The Biology Of Suffering

“Where does suffering come from? Why do we suffer?” The questions open biologist Ursula Goodenough’s essay “The Biological Antecedents of Human Suffering” (in The Routledge Companion to Religion and Science (2012)). Through the ages, people have looked to religion for the answers, with no easy satisfaction. But under a biologist’s eye, the questions look more manageable.

Goodenough proposes two categories of suffering, the biological and the experienced. Biological suffering comes to all living things. Bacteria, plants, and people all seek out what they need—water, food, light—and withdraw from what harms them—poisons, enemies. Any organism with too little of what it needs or too much of what will weaken it is struggling, under stress.

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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer  (

For animals with developed nervous systems, however, such suffering not only occurs biologically but is also experienced. The biological struggle announces itself through the nervous system. Vertebrates (with a backbone, head, and skeleton) carry neurons called nociceptors in their skin and internally in muscles, joints, and the gut. When nociceptors tell the brain that something is very wrong, the brain interprets the message as paina slice in a finger, a twisted ankle, sudden nausea. In addition, for humans—social creatures that we are—the sources of such experienced pain include social and psychological feelings (envy, guilt) as well as bodily injury.No

Fortunately, for most of the difficulties that organisms endure, antidotes are available. 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. But often at a price. We humans will likely feel the amelioration process at work more uncomfortably at first, ironically, than the adversity that triggered it. We suffer through a fever because the higher body temperature strengthens the immune response to an infection that might otherwise be barely noticeable at the start.

No matter their inconvenience, though, amelioration systems are indispensable. 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.

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 acute pain. Pain alone won’t ameliorate a condition but calls attention to it—and may teach a lesson that brainy creatures can remember about what to do differently next time.

In still other cases, though, continuous or recurring 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.”

Goodenough closes, “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 at least some suffering goes with being alive. But Goodenough’s naturalism presents suffering in an earthly mode, with less mystery and without guilt. Still, we are left to reckon with the irony that often what we suffer from are the very processes by which the body goes about repair and renewal.

These highlights amount to only a partial summary of Goodenough’s rich essay, which is here at Google Books.


The Limits of Happiness?

If our expectations of happiness sometimes seem off-kilter, it’s because our understanding of emotions in general is not always accurate. It is tempting to think that emotions are available in pairs, that each pleasant emotion comes with a distressing version: happiness matched with sadness, bravery with fear, contentment with  frustration. And we might expect that people experience emotions in a wide range of intensities and durations. Depending on the person, sadness might last for a day or a decade, mildly or intensely. And and so might its counterpart, happiness.  As the sign says, “Happiness has no limits.”

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In How the Mind Works, Stephen Pinker says not so fast. For starters, “There are twice as many negative emotions (fear, grief, anxiety, and so on) as positive ones.” Try to count the common unpleasant emotions that come to mind, then try to think of the same number of positive ones.

Another clue that emotions don’t come in positive and negative pairs in all varieties, like shoes, is that “[P]eople’s mood plummets more when imagining a loss in their lives (for example, in course grades, or in relationships with the opposite sex) than it rises when imagining an equivalent gain.” Pinker quotes tennis star Jimmy Connors: “I hate to lose more than I like to win.”

So not only are negative feelings more plentiful than positive ones, but they pack a stronger punch as well.

Why? The benefits of happiness and the other positive feelings are, in evolutionary terms, more limited than we might think. Pinker: “The psychologist Timothy Ketelaar notes that happiness tracks the effect of resources on biological fitness. As things get better, increases in fitness show diminishing returns: more food is better, but only up to a point. But as things get worse, decreases in fitness can take you out of the game: not enough food, and you’re dead” (392).

So the dangers of of injury, illness, and enemies call for variable levels of distress to signal the seriousness of the threat—emotional smoke alarms that can grow louder and last longer as the threat intensifies. But the joys of health, sociability, creativity, and even spirituality don’t call for such intensification. In the long run, we wouldn’t gain from a capacity for increasingly intense joy or confidence or satisfaction or excitement. Too much joy for too long and we let our guard down.

So we care more about what could go wrong than about what could go better.