The Biology Of Suffering

“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.

 

Darwin and the Buddha

The teachings of Charles Darwin and Gautama Buddha are worlds apart. Yet their descriptions of life bear similarities to each other and even interlock in ways that expand my view of each.  I’ll focus this comparison on  On the Origin of Species and the Dhammapada, a widely read collection of the Buddha’s sayings.

The differences are straightforward enough. Darwin’s eye was mainly on the past. In Origins, he observed the characteristics of successive generations of plants and animals—except for humans, whose evolution he discussed in other books—to show how natural selection and fertility served as the sources of the variation of species.

The Buddha, on the other hand, focused on humans, on the pain of our disappointments and the ease that disciplined renunciations could bring. And in contrast to Darwin’s focus on ancestry, the Buddha’s eye was on the future, on each person’s potential path forward out of suffering. Finally, while Darwinian evolution moved on inexorably, the Buddha convinced his followers that their future was in their own hands, that if they turned inward to grasp the nature of change and expectation, they could calm their cravings.

Yet beneath these distinct differences, both thinker followed a logic built from the same pieces.

buddhistchannel.tv

buddhistchannel.tv

First, for both Darwin and the Buddha, the struggles of ordinary life make up the starting point for the consequences and possibilities that followed. As different as their two works are, taken together they rest on the premise that for humans, animals, and plants alike, life is stressful, sometimes dangerous, and often unpredictable. Whether in a plant stunted by inadequate sunlight or a woman in conflict between family and her career, it is everyday obstacles and threats that drive the changes that the thinkers explored.

Such changes consisted of a series of steps, the other great commonality between their views. For Darwin, the steps were those small, random variations which, if they benefited an organism consistently, took their place among its inherited traits. Though each step was small, the end result could be a new, better-adapted species. For the Buddha, the steps consisted of a discipline in correct understanding, the extinguishing of selfish desires, and future rebirths. As they were in Darwinian evolution, the steps to enlightenment took time but led to relief from pain.

Combined, these variations on the themes of struggle, gradual change, and final resolution offer a rich vision: living things experience conditions that are not easily or perfectly satisfied, but the future offers steps from pain towards peace, though not necessarily within an individual’s lifetime. In place of a deity to oversee the the fate of living things, both men saw a reality in which ordinary life and an organism’s response to it were sufficient to drive changes sooner or later.

I and most people and animals tend to fix our gaze on those satisfactions and dangers that we see a relatively short distance ahead—the state of our income, our health, our children, our security, predictable weather, unpredictable disasters. I wonder what it was like to have the mindset of Darwin and Buddha, tuned to long spans of steady transition in which a being’s every moment is a step towards elsewhere.

 

My thanks to Elaine Smith for her assistance.

Dawkins: Don’t Let Your Values Distort What You Know About Science

I’m guilty, I have to admit, of projecting some of my values onto science. One of them is that temperamentally and politically, I value cooperation more than competition, so I’m not surprised to find that looking back over this blog, I’ve praised the first far more than the second. And for those of us who don’t work in the nitty-gritty empiricism of science, even more obvious traps are waiting. Many believe, for instance, that the global climate is stable and that dinosaurs and humans used to roam the earth together.

But Richard Dawkins has brought me up short about how powerfully value judgments can skew even the most earnest attempts (like mine) to let solid science be a guide. In his 1997 lecture on “The Values of Science and the Science of Values,” included in his 2017 collection Science in the Soul, Dawkins describes two examples.

First, admiration for Darwinian natural selection as any sort of model for how society does or should function suggests a failure to grasp what that mechanism is all about.

lion (texasgateway.org)

(texasgateway.org)

If you must use Darwinism as a morality play, it is an awful warning. Nature really is red in tooth and claw. The weakest really do go to the wall, and natural selection really does favor selfish jeans. The racing elegance of cheetahs and gazelles is bought at huge cost in blood and the suffering of countless antecedents on both sides.…The product of natural selection, life in all its forms, is beautiful and rich. But the process is vicious brutal and short sighted. (Kindle location 559)

And the fact that we ourselves are products of that process shouldn’t fool us.

We are Darwinian creatures, our forms and our brains sculpted by natural selection, that indifferent, cruelly blind watchmaker. But this doesn’t mean we have to like it. On the contrary…‘Darwinian’ is not a bad definition of precisely the sort of politics I would run a hundred miles not to be governed by.

Dawkins’ second example is eugenics—not the debate over its ethics but the impact of its immorality on conclusions about the science behind it.

The premise is that to breed humans selectively for abilities such as running speed, musical talent or mathematical dexterity would be politically and morally indefensible. Therefore it isn’t (must not be) possible – [it’s] ruled out by science. Well, anybody can see that that’s a non sequitur, and I’m sorry to have to tell you that positive eugenics is not ruled out by science. There is no reason to doubt that humans would respond to selective breeding just as readily as cows, dogs, cereal plants and chickens. I hope it isn’t necessary for me to say that this doesn’t mean I’m in favor of it. (588)

Dawkins adds that even in the case of human intelligence, composed of multiple factors that we don’t understand entirely, the fact remains that “there has been an evolutionary trend in our ancestry towards increased intelligence” (604). That trend means that

we could, if we wanted to, use artificial selective breeding to continue the same evolutionary trend.

I would need little persuading that such a eugenic policy would be politically and morally wrong, but we must be absolutely clear that such a value judgment is the right reason to refrain from it. Let us not allow our value judgments to push us over into the false scientific belief that human eugenics isn’t possible. Nature, fortunately or unfortunately, is indifferent to anything so parochial as human values. (612)

Reminder to self: Believing that something is true, or is probably true, or seems to be true, does not mean that it is true.