The Selfless Gene (2)

I cannot persuade myself that a benevolent 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. — Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray (1860)

What is the dif­fi­cul­ty about liv­ing with God and Dar­win? If we ask Dar­win him­self, he gives a clear answer in the quote above: Nat­ur­al selec­tion appears to be a process of waste, cru­el­ty, suf­fer­ing, and destruc­tion of the weak. Ich­neu­monidae are wasps that lay their eggs in the lar­vae of oth­er insects, after which the young wasp eats its liv­ing host from the inside. If we believe that God is both good and omnipo­tent (which is an impor­tant pre­req­ui­site for this prob­lem), the ques­tion aris­es: Did God cre­ate the world using a method that is intrin­si­cal­ly con­trary to his own nature? This post is about that ques­tion from the book by Charles Fos­ter.

It’s not obvi­ous for every­one that the suf­fer­ing of ani­mals is a prob­lem. A dif­fer­ence can be made between sen­tient and con­scious beings. The first cat­e­go­ry would only have sep­a­rate painful expe­ri­ences, while the sec­ond group can expe­ri­ence ‘real’ suf­fer­ing. In fact there is increas­ing evi­dence for con­scious­ness in cer­tain ani­mal species. But even if we only ascribe con­scious­ness to our­selves, it remains moral­ly bad to hurt an ani­mal. If there is a chance that God did this to gen­er­ate evo­lu­tion, there is indeed a prob­lem.

Spider having dinner

It is a vari­ant of the prob­lem of pain, in par­tic­u­lar the suf­fer­ing of moral­ly inno­cent beings. The book The Prob­lem of Pain by C. S. Lewis is often cit­ed by Fos­ter. For exam­ple when he men­tions that the Fall of Men can’t have been the ori­gin of suf­fer­ing. Mil­lions of years before humans appeared on the scene, pain and death were already part of nature, and thus even of our ori­gins.

Pos­si­ble solu­tions to the prob­lem are all very anthro­pocen­tric: Suf­fer­ing is nec­es­sary for free will, God suf­fers along with the cre­ation, pain pro­tects us, no pain means no joy. Charles Fos­ter main­tains that God, espe­cial­ly in the man­i­fes­ta­tion of Jesus, does not con­sid­er death and suf­fer­ing accept­able, and thus can nev­er be respon­si­ble for the design of the Ich­neu­monidae.

Accord­ing to the author, a clos­er look at nat­ur­al selec­tion shows that it has only one intrin­sic ele­ment that is incon­sis­tent with the char­ac­ter of Jesus: The sheer self­ish­ness of organ­isms. For exam­ple, death is only nec­es­sary if the eco­log­i­cal nich­es and resources are deplet­ed. Nature is a mix­ture of beau­ty, fear, joy and pain. Foster’s argu­ment is that nature also abounds with coop­er­a­tion and altru­ism. He calls upon biol­o­gists to take these phe­nom­e­na seri­ous­ly and not always rea­son them away with the­o­ries like kin/group selec­tion. Once altru­ism exists, it can indeed bring ben­e­fits and thus be trans­mit­ted through nat­ur­al selec­tion. But the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion you can ask is how it could get a foothold in the first place. This could be where a force along­side nat­ur­al selec­tion is at work.


This more nuanced pic­ture of evo­lu­tion fits with­in the tra­di­tion­al Chris­t­ian view of nature: it is an “essen­tial­ly good thing twist­ed.” Self­ish­ness in evo­lu­tion is a pro­duc­tion of the evil pow­er, in the Bible and the Quran referred to as Satan. God is not the author of evil. He does how­ev­er allow it, so per­haps the ques­tion has only shift­ed.

I am afraid that this shift is about as far as we get. It does not mean that God is an indif­fer­ent spec­ta­tor of suf­fer­ing. From his Chris­t­ian faith Fos­ter points to Jesus who has become part of his cre­ation, and has over­come evil by self­less­ly sac­ri­fic­ing him­self. With his res­ur­rec­tion began a new cre­ation. What I do not under­stand is why Jesus eats fish after his res­ur­rec­tion while the sug­ges­tion is that pre­da­tion is not a part of the new cre­ation (the wolf beside the lamb, etc).

Dar­win found it dif­fi­cult to live with God and him­self. The dai­ly occur­ring hor­rors in nature don´t make me brim with enthu­si­asm about a cre­at­ing God either. This post has attempt­ed to unrav­el some of this; with­out pro­vid­ing ready-made answers. Lat­er on I want to write about Fos­ters ideas regard­ing the ori­gin of the moral­ly con­scious man.

Baby Elephants