The Biology Of Suffering

“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.

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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer  (

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.


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.

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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.

About the blog

This blog is more than five years old now. The About the blog introduction has been overdue for revision.

Life has been present on earth for about three billion eight hundred million (3,800,000,000) years. These brief posts discuss bits of that history, ones that I find fascinating and satisfying to learn about. They include the single-celled organisms that evolved slowly over two billion years before life grew larger; trees and other plants that stay alive in ways more alien and more familiar than we expect; approaching or avoiding, the primary decisions all organisms make, and how they play out in species including our own; how our bodies, including our brains, work.

Such subjects bring the ingenuity of living things up closer than I have known them and they speak to me about life’s biggest issues. The eons over which living things have persisted, linked through chains of DNA, ease my fear of death. The trees and plants thriving around me gladden me with their calm, slow-motion purposefulness. Cooperation and competition, team-work and battle—the engines of our social and moral lives—perplex me less knowing how embedded they are in other organisms. And glimpsing the workings of the mind helps me untangle my consciousness from my self-consciousness from my self.

Since I’m not a scientist, I come to this biology like someone who is seeing the ocean for the first time. The vista is more intricate and greater than I imagined, and I am smaller and fuller in its presence.