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Evolution, Pain & Cruelty

Making Sense of Misery

We all experience pain. It sucks and it hurts. Our pain comes from an infinite list of sources — we have self-inflicted pain (i.e., child birth or sore muscles after going to the gym), accidental pain (stubbing your toe), pain that is inflicted on us by others (fights, wars, abuse), emotional pain (loss of a loved one or relationship), psychological pain (anxiety, fear, depression), and pain that just comes from random events (getting caught in a tornado or being mauled by wolves).

The world is full of pain. We feel some kind or level of misery every single day. And, on top of the pain that we endure, the world also seems to be full of cruelty.

People are cruel. We cheat each other, abuse each other, cast blame and stones at each other, go to war with each other, enslave each other, and kill each other.

But, nature is also a very harsh and cruel place. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked under a tree in the spring and happened upon a lifeless, baby bird on the ground. This scene is so common but elicits such feelings of sadness inside of me.

What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel work of nature! — Charles Darwin

If you’ve ever owned a cat that is allowed to roam free outside, you’ve certainly seen drag home a dead and battered mouse or gopher. You may think that the most logical thing to do when catching a meal is to kill it right away and ensure it doesn’t escape. But that is not what cats do. Rather than kill it immediately, they will play with the poor creature while it suffers. They lift their paw up and let it think it has a chance to escape. The badly wounded rodent will crawl slowly away (as it is full of puncture wounds) then the cat will pounce on it again.

This is not only true of felines and its not only true of house cats. Both wolves and lions will begin eating their prey before it even dies. It hurts just to think about it.

Why is the world so full of pain and cruelty? What’s the purpose of all this suffering? These are the questions I explore in this post. Some of the answers are simple enough to uncover, others we’ll need to dig a bit deeper for, and some I’ll need your help to understand.

A Highly Publicized Perspective

As with most things we humans are forced to consider, there are plenty of explanations for why pain must exist in the world.

The book of Genesis in the Old Testament tells us that pain entered the world when Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit and were cast out of the Garden of Eden. This is the point where Eve is introduced to the agony of child birth, thistles and thorns are placed on the Earth, and Adam is told that he must suffer for his livelihood.

The message regarding pain in our lives thus became — pain is both a form of punishment and a method of instruction from on high.

It’s true that we, as humans, use pain as a punishment all the time (often in a very cruel manner). However, the idea that pain was not introduced into the world until humans deserved it is hard to swallow.

Similarly, the idea that an all-knowing and all-loving God is so invested in our lives that every instance of pain is planned out for the purpose of teaching us and/or correcting our behavior is dismissable with equal certainty.

Anyone who has lost a child and then been told that it’s all part of a grand plan and you should look for the lesson to be learned knows something of the inherit cruelty of this claim. It seems a strange twist of irony that some of the most common explanations for why pain and cruelty exist in the world can come feel so painful and cruel.

Without a doubt, we can learn from the pain and suffering we experience, but does that mean that education is the purpose behind pain?

Maybe it is…

An Evolutionary Perspective

Although pain is unpleasant at best, it’s purpose does become a little more clear when viewed through the Principles of Evolution.

The first thing to consider is that pain, like everything else, didn’t require a designer or intelligent influence to appear in the world. There doesn’t have to be a forethought before pain becomes something of value to life. Rather, pain arose because it proved to be valuable.

So, what makes such an unpleasant experience valuable? Well, let’s take a look at one of the core Principles of Evolution that Charles Darwin provided when he originally published his theory — competition.

Competition is the driving force behind life and evolution. Individuals within a species compete for the resources that allow them to survive and pass on their genes. This competition drives species to evolve towards any advantage they are able to uncover.

Life evolved signals for those things that were beneficial for an individual to survive and reproduce (i.e., the sensation derived from satiating one’s hunger and the pleasure derived from sexual intercourse). At some point, very early in the evolution of life, a signal was developed that warned against things that were harmful — this was the first instance of pain.

When this took place we can hardly say, but pain was a brilliant evolutionary step. It not only provides us with a warning signal for when we are lacking something vital to our survival — such as food, water, or sleep — it also warns us when something is potentially dangerous or harmful. The value of pain then is a multi-faceted protection system.

Through pain we know to avoid certain behaviors, as well as when we need to engage in other behaviors. So evolution did provide us with pain as a means of education— both on how to act in a particular moment and for reference in future experiences we have yet to encounter.

As frustrating as it may be to consider, individuals that experienced higher levels of pain would have been more apt to avoid painful situations. This would have led them to be the individuals who survived; thus passing on the genes for higher pain reception. As such, we have our ancestors to thank for the levels of pain we experience as well.

But, evolution did not stop with simple physical pain. That would have been too easy.

Somewhere along the evolutionary line a new form of pain emerged. This pain was not as concerned with our immediate physical condition, rather it afflicted our thoughts and feelings. This was emotional or psychological pain.

When we began to feel emotions — pleasant or otherwise — is difficult to say, but as human beings we can all attest to their reality. So what, if any, is the value of emotional distress or pain?

It appears that emotions provide a higher level of education than physical pain alone. Our deepest emotional disturbances — along with our most pleasant emotional highs — seem to be tied to our social interactions. We love our children to such a degree that it is beyond our own comprehension, and as such we suffer extreme emotional distress when we are unable to protect them or ensure their safety. We feel heartbroken when we are spurned by a love interest, when we’re left behind by a group of friends, or when we miss out on the opportunity to participate on a team or group activity.

The individual that connects best to others within its species is likely to experience the lowest levels of emotional pain, which may just be an evolutionary indicator that such an individual is on the path to a secure life of reproductive success.

But, it also seems short sighted to assume that only humans experience emotional pain. While the clearest examples of emotional distress outside of human beings appears in other species that have highly functioning cognitive abilities — such as the great apes, whales and dolphins, and elephants — indicators of emotional pain can be seen across species.

“Many animals experience pain, anxiety and suffering, physically and psychologically, when they are held in captivity or subjected to starvation, social isolation, physical restraint, or painful situations from which they cannot escape. Even if it is not the same experience of pain, anxiety, or suffering undergone by humans- or even other animals, including members of the same species- an individual’s pain, suffering, and anxiety matter.” ― Marc Bekoff

The Reality of Cruelty

The fact that we recognize certain acts as cruel is of itself a sign that our understanding of pain has evolved to a high degree. After all, what is cruelty but the intentional and unnecessary infliction of pain?

Many things in life seem cruel and many people have pondered on its purpose. Unfortunately, the reality of cruelty often leaves us shrugging our shoulders in frustrated resignation.

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars. — Charles Darwin

The simple truth of cruelty in nature is that life eats life. Existence is nothing more than a competition for energy, which means that certain species or individuals are going to take any opportunity they can to obtain energy from others.

Nature is a harsh and unforgiving reality that can run counter to the emotional intelligence it has given us. But, returning to the idea of competition (the central tenant of all life) it does individuals little good to be concerned with the suffering they may inflict on their next meal.

Nature has made up her mind that what cannot defend itself shall not be defended. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Human beings have also fallen victim to this natural injustice. Despite the level of emotional evolution we’ve achieved, we would be hard pressed to provide an example of a species more cruel than Homo sapiens. The history of humankind is littered with examples of oppression,

This is a hard pill to swallow. Yet if we are as highly evolved as we like to think we are, does it not make sense for us to be the ones to combat cruelty in this world.

Both in the case of pain and of cruelty, it seems that evolution is to blame. Yet, as beings evolved to the point of beginning to understand our own evolution, can we not take a step away from cruelty?

Pain may always exist, but each of us can do our best to reduce the levels of cruelty in the world.