“Where does suffering comes from? Why do we suffer?”
These questions open biologist Ursula Goodenough’s essay “The Biological Antecedents of Human Suffering” (in The Routledge Companion to Religion and Science (2012)). The usual context for such questions has been religious. Under a biologist’s eye, they look quite different.
Goodenough proposes two categories of suffering, biological suffering and experienced suffering. Biological suffering is common to all living things. Bacteria, plants, and people all draw towards what they need—water, food, light—and away from what will harm them—toxins, dangers, enemies. Too little of what an organism needs or too much of what might do it damage will leave it struggling.
For animals with developed nervous systems, however, such suffering not only takes place biologically but is experienced. The biological complication or threat announces itself through the nervous system. Vertebrates in particular carry types of neurons called nociceptors in the skin and internally in muscles, joints, and the gut. Nociceptors transmit to the brain the message we know as pain that something is very wrong: a pulled muscle, a burn. And for humans—social and self-aware as we are—the potential sources of pain include social (envy, loneliness) or psychological (guilt) feelings as well as bodily injury.
For most of the difficulties that organisms endure, there are antidotes. Organisms will move towards water if they need it, try to compensate for an injury, muster immune responses to fight infections, call a friend if they are lonely. Goodenough calls these corrective measures amelioration systems; they make things better.
Amelioration systems come in many forms. Often, and not always pleasantly, we humans can feel them at work more sharply than the adversity that triggers them. Our noses get stuffed up during a cold not by the rhinovirus but because our immune system swells the sinus blood vessels in order to muster antibodies against the virus. Similarly, we run a fever not directly because of an infection but because a higher body temperature strengthens our immune response.
To paraphrase Goodenough, organisms whose amelioration systems fail to cope with adversity will die. Organisms whose amelioration systems are inactive because they have all they need enjoy well-being. But it is organisms whose amelioration systems are at work “actively dealing with difficult circumstances” that are in a state of biological suffering.
So all organisms suffer. Sometimes the suffering is not felt: “The food-deprived amoeba or the bacterium, the plant plunged in darkness or subject to a wound, pays the suffering price, but does not feel the price.” In other cases, for humans and other vertebrates, the price is felt as acute pain. Such pain by itself doesn’t ameliorate a condition but calls attention to it—and may teach a lesson about what to do differently next time.
But in still other cases, recurring or continuous pain is a scam. Chronic pain is “physical pain that is not obviously in the service of amelioration systems and is unresponsive to analgesics or other practices….Here we encounter an example of things gone awry.” With chronic pain, “Suffering has become uncoupled from resolution.”
In closing, Goodenough writes, “The long evolutionary view of suffering is that it is an inherent feature of life….[It] is part of the package, the price paid for the gift of being alive at all.” Up to a point, we knew this already—that some suffering goes with being alive. But what I didn’t know is how varied the sources and expressions of suffering can be and how tightly interwoven along with them are the ameliorations that, in most cases, can set things right.
This summary amounts to a partial skeleton of Goodenough’s rich essay. I urge interested readers to look up the original here at Google Books.