflicting pain as a sole motivation for physical or emotional harm is familiar to virtually all cultures. Still, the vast majority of individuals do not practice this behavior, making it universal amongst populations, but not individuals.

Mechanisms Responsible for the Difference: 

The human capacities for theory of mind and intentionality are crucial components to the exercise of torture by definition, and are thus likely responsible for its exclusive existence as a human practice. The human ability to produce complex language is also instrumental in the ability to practice coercive torture for information.

Possible Selection Processes Responsible for the Difference: 

Many evolutionary hypotheses concerning the emergence of torture suggest that the practice emerged as a by-product exapted from adaptations for predation and dominance. Nell, for instance, notes the association between predation for sustenance and what he terms the "pain-blood-death (PBD) complex," a set of stimuli comprised of the prey's terror and struggles to escape, the shedding of its blood, and its vocalizations associated with wounding and the process of dying. Nell suggests that the neurological reward associated with consumption of prey and subsequent satiation has been strongly associated via classical conditioning with the sensory cues of the PBD complex, over time resulting in the PBD complex as a strong, independent drive for predation. Stronger drive toward evoking the PBD complex is evolutionarily beneficial, as it enhances tenacity in hunting and aggression necessary for assertion of power in social dominance hierarchies, preserving this trait. Since torture independent of predation results in these same cues, it thereby arose as a by-product of an overblown drive for the PBD complex. As a side note, Nell also considers this drive to underlie the pleasure derived from experiencing media portrayals of fictionalized or actual violence.

Implications for Understanding Modern Humans: 

Torture is a particularly egregious human behavior that represents the darker side of how our unique capacity for understanding the experience of others could manifest itself. In particular, the human-specificity of torture is an outstanding example of how inherited survival tendencies may be adulterated by unique human characteristics to produce unexpected, and often unsettling, behaviors.

Occurrence in Other Animals: 

Although the definition of torture is inherently anthro-centric, some evidence does exist for severe interspecific abuse independent of predation. Orcas, for example, have been observed on a number of occasions repeatedly batting small, live seals up in the air using their flippers and allowing them to hit the water without consuming the subject afterward. Similarly, some feline species will bat incapacitated prey back and forth between their paws for extended periods. In these cases, however, the prey is typically ultimately consumed. Though there is also evidence for various predatory species killing or injuring prey species without subsequent consumption, this behaviors appears more tightly linked to predatory instinct and practice, rather than the deliberate infliction of suffering. Additionally, while nutritional predation is often accompanied by substantial suffering on the part of the prey and a high degree of physiological arousal on the part of the predator, no interaction between the two has been causally substantiated. Various primate species have also been observed biting at the swollen anogenital regions of others during physical altercations, as this region is particularly sensitive when swollen. In this case, the behavior is likely motivated by maximizing pain, rather than killing the opponent. Nonetheless, this infliction of pain could serve as a deterrent against future altercation rather than a form of torture.

Related MOCA Topics
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Referenced By:
Title Certainty
Capital Punishment Likely
Genital Mutilation True
Intraspecific Aggression True
Moral Sense Speculative


  1. Cruelty's rewards: the gratifications of perpetrators and spectators., Nell, Victor , Behav Brain Sci, 2006 Jun, Volume 29, Issue 3, p.211-24; discussion 224-57, (2006)
  2. Sadistic cruelty and unempathic evil: Psychobiological and evolutionary considerations, Stein, Dan J. , Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 6, Volume 29, p.242–242, (2006)