“Where does suffering come 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)). We’ve looked to religion for answers, with no easy satisfaction. Under a wise biologist’s eye, the questions 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 will hurt it will leave it struggling.
For animals with developed nervous systems, however, such suffering not only takes place biologically but is also experienced. The biological difficulty announces itself through the nervous system. Vertebrates in particular carry neurons called nociceptors in the skin and internally in muscles, joints, and the gut. Nociceptors transmit to the brain the message that something is very wrong, a message the brain interprets as pain—a finger sliced with a knife, a twisted ankle, sudden nausea. And for humans—social and self-aware creatures that we are—the sources of experienced pain include social (envy, loneliness) or psychological (guilt) feelings as well as bodily injury.
Fortunately, 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 triggered them in the first place. 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 the 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 Goodenough’s naturalist perspective is knowledge of suffering in a different mode, with less mystery, less guilt, and perhaps easier acceptance. And it’s an irony appropriate to the complexity of life: that so much of what we suffer from are the symptoms of the work of repair and renewal.
These highlights amount to only a partial summary of Goodenough’s rich essay. Interested readers will find the original here at Google Books.