Animal Suffering: Darwin, Dawkins + Possible Solution

With too much misery in the world, Charles Darwin could not persuade himself that “a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice”(Darwin 1860)

He could not “overlook the difficulty from the immense amount of suffering through the world”(Darwin 1873) “That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes,” correctly observed Darwin. He went further:

A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time?(Darwin 1958)

For Darwin, the existence of suffering was a strong case against the existence of an intelligent first cause. “[T]he presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.”(Darwin 1958 ibid 85-96)

Darwin’s advocate, Richard Dawkins, echoes Darwin’s challenge.  “During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence,” contended Dawkins, “thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease.”(Dawkins 1995: 132)

Having “Darwin’s ichneumon wasp that the caterpillar should be alive, and therefore fresh, when it is eaten, no matter what the cost in suffering” in mind, Dawkins wrote,

If Nature were kind, she would at least make the minor concession of anesthetizing caterpillars before they are eaten alive from within. But Nature is neither kind nor unkind. She is neither against suffering nor for it. Nature is not interested one way or the other in suffering, unless it affects the survival of DNA.(ibid 131)

“Nature is neither kind nor unkind” concluded Dawkins. But what if “Nature” is kind to a caterpillar? What if “Nature” spared caterpillars and many other animals an ability to suffer? Neo-Cartessianism, a position explored in Michael J. Murray’s Nature Read in Tooth & Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, aims to lessen the thrust of the problem of pain and suffering in animal kingdom. It was briefly explained  by William Lane Craig in his debate with Stephen Law at Westminster Hall on October 17, 2011.

In my next article, I will explore Murray’s neo-Cartessianism case, Craig’s presentation, and explore  Jerry A. Coyne, PZ Meyer’s, and Austin Cline’s criticisms  directed toward Craig’s presentation.

Question: In Oxford Journals’ article, D. Öngür and J.L. Price’s explained that primates and many other species have orbital and medial prefrontal cortex. Did Craig err in asserting that “[f]or the awareness that one is oneself in pain requires self-awareness, which is centered in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain—a section of the brain which is missing in all animals except for the humanoid primates.”?


Darwin, Charles (1860) Letter To Asa Gray

___________ (1873) Letter To “Doedes, N. D.

___________ (1958) The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882, with Original Omissions Restored, ed. Nora Barlow. London: Collins.

Dawkins, Richard (1995) River Out Of Eden. Weidenfeld & Nicolson
, The Orion Publishing Group

Bug Photo: Wireless Sensor Networks Blog


8 thoughts on “Animal Suffering: Darwin, Dawkins + Possible Solution

  1. The problem of animal suffering is a good point against a Benevolent God, haha…I’m curious to hear the defenses concocted to explain it…long time I didn’t come on here, but I guess more article were posted as of late than usual…still no answer from you, Prayson, about that video I posted several months ago now…

  2. It seems to me that the argument has been diverted towards lower animals. The idea of God originated with humans not animals. There is no evidence to the effect that animals believe in a supreme creator – they only know they exist. But within the human society alone, we can all admit that some prey on others. That’s how come no society can ever exist without laws. Whether caterpillars or mice feel pain or not, the destruction of a living organism by another is something that cannot be defended. Who does not want to exist? Anyone who seeks the common good of all living organisms is on God’s side. Theories of creation or evolution, which fade in from history, only satisfy man’s thirst for knowledge. No one knows why we are here and where we go when we die.

  3. That’s basically the old Stoic view. I cannot, as a traditional Christian, accept it though I understand the impulses behind it. It accounts for an orderly universe with internal teleology as opposed to the chaotic universe one finds in the writings of Stephen Crane and H. P. Lovecraft.

  4. To argue for or against God one has to define what God is, otherwise it is pointless arguing.

    It is observable animals suffer destruction and death, as do plants, humans and entire galaxies. Humanity creates gods of many religions in their own image, yet fail to consider the possibility that their opinions of what God is may be wrong. Quite rightly if man says God is like him with warm touchy-feely emotions no doubt they will think him to be a sick psycho for allowing the observable suffering in animals.

    As Heraclitus says Strife is Justice; which is that strife is the natural state of play in the universe, it gives rise to conflict, war, suffering and death; but through strife the universe moves, changes and evolves. Strife exists, its observable, and is central to how the universe functions, plainly if there is a God strife was put there with a purpose. Justice in the Greek context means becoming, thus strife causes all things to become.

    I propose that God may be mindless, a series of laws, which gets round this sticky argument of why God allows suffering in animals. Being mindless the argument over why God allows suffering is irrelevant, but as a set of laws God could find acceptance to both Theist and Scientist.

  5. There are few positions for which I have absolutely no respect, but one of those is Neo-Cartesianism. The empirical evidence for animal intelligence and emotion is conveniently ignored to get God off the hook for animal suffering. When I saw the authors’ initial article in Faith and Philosophy, honestly I questioned the nature of their Christian faith. How about vivisecting animals without anesthesia? Would they have any objection that that, or are they so gung ho on their particular theodicy that inconsistency would not bother them. There are other ways to deal with this issue, but denying reality is not.

    • I do share your concern. I do have problem with most of theodices but yet some I believe do help solve some of the issue.

      I believe if it is true that non-mammals missing pre-frontal cortex cannot be said to suffer though experience pain and insecta do not experience pain, then neo-Cartesianism, though weak, solves some of the problem.

      I would love to hear your thoughts.


      • I would agree that insects probably do not have consciousness in the sense that animals from fishes up have. To that extent I see the Neo-Cartesian’s point. Mammals, however, are a much more difficult matter. Just from experience, I know my cats anticipate the future discomfort they feel in the vet’s office (which is why they hide–how they know every time they have a vet appt. I have no idea–maybe Sheldrake is right). Dogs, while not having a moral sense, know when they’ve displeased their owners and they react emotionally. They also have a memory of pain and seem to have anticipation of pain. I have no problem with the notion of individual resurrection of animals, at least at the mammalian and bird level. Mammals and birds seem to have the degree of individuality that they could enjoy a future life.

      • I am not sure if ichthyoids, reptilis, amphibios, and aves can be said to possess consciousness in the sense of creatures that possess prefrontal cortex. Could you be kind to direct me to works(journals, articles or books) that explores the consciousness of these lower animals?

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