Evolutionary Theodicy

For largely accidental reasons, people have not used evolutionary explanations in theodicy. Why not say that the problem of pain and suffering (whether human or non-human) arises because the animal is the result of multiple adaptations and not design? Sure, if anyone designed animals he would give them all and only pains that worked as helpful signals – so that they would be motivated to avoid all and only deleterious behavior and never experience any inappropriate level of pain or suffering. But animals are a sum of adaptations and accidents, many of which serve no purpose in the environment in which we now find ourselves. It would be great if I found eating five servings of vegetables as pleasant as ice-cream and martinis, and no doubt if I designed human beings I would make them like this. As it happens, I am not designed to fit into this particular easy-to-find-fat environment but inherited my fat-desires from ancestors who benefited from having them. My body, and the body of every animal is a whole archaeological dig of different systems, many of which are ill-adapted to its present circumstances, or even to the peculiar existence it now has within its own species. For all I know, the system that causes extreme pain in us traces back to a beneficial adaptation in protozoa. Or perhaps it was always an accident arising from other adaptations and was never of itself an adaptation. Or perhaps it has just survived in spite of itself. Who knows?

But how is this a theodicy? 

Put briefly, to the question “couldn’t God have made animals so that they might not experience pain?” we answer “God doesn’t make animals, i.e. design them. He is not responsible for their existence in that way”. If one insists that God could have designed animals in a better way if he wished to, we can say that by acting this way he would have lost all the goods of adaptation, in much the same way that we now give free-will defenses for other sorts of evil. Just as free-will defenses argue that moral evil were allowed for the sake of the greater good of a moral universe, so too evolutionary theodicy argues that pain and suffering were allowed for the greater good of an evolutionary universe. Here we might with no small thrill appeal to all the Naturalist panegyric directed at natural selection – all that “tree of life” stuff and Dawkinsian Universalism comes to mind. If evolution is such a unifying, simple, fecund and all-but-omnipotent explanatory principle, then isn’t the universe far better off with it than without it?

And what theist could pass up the sheer joy of quoting Dawkins as a support?

Thomists get this evolutionary theodicy for free, since we never based a cosmological argument on design as opposed to adaptation. The Fifth Way, for example, starts from action with a predictable terminus, and this is common to both designed and adapted systems. DVD players run just as well off of wall sockets (which were designed to convey an electric charge) as off of cigarette lighters in cars (which were not, but merely adapted to the purpose). Both systems act in predictable and structured ways, and this is the way in which nature depends on intelligence.

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1 Comment

  1. John Farrell said,

    February 13, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    This is great. And I try to quote Dawkins all the time! 😉


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