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evolution, human nature, science

Contemplating Evolution and Suffering

I watched several nature documentaries yesterday, since my whole city has been crippled by six inches of snow, and I had time on my hands.  (An inch of snow is rare here.)  One in particular struck me as thought provoking.  It was about killer whales and seals.   As many of my readers are probably aware, killer whales employ complex cooperative strategies to hunt seals.  This much was very interesting, and I could probably write a whole article on the evolution of cooperative strategies, but this is not what captured my thought processes.  Instead, I was intrigued and somewhat put off by what happens after the prey has been captured.  Rather than kill and eat the seal immediately, the whale drags the unfortunate (and still very much alive, and still screaming) seal into deep water where there is no escape.  For the next thirty minutes or so, or until the seal is finally dead, the whale plays with it.  She tosses it into the air, dives down and resurfaces just in time to bat the victim with her tail, sending it soaring, sometimes twenty or thirty feet into the air.  It really is rather horrifying to watch.

In the same series of shows, I watched as sea turtles laid their eggs on the shore by the thousands.  Before the eggs were hatched, land predators sniffed out many of the nests and pillaged them.  Once the turtles emerged, they began a trek to the sea in which only one in a hundred survived predation.

I started thinking about this in terms of “purpose.”  If we are to say that life has a purpose, then the purpose of those baby seals’ existence is to die a gruesome death.  Killer whales need food, and they eat seals.  They eat seals after torturing them for a half an hour.  (Incidentally, my cat does the same things to chipmunks.)  Similarly, ninety-nine out of a hundred baby turtles has been born to die in the mouth of a bird or a fish.

There is a species of shark — the sleeper shark — that has been quite elusive to scientists, but has been filmed repeatedly in the last five to ten years.  In most cases, these sharks have parasites that look like worms attached to their eyes.  The parasites are literally burrowed into the eye of the shark, and live there until they or the shark dies.  I don’t know about you, but last time I got a fleck of dust in my eye, I was in pain that made me quite unhappy at the moment.  I don’t presume that a shark’s eye is identical to a human’s eye.  After all, salt water hurts our eyes horribly.  However, it is an eye, and it does have nerves, and we can only assume that these parasites cause the shark pain.

I recently had a brief discussion of the problem of evil, and it got me thinking about the nature of nature.  My friend pointed out — correctly, I might add — that the problem of evil is irrelevant in a discussion with theists.  If we can imagine a god who can do anything he wants, we can imagine a god who can justify the existence of evil.  (It doesn’t mean we have to believe in him, or justify his actions as good.  It just means we can imagine it.)  However, I’ve been thinking about the existence of suffering in nature, and have realized just how strongly it points to natural selection.

Consider that organisms are “gene survival machines.”  By this, I mean that genes are the self-replicating recipes for making organisms, and organisms are the mechanisms by which genes replicate.  Genes are math formulas, as information goes.  The organisms that reproduce do so because of math, and likewise for those that don’t.  There is no intent, and there is no guilt.  There is only what works.

Now, I want to get you to think outside of your own perceptions for a minute.  This might be a difficult exercise, but let’s try very hard to do it.  The result, I think, will be worth the effort.  Let’s begin by asking a simple question:

Why do we eat?

The answer is obvious, right?  We eat because eating keeps us alive.  But this is just the causal answer.  Eating is necessary for us to stay alive, and therefore, we eat.  But that doesn’t answer the bigger question.  Why are we designed so as to need to eat?  There is lots of energy in the universe, and if we let our mind run free, we can imagine lots of ways in which we could gain energy without having to eat.  We could simply absorb energy from the sun.  We could live off the thermal heat from the earth.  Perhaps it’s possible that we could somehow use motion, from the tides, or the motion of the planet to gain energy.  Of course, plants do use one of these methods.  They convert solar energy into real work in order to grow.  But… why do animals need to eat?

This question ought to be a real stinker if we believe in Intelligent Design.  Eating is the main cause of suffering in the animal kingdom.  A cheetah chases a gazelle and either catches it or not.  If not, the gazelle has expended lots of energy and needs to eat.  Perhaps it has hurt itself in the process, running over uneven ground.  The cheetah, if it does not catch the gazelle, suffers horribly from hunger pangs, and has to try again, only this time without as much energy.  Less energy means less chance of success, and more chance of injury, which is painful.

The larvae of certain wasps are laid inside a living caterpillar host.  They literally eat their host from the inside out while it’s still alive.  Spiders inject their prey with chemicals that dissolve them from the inside out.  Sea stars extrude their digestive organs and literally engulf other creatures, eating them alive.  Even the bacteria that plague us and cause us no end of discomfort are “eating” in a sense.  The entire planet, it seems, has been built such that creatures can eat each other and cause each other pain.

It’s easy enough for a theist to slough off this argument.  After all, it’s just the natural order of things, and God made the earth for people, not for animals.  We are his prize.

(Is this starting to sound really hollow to you?  I hope so.)

We still haven’t really gotten around to why we have to eat.  For that matter, why do we have to reproduce?  It seems natural and logical that we reproduce, but why?  Reproduction, as you can easily see, leads to overpopulation.  We want all of our offspring to survive, but we can produce more offspring than the last generation by simple math.  There is no such thing as a creature that simply tries to reproduce itself without adding to the overall population.  Why?  Very simply, such a creature would inevitably die out, even if only by chance.  A population that reproduced one for one would succumb to accident, disease, predation, and natural disaster, and each time any member died, the population would be permanently reduced.  Eventually, the species would die.

The thing is, producing more new organisms than currently exist is a dead end as well.  Eventually, the food (why do we have to eat again??) would be exhausted, or there would be no more room.  Sure, we can observe that predators take care of this for most animals, but… why?

When we examine both eating and reproduction without thinking such platitudes as “it’s just the way things are” we can see that neither makes a whole lot of sense.  Eating leads to suffering.  Reproduction leads to overpopulation — and suffering.  Our very existence, by its nature, is built upon suffering.

Here’s where being intelligent can be a real bonus.  We can look at the nature of life and realize that there is no higher purpose in it.  The reason we eat is that the second law of thermodynamics is true.  We cannot continue to live without continual additions of energy.  When life began, it may very well have gotten its energy from the sun, or perhaps the earth’s thermal energy.  In any case, it did what it could with what it had.  Natural selection produces variation, though, and eventually, it stumbled upon a way to use energy that had already been converted — by eating.  Eating is more efficient than converting solar or thermal energy.  Once natural selection stumbled upon eating, the course was set.  We are a product of blind chance “discovering” how to use stored energy from another being.  We take from others so that we may live.

It’s not magic.  It’s not destiny.  It’s certainly not pretty or good.  We humans, fortunately, have the capacity to recognize our own place in the universe, and our own distinct lack of destiny.  We have the opportunity to choose less suffering over more, and (dare I say it) we have the capacity to choose not to reproduce.  For that matter, we have the capacity to choose to end our own lives, although I think that is a rather extreme “solution” to the “problem.”  I’ve been leading up to an article on speciesism, and I haven’t been able to write it yet.  I think this line of thought might be the final catalyst to get me going.

In short, life is what it is, but it is helpful sometimes for us to step outside of the obvious and look at the underlying structure.  Reproduction and eating seem like they are without question — we are here to reproduce, and we have to eat.  The thing is, we don’t have to do either if we don’t want to, and neither has been ordained or predestined, and neither is “good.”  They are, like everything else, good subject to their consequences.  Reproduction is good if the goal is to reproduce, but why do we want to reproduce?  Eating is more immediately good because it keeps us alive, but the very process of eating is suspect when it comes to “the greater good.”  How many animals suffered to give you your meal?

It is not my intention to suggest veganism.  I’m a meat eater.  The point that I’m making is that we often think of the world as being too clean cut — good and evil, destiny, purpose.  The fact of that matter is that we are apes.  I don’t mean we are like apes.  We are apes.  That is our taxonomic classification.  We’re very smart apes, and we’ve managed to do something none of the other apes has done — populate virtually every corner of the world.  But, I believe we have the intellectual and moral obligation to realize that we aren’t doing anything any differently than the other animals.  We’re producing more of ourselves next generation than last, and we’re using other resources — including other animals — for our own benefit despite the fact that our benefit necessarily involves suffering.  Do we have the moral obligation to regulate our own population?  We, alone among the animals, could conceivably achieve zero population growth — and even reduce the population, if need be — for we could react intelligently to our environment in the case of accident or natural disaster.  We, unlike any other animal, have the capacity to intelligently design our own destiny.

Isn’t it amazing that blind chance should have stumbled onto intelligence, and in the process, made us into the equivalent of the gods we create?  We have the capability to reduce suffering and create good in the universe.  I, for one, feel privileged to be a part of my species, but I feel ashamed when we do not recognize our own place in the universe, and our own power.

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