Evolutionary Theodicy

But now I want to leave economics altogether. We shall stay with the idea of a planner, a designer, but our planner will be a moral philosopher rather than an economist. A beneficent designer might - you'd idealistically think - seek to minimize suffering. This is not incompatible with economic welfare, but the system created will differ in detail. And, once again, it unfortunately doesn't happen in nature. Why should it? Terrible but true, the suffering among wild animals is so appalling that sensitive souls would best not contemplate it. Darwin knew whereof he spoke when he said, in a letter to his friend Hooker, 'What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature.' The memorable phrase 'devil's chaplain' gave me my title for one of my previous books, and in another I put it like this:

[N]ature is neither kind nor unkind. She is neither against suffering, nor for it. Nature is not interested in suffering one way or the other unless it affects the survival of DNA. It is easy to imagine a gene that, say, tranquillises gazelles when they are about to suffer a killing bite. Would such a gene be favoured by natural selection? Not unless the act of tranquillising a gazelle improved that gene's chances of being propagated into future generations. It is hard to see why this should be so and we may therefore guess that gazelles suffer horrible pain and fear when they are pursued to the death - as most of them eventually are. The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

Parasites probably cause even more suffering than predators, and understanding their evolutionary rationale adds to, rather than mitigates, the sense of futility we experience when we contemplate it. I fulminate against it every time I get a cold (I have one now, as it happens). Maybe it is only a minor inconvenience, but it is so pointless! At least if you are eaten by an anaconda you can feel that you have contributed to the well-being of one of the lords of life. When you are eaten by a tiger, perhaps your last thought could be, What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry? (In what distant deeps or skies, burnt the fire of thine eyes?) But a virus! A virus has pointless futility written into its very DNA

- actually, RNA in the case of the common cold virus, but the principle is the same. A virus exists for the sole purpose of making more viruses. Well, the same is ultimately true of tigers and snakes, but there it doesn't seem so futile. The tiger and the snake may be DNA-replicating machines but they are beautiful, elegant, complicated, expensive DNA-replicating machines. I've given money to preserve the tiger, but who would think of giving money to preserve the common cold? It's the futility of it that gets to me, as I blow my nose yet again and gasp for breath.

Futility? What nonsense. Sentimental, human nonsense. Natural selection is all futile. It is all about the survival of self-replicating instructions for self-replication. If a variant of DNA survives through an anaconda swallowing me whole, or a variant of RNA survives by making me sneeze, then that is all we need by way of explanation. Viruses and tigers are both built by coded instructions whose ultimate message is, like a computer virus, 'Duplicate me.' In the case of the cold virus, the instruction is executed rather directly. A tiger's DNA is also a 'duplicate me' program, but it contains an almost fantastically large digression as an essential part of the efficient execution of its fundamental message. That digression is a tiger, complete with fangs, claws, running muscles, stalking and pouncing instincts. The tiger's DNA says, 'Duplicate me by the round-about route of building a tiger first.' At the same time, antelope DNA says, 'Duplicate me by the round-about route of building an antelope first, complete with long legs and fast muscles, complete with timorous instincts and finely honed sense organs tuned to the danger from tigers.' Suffering is a byproduct of evolution by natural selection, an inevitable consequence that may worry us in our more sympathetic moments but cannot be expected to worry a tiger - even if a tiger can be said to worry about anything at all - and certainly cannot be expected to worry its genes.

Theologians worry about the problems of suffering and evil, to the extent that they have even invented a name, 'theodicy' (literally, 'justice of God'), for the enterprise of trying to reconcile it with the presumed beneficence of God. Evolutionary biologists see no problem, because evil and suffering don't count for anything, one way or the other, in the calculus of gene survival. Nevertheless, we do need to consider the problem of pain. Where, on the evolutionary view, does it come from?

Pain, like everything else about life, we presume, is a Darwinian device, which functions to improve the sufferer's survival. Brains are built with a rule of thumb such as, 'If you experience the sensation of pain, stop whatever you are doing and don't do it again.' It remains a matter for interesting discussion why it has to be so damned painful. Theoretically, you'd think, the equivalent of a little red flag could painlessly be raised somewhere in the brain, whenever the animal does something that damages it: picks up a redhot cinder, perhaps. An imperative admonition, 'Don't do that again!' or a painless change in the wiring diagram of the brain such that, as a matter of fact, the animal doesn't do it again, would seem, on the face of it, enough. Why the searing agony, an agony that can last for days, and from which the memory may never shake itself free? Perhaps grappling with this question is evolutionary theory's own version of theodicy. Why so painful? What's wrong with the little red flag?

I don't have a decisive answer. One intriguing possibility is this. What if the brain is subject to opposing desires and impulses, and there is some kind of internal tussle between them? Subjectively, we know the feeling well. We may be in a conflict between, say, hunger and a desire to be slim. Or we may be in a conflict between anger and fear. Or between sexual desire and a shy fear of rejection, or a conscience that urges fidelity. We can literally feel the tug of war within us, as our conflicting desires battle it out. Now, back to pain and its possible superiority over a 'red flag'. Just as the desire to be slim can over-rule hunger, it is clearly possible to over-rule the desire to escape pain. Torture victims may succumb eventually, but they often go through a phase of enduring considerable pain rather than, say, betray their comrades or their country or their ideology. In so far as natural selection can be said to 'want' anything, natural selection doesn't want individuals to sacrifice themselves for the love of a country, or for the sake of an ideology or a party or a group or a species. Natural selection is 'against' individuals over-ruling the warning sensations of pain. Natural selection 'wants' us to survive, or more specifically, to reproduce, and be blowed to country, ideology or their non-human equivalents. As far as natural selection is concerned, little red flags will be favoured only if they are never over-ruled.

Now, despite philosophical difficulties, I think that instances where pain was over-ruled for non-Darwinian reasons - reasons of loyalty to country, ideology, etc. - would be more frequent if we had a 'red flag' in the brain rather than real, full-on, intolerable pain. Suppose genetic mutants arose who could not feel the excruciating agony of pain but relied upon a 'red flag' system to keep them away from bodily damage. It would be so easy for them to resist torture, they'd promptly be recruited as spies. Except that it would be so easy to recruit agents prepared to bear torture that torture would simply stop being used as a method of extortion. But, in a wild state, would such pain-free, red-flag mutants survive better than rival individuals whose brains do pain in earnest? Would they survive to pass on the genes for red-flag pain substitutes? Even setting aside the special circumstance of torture, and the special circumstances of loyalty to ideologies, I think we can see that the answer might be no. And we can imagine non-human equivalents.

As a matter of interest, there are aberrant individuals who cannot feel pain, and they usually come to a bad end. 'Congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis' (CIPA) is a rare genetic abnormality in which the patient lacks pain receptor cells in the skin (and also - that's the 'anhidrosis' - doesn't sweat). Admittedly, CIPA patients don't have a built-in 'red flag' system to compensate for the breakdown of the pain system, but you'd think they could be taught to be cognitively aware of the need to avoid bodily damage - a learned red flag system. At all events, CIPA patients succumb to a variety of unpleasant consequences of their inability to feel pain, including burns, breakages, multiple scars, infections, untreated appendicitis and scratches to the eyeballs. More unexpectedly, they also suffer serious damage to their joints because, unlike the rest of us, they don't shift their posture when they have been sitting or lying in one position for a long time. Some patients set timers to remind themselves to change position frequently during the day.

Even if a 'red flag' system in the brain could be made effective, there seems to be no reason why natural selection would positively favour it over a real pain system just because it is less unpleasant. Unlike our hypothetically beneficent designer, natural selection is indifferent to the intensity of suffering - except in so far as it affects survival and reproduction. And, just as we should expect if the survival of the fittest, rather than design, underlies the world of nature, the world of nature seems to take no steps at all to reduce the sum total of suffering. Stephen Jay Gould reflected on such matters in a nice essay on 'Nonmoral nature'. I learned from it that Darwin's famous revulsion at the Ichneumonidae, which I quoted at the end of the previous chapter, was far from unique among Victorian thinkers.

Ichneumon wasps, with their habit of paralysing but not killing their victim, before laying an egg in it with the promise of a larva gnawing it hollow from within, and the cruelty of nature generally, were major preoccupations of Victorian theodicy. It's easy to see why. The female wasps lay their eggs in live insect prey, such as caterpillars, but not before carefully seeking out with their sting each nerve ganglion in turn, in such a way that the prey is paralysed, but still stays alive. It must be kept alive to provide fresh meat for the growing wasp larva feeding inside. And the larva, for its part, takes care to eat the internal organs in a judicious order. It begins by taking out the fat bodies and digestive organs, leaving the vital heart and nervous system till last - they are necessary, you see, to keep the caterpillar alive. As Darwin so poignantly wondered, what kind of beneficent designer would have dreamed that up? I don't know whether caterpillars can feel pain. I devoutly hope not. But what I do know is that natural selection would in any case take no steps to dull their pain, if the job could be accomplished more economically by simply paralysing their movements.

Gould quotes the Reverend William Buckland, a leading nineteenth-century geologist, who found consolation in the optimistic spin that he managed to confer on the suffering caused by carnivores:

The appointment of death by the agency of carnivora, as the ordinary termination of animal existence, appears therefore in its main results to be a dispensation of benevolence; it deducts much from the aggregate amount of the pain of universal death; it abridges, and almost annihilates, throughout the brute creation, the misery of disease, and accidental injuries, and lingering decay; and imposes such salutary restraint upon excessive increase of numbers, that the supply of food maintains perpetually a due ratio to the demand. The result is, that the surface of the land and depths of the waters are ever crowded with myriads of animated beings, the pleasures of whose life are coextensive with its duration; and which throughout the little day of existence that is allotted to them, fulfill with joy the functions for which they were created.

Well, isn't that nice for them!

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