Chapter 11 – On Pain and Suffering
We will continue our review of God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, by Jon Garvey. Today is Chapter 11 – On Pain and Suffering. In this chapter Jon intends to question the factual basis of the statement “most animals are fated to an agonizing death”. He begins by noting that it is the experience, personal or vicarious, of human suffering that generates concern over sufferings perceived to exist in nature as “evil”. Of course, human pain is the only form about which we can be truly certain, since pain is an irreducibly subjective experience. Yet the subjectivity of pain, he says, can play us false, and we can take for granted neither that our own pain is a reliable indicator of harm, or that other people experience pain the same as we do.
In Jon’s professional career he ran a district National Health Service back pain clinic. He observed that it is commonplace that the effect of mental state on pain was profound. A depressed patient felt pain more severely and an adrenaline surge could virtually obviate pain. Pain is also affected by nonphysical things such as culture — certain social groups and nationalities were unusually sensitive to quite minor sources of pain while other groups, like native hunter-gatherers, would endure what to us would be dreadful torments without exhibiting any signs of pain. So, he concludes, the subjectivity even of the common experience of human pain, confirms the warning of Alfred Russell Wallace (Wallace, The World of Life, p. 377) that:
Our whole tendency to transfer our sensations of pain to all other animals is grossly misleading.
Wallace theorized that specific factors in human evolutionary development made increased pain sensitivity a likely adaptation:
- Lengthy period of infancy and childhood
- Unprotected skin prone to injury
- Use of fire
- Increasingly hard and sharp tools and weapons; Wallace said:
… it is this specially developed sensibility that we, most illogically, transfer to the animal world in our wholly exaggerated and often quite mistaken views as to the cruelty of nature (Ibid, p. 379)
Jon then injects a personal note:
But before leaving the human sphere, I want… to question to what extent pain, even in our human experience, is truly an “evil”. There are certainly those whose entire life has been blighted by previous pain (one thinks of torture victims) or other sufferings like the trauma of war, of violent crime, of road accidents, or chronic illness. But for most of us, even quite severe episodes of pain are seen, in retrospect, as part of life. At least they can make us more appreciative of the more prevalent good times, and (despite some philosopher’s claims to the contrary) quite often can be viewed as enriching our life experiences in numerous ways.
Personally, I have (so far) been pretty fortunate in health matters. But apart from the common illnesses I have suffered very painful back injury (ironic, but also valuable, for a back pain practitioner). I have also suffered from periods of depression that, although not anything as severe as those I have treated in others, are not something I would choose to repeat. Most people I know have comparable experiences – the painful childbirth, the acute appendicitis, the crushing coronary artery thrombosis, and so on. But in a majority of cases, when those episodes have passed away they seem, in retrospect, transient and even ephemeral. I have no urge whatsoever to come before God’s throne and demand redress for my past sufferings, even had I done nothing in my life to deserve such troubles… and we must not forget that this book is written on the assumption that humankind lives in painful exile from God because of sin.
Jon then returns to Wallace’s argument that pain is an evolutionary adaption and therefore has evolved as far as, and no further than, it is useful to the survival of organisms. Quoting again from Wallace’s The World of Life:
…it is almost as certain as anything not personally known can be, that all animals which breed very rapidly, which exist in vast numbers, and which are necessarily kept down to their average population by the agency of those that feed upon them, have little sensitiveness, perhaps only a slight discomfort, under the most severe injuries, and that they probably suffer nothing at all when being devoured. For why should they? They exist to be devoured; their enormous powers of increase are for this end; they are subject to no dangerous bodily injury until that time comes for them to be devoured, and therefore they need no guarding against it through the agency of pain.
So in Wallace’s estimation, almost all aquatic animals up to fishes, all insects, probably all mollusks and worms, indeed most invertebrates, feel very little, if any, pain, thus reducing the sphere of pain to a minimum. Among the higher animals, by the same evolutionary argument, therefore, that small birds and mammals are generally less subject to injuries from falls or fighting than us, and so pain is likely to be much less developed in them. That leaves only the larger and heavier animals likely to benefit from (and therefore to suffer because of) well-developed pain sensation. Wallace also notes the evolutionary development of claws and teeth occurred to quickly dispatch the prey with a minimum of struggle, and presumably, pain.
Modern biological research into animal nervous systems and responses to stimulae confirm Wallace’s observations. Jon notes that the parasitism that so horrified Darwin usually involves the parasitized insects carrying on a normal life as the parasite develops, dying quickly only when the grown parasite bursts out. Regarding the higher vertebrates, Jon says:
These “higher vertebrates” constitute only around 45,000 species, somewhat less than 5 percent of the animals, amongst anything up to 10 million living species in total; it is a much lower percentage than that in terms of number of individuals. Before, we even look at pain amongst the vertebrates, the claim that “most animals suffer an agonizing death” is already completely discredited.
Jon asserts that the proportion of “sentient creatures” i.e. capable of significant pain that actually die in circumstances that would lead to pain is fewer than we’ve been led to think. Wildlife documentaries focus on violent animal death for emotion-stirring ratings reasons. Anthropomorphic scripts, musical manipulation of viewer’s emotions are the common currency. Dispassionate science doesn’t sell films or commercials. Jon makes the following dispassionate arguments:
- Total mass of animals at the top of the food pyramid, the secondary carnivores, is far less than the total mass of the animals close to the plant source of food, the herbivores.
- Most herbivores are not actually targeted by carnivores at all; most carnivores significantly scavenge to make up their diet.
- The prey animals targeted tend to be the weakest, oldest, sickest.
- Prey is dispatched relatively quickly with minimal pain and suffering usually.
The fact that the horror now expressed by scientists and other academics at suffering in the natural world, with or without considering evolution is due to a shift in thinking in:
- There is a current preference for seeing continuity between animals and ourselves rather than a discontinuity due to our rationality and made-in-the-image-of-God.
- Suffering is now seen as an absolute, rather than a relative evil, largely due to the relativizing of a once absolute morality.
- Our post-modern age has elevated subjectivity into a primary virtue.
… I hope I have shown that our profound ignorance of what it is like to be an animal makes it supremely arrogant to accuse God of creating a world of extreme cruelty. The evidence does not in any way support it, and as Christians we should surely default to the position that God knew what he was doing when he created the world and called it very good.