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Suffering and Evolution

(Originally posted March, 2009)

When I was born, Sociobiology had yet to be published.  By the time I began my first year of “life science” in school, it was still being talked about only in the most erudite of academic circles.  By the time I reached college, inklings of the dangers inherent in a sociobiological approach to humankind were beginning to trickle through the dronings of the standard evolutionary curriculum.  It was not until the information age hit its full stride that it became apparent to me just how shocking were the implications of Wilson’s proposals.

Unlike many of the children who grow up today learning about the “conflict” between Creationism vs. Evolution, I grew up in a comfortable bubble where the two never saw eye to eye, but never drew swords.   In church, I was taught that humans were special, and in school, I was taught that all life began from something not unlike an amoeba.  While my young mind had a hard time grasping how an amoeba could turn into a human, my religious mind had no trouble assuming that a loving and very intelligent God could work such a thing if he wanted to.  In fact, it only reinforced to me the notion that humans were special, for why would God have gone to so much trouble to create such wonderful beings as people if we were not very important to him?

I had no problem reconciling the story of Adam and Eve as a metaphor.  Perhaps a day was a hundred million years in the Genesis story.  Perhaps God breathed life into two of our pre-human ancestors — two lucky animals who got to become human.  Comfortable with this explanation, I never bothered to dig much farther, convinced that there was an acceptable literary explanation for all the “discrepancies” between science and the Bible.  (In fact, even this made sense!  If God loved people, he must also love good literature, for we love good literature, and we are made in his image.)

One day, after graduating from college, and more importantly, after making friends with several scientists, I discovered just how incredibly misplaced my trust had been.  One thing in particular was troubling — scientist after scientist, each independent and unknown to each other, kept telling me that humans were in no way special.  Nothing about us was anything more than a difference in degree from any other animals.  Apes, chimps and parrots are very smart.  Birds  and chimps use tools.  Bonobos, sheep, giraffes, and octopi have homosexuals.  Vampire bats have ethics.

I have since come to revel in the fact that humans, like all other animals, are products of natural selection — and natural selection only.  Like every other animal, we are built by genes expressing through our environment, and like every other animal, we are predictable.  We have no mysterious soul, and we have no free will. Morality is the product of evolution, and our conscience should not always be our guide, for it is often wrong.  The universe is consistent and predictable.  These are the foundations of my worldview, and it is a comfortable and comforting worldview, not only because it is overwhelmingly supported by the facts, but because it makes sense of the senseless.  Suffering is not the result of a malicious God bent on punishing us for masturbating to Cheryl Tiegs when we were young.  When bad things happen, we don’t need to look for explanations.  All we have to do is what any other animal does — keep on trying to make the best of it.

However, the comfort of this worldview does come at a price, and that is the subject of today’s entry.  I’ve mentioned before that I believe our sentience brings with it a moral imperative.  Evolution is blind, but we are not.  With our foresight, and more importantly, our hindsight, we can see what suffering we have caused, that which we are causing, and that which we are likely to cause, and we can decide whether or not we ought to continue on our current course.

I must return briefly to my childhood to illustrate another important point.  When I was young, I saw suffering.  I remember distinctly seeing a nature program about various animals living in the coldest climates on earth.  I wondered at the pain they must be experiencing during the worst of the blizzards they endured, and I was gently reassured that God had made them perfect for their environment, and that they did not feel any pain because they had fur and extra fat.

I’m afraid this childish notion has carried on through adulthood in the minds of many people.  We assume (and for no good scientific reason) that suffering is something rather unique to humans.  When we see a cheetah kill an antelope, we remind ourselves that antelopes go into shock, and probably don’t feel the razor sharp claws and teeth literally pulling the flesh off of their bodies.  When caterpillars are eaten from the inside out — while still alive — by wasp offspring that cannot survive in any other medium, we assure ourselves that caterpillars are mindless, and so are not suffering.  Baby seals being tossed about by killer whales, or chipmunks being chased around the garage by capricious housecats who do not intend to kill them for as long as possible, but only to inflict enough injury to prevent them from escaping…

Why do you suppose God made eye parasites?

I admit, these last two examples have always been hard for me to reconcile.  In reality, I was able to brush these moral dilemmas aside until I learned about just how unspecial humans are.  Double standard through martyrdom is an interesting approach, and quite successful.  Humans experience suffering because we’re special to God.  That’s what I was taught.  By experiencing suffering on earth, we can fully appreciate God’s love for us when we’re in heaven.  Animals, being just soulless “lesser beings” could not — would not, at least by a Loving God — be created to suffer needlessly, so obviously they do not.

Unfortunately for us, this is totally and unequivocably wrong.  Suffering is part of life, and it’s intrinsic to all life forms with nerves or the equivalent.  Pain and pleasure are evolution’s most basic forms of motivation, and we humans do not have a corner on the market.  In fact, if anything, we have become quite good at minimizing suffering.  We alone have designed the fur lined parka, Ibuprofin, morphine, and anaesthesia.  We alone have learned to inject the body with antibiotics to kill invading bacteria, and to focus radiation on cancerous tumors to kill only the dangerous cells.

Particularly if you have lived long enough to know real pain, consider just how painful your life could have been had you not been privy to humanity’s wealth of pain reducing mechanisms.  This is life in the rest of the animal kingdom.   When it’s painfully cold, other animals can huddle together, or find a spot away from the wind, but they cannot turn on the central heat or pull a blanket around themselves to keep warm.  When they are bitten on the ankle, they must let gangrene run its course.*

The principle that drives this notion home is that evolution is blind.  It does not care about the suffering of individuals.  It is driven by simple reproductive math.  “Get more of yourself into the next generation than your competitor,” it tells us, unmoved by the suffering that these instructions might cause, both for us and our competitors.  Evolution is not a “beautiful balance of life.”  It is a cutthroat, winner take all struggle with no foresight whatsoever.  It doesn’t care about depletion of resources for the next generation.  It only drives us to win this round of the fight.

Astute readers can see where I’m going with this.  E.O. Wilson’s attempt to describe humans as “just another animal” has had wide reaching consequences in the scientific community, but the full effect has yet to be felt by humanity as a whole.  Part of my goal is to help teach others these principles.  Science has taught us that evolution doesn’t care about our future, and it doesn’t care about suffering.  Other animals do suffer.  They are just as evolved as we are.  That is, the notion that humans are “more evolved” than other animals is bunk.  We are smarter, yes, but we have been evolving just as long as everything else, and we don’t have a monopoly on anything.

It’s easy to slough off the implications of this observation.  In fact, evolution “wants” us to.  It goes against our grain to conserve, to reduce suffering, and to plan for the future of the species above our own retirement.  I hope, and if I believed in a deity, I would pray, that it’s not too late for us to learn the danger of not living up to our capacity for prediction.   I fear that in a hundred million years, should there be a new intelligent species on earth, their archaeologists will judge us very harshly after discovering how intelligent we were, and how little we applied our own intelligence to the pursuit of reason.



* At the time of this writing, I have a very bad burn on my ankle.  I have been rediscovering just how debilitating a foot wound can be, and have been only marginally able to continue working through the pain.  This is in spite of antibiotic band-aids, aloe vera, medical gauze, and antibiotics to keep the wound from getting infected.  Had I been living without the products of human ingenuity, I might well be dead within another two or three weeks after watching my flesh rot away and feeling my blood tainted by the putrid remains of my own flesh.   Let me remind readers that the nervous system of most higher vertebrates is essentially the same as ours with regard to physical pain and pleasure.




3 thoughts on “Suffering and Evolution

  1. I think this as an important point and one that Christians grasp – or at least that I grasped as a Christian – acutely. If there’s no God (et al)…. there’s this sense of morality vanishing leaving a vast vaccum and no rules. All that’s left is the biggest muscles and the sharpest fangs making the rules.

    I think the answer to that thinking is best sourced from Dawkins “The Selfish Gene” in which he outlines that the genes may act with selfish intent, but the organism may act with altruism to meet those selfish ends.

    The “rules” justified by God do indeed disappear, but cause and effect and natural consequences to actions do not disappear. The social fabric doesn’t shred for lack of a divine seal of approval.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | October 28, 2010, 3:51 pm
  2. If there’s no God (et al)…. there’s this sense of morality vanishing leaving a vast vaccum and no rules. All that’s left is the biggest muscles and the sharpest fangs making the rules.

    That’s not true. Altruism is a trait found in many animals, particularly higher primates. There was a study done on monkeys all living in view of one another in separate cages. They had two levers. One gave “ok” food, the other gave “great” food. Of course they pressed the “great” lever.

    Until one day, one of the monkeys pressed the lever and another monkey in another cage screamed in pain. *All* of the monkeys stopped pressing the “great” lever. Some stopped eating at all for days.

    This is altruism. It has nothing to do with genetic fitness into the next generation or God. It’s innate.

    Posted by Aldonza | October 29, 2010, 12:17 pm
  3. I disagree. I think altruism is directly related to genetic fitness. Altruistic people will be more likely to help their children than selfish ones. I would posit that this is “why” we developed it (why = through some random act of altruism repeated millions of times it became an acceptable practice and replicated through successive generations).

    Posted by Alex Hardman | October 29, 2010, 1:36 pm

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