An anonymous Christian academic commenting on an earlier piece of mine, about the overwhelming witness in pre-modern theology to the ongoing goodness of creation (notwithstanding the Fall), criticized my passing reference to parasitism, because it was passing. Though the old writers were well acquainted with predation, they were simply unaware, he said, of the grave new challenge to God’s goodness posed by parasites:
Without microscopy, most parasites couldn’t even be seen; and without molecular biology, their exquisitely designed mechanisms for producing slow, prolonged suffering leading to death—not quick, relatively painless death, such as at the hands of a lion or a shark—were not fully “appreciated.” This is the type of phenomenon that Darwin was driving at.
What he has in mind are clearly principally insect parasites, for that is what troubled Charles Darwin so, and Darwin used exactly the same highly teleological language:
I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.
For Darwin, the host’s suffering is “the express intention” of the parasite’s design, and for his successor too their mechanisms are designed “for producing slow, prolonged suffering leading to death.”
Science then (rather than the common experience of the natural world enjoyed by the ancients) is what makes continued belief in creation’s goodness untenable in this enlightened and disillusioned day and age. Being eaten by lions was known to Augustine, but though he could attribute that to God’s wisdom (as the Bible does, Ps 104.21) he would have been rendered mute by the wicked ways of wasps. That viewpoint is shown by the prevalent angst about theodicy, and the kind of expedients that are put up so often by Theistic Evolutionists which, for the most part, seek to distance God from creation by making evolution to a greater or lesser extent independent of him. And thus the basic assumption is that the Ichneumonidae over which Darwin agonized cannot, to any moral person, be the work of a moral God, but of an imperfect, quasi-autonomous “Nature”.
Meanwhile, of course, the atheists, who have already infinitely distanced God from creation intellectually, use the same evidence from parasites to claim that the Creator God is evil. To complete the picture, the dominant folk-theology blames it all on Satan, which is equally for the purpose of exonerating God by distancing him from his creation.
Now the original comment was pretty irrelevant to my article on historical theological beliefs, and is also rather less than scientifically or theologically rigorous in attributing the deliberate infliction of suffering to one of God’s creatures, or in attributing any purpose whatsoever to naturalistic evolution. I think we need to be a little more careful in both areas – in theology, regarding the “morality” of God, and in biology regarding the suffering of animals, especially when the latter is regularly used nowadays to remodel the former.
On the first head, it’s rather important to remember that Christianity is all about coming to faith in God through Jesus Christ (Acts 16.34). That’s faith – πιστις, belief, trust, assurance, reliance. The very start and core of that (going back to how faith was lost at the Fall) is acknowledging that God’s way is right, and that ours is wrong (Lk 7.29). The God of faith is the God who is our Judge, excluding him from any possibility of being the one we judge. The person who does not believe in God may disbelieve because he does not accept what God does – for example, not only in nature, but in punishing sinners – but that is directly linked with the refusal to acknowledge him as our Judge, and as the source of all true wisdom (aka “knowledge of good and evil”) that we have.
Regarding this metaphysically, God is definitionally the infinite source of good, of which we participate only in a very limited and particular part. God, in his very nature, is not the kind of Being that we can judge, but the One who judges us. What he does and says are right not only because he does and says them, but because he is not just one particular instance of a being, but the One who by very nature is right, which is why he does and says what he does. This is the classical view of the God of divine simplicity, in which God and good are identical, as opposed to the personalist view in which God is a complex of rather contingent and sometimes partial attributes (cf Open Theism, in which there are things he finds out – even from us, that change his mind and correct his misapprehensions).
In this latter mindset, there might conceivably be a God whose goodness is less than morally perfect, and so whose creation contains unforced errors. So we need to prove that our God isn’t like that one through case-by-case theodicy. But in the former, classical, theology God is not strictly a moral being at all, for “morality” is God’s good will regarding man’s created nature. If one takes the Ten Commandments, or any other moral precepts of God, they are the way we ought to behave in order to be consistent with our true human nature. It does not at all follow that the same precepts hold for apes, or lions – or Ichneumonids. As Aquinas taught, they each reveal diffent, sometimes surprising, facets of God’s goodness.
But is not God the God of love, and does that not give us the right – even the duty – as those created in his image, to judge by that criterion what actually is his work in creation and what is not? In short, No. Firstly because the how of the expression of God’s love towards his handiwork is not the same how as the expression of human love for God and neighbour. Even in human situations such distinctions hold true by analogy. To mutilate someone else’s body is an evil, but for a surgeon it is his particular virtue. To kill another person is murder, but not necessarily for a governor, who is “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” How much more for the Healer of our souls and the Governor of the universe?
But secondly, and equally important, we do not judge because faith precludes judgement and requires us to learn to trust in God’s word to us. And since throughout the Bible God makes two clear claims – (1) that he is good in all his works and (2) that he made everything in the world – then faith requires us to put those claims first in our minds. As Paul said (of unclean foods, but legitimately of all created things):
For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (1 Tim 4.4)
There is no Creator but God: such is the message of Genesis and the whole Bible, and is the foundation of our monotheism. It makes not a scrap of difference if we regard creation’s goodness as absolute (which is on shaky ground theologically, for after creation Adam’s need of a companion was “not good”, and furthermore man’s role was the transformation and subduing of creation to make it better yet); or whether we regard “good” in Genesis as meaning “fit for purpose”. For in either case, if God created parasites as he did all other things, they perform his purposes for them, which he says are good. Who are we to argue with our Maker?
Indeed, as Pope Francis makes clear in his recent encyclical, such an attitude to creation is also the basis of Christian ethics and morality – you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth:
First, it entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works.
To turn now to the scientific side of the coin, it’s rather astonishing how a question of which we can have no certain knowledge – the nature and degree of suffering in animals – should be used by some Christians to construct entirely new, demiurgic doctrines of creation, leading inevitably to new doctrines of sin (now to be regarded as an inevitable product of wayward evolution), and hence to new doctrines of atonement, moral theology, eschatology and everything else.
I’ve already pointed out the sloppy error of attributing malevolent goals (like causing the maximum suffering) to natural organisms like parasites – modern science was designed to outlaw the speculative attribution of final causes in nature. It’s unsurprising for an agnostic like Darwin to pass moral judgement on some other creature’s nature and declare it not God-given. For a Christian to do the same, and deny either God’s universal goodness or his universal creation, is a mark of weak faith, and especially so since it arrogantly implies there can be nothing in God’s ways that is not transparent to our human judgement. But “‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD” (Isa 55.8).
The question of animal suffering in general is a huge metaphysical question in itself – being a bat, or anything else, is something – but it is not being I in the same way as it is for a human. Any supposed measure of suffering is radically incomplete without an understanding of being the sufferer – and that is in very principle impossible.
There is a concept in philosophy of the “zombie” – the creature that acts in every way like a human, but which lacks our true self-consciousness. There is no way to distinguish it from a real person from without. Descartes considered animals to be pure automatons, and there is no way to prove him wrong – for a sophisticated automaton would show the same avoidance mechanisms, physiological stress responses and damage patterns that we do when we suffer – but without anybody home to experience them. The only way to be certain about animal suffering is to be the animal – everything beyond that is a metaphysical faith statement.
But from a purely evolutionary standpoint, as pivotal a figure as Alfred Russel Wallace argued cogently that there would be no selective advantage – and many selective disadvantages – for animals to develop the capacity for extreme suffering. Pain, and related discomforts, evolved for the avoidance of commonly met sources of damage. And there are no more commonly met causes of damage than predation and parasitism.
There is also much empirical evidence against the “maximum suffering” story. A handy survey is here (though I disagree with his handling of the biblical, as opposed to the scientific, material). There is even more evidence against the specific protest that started this column – the hideous suffering of insects, the reiteration of Darwin’s fellow-feeling with the agony of parasitised wasps that pre-scientific theologians like Gregory or Calvin could never have conceived.
The survey linked above points out the problems of attributing pain to a creature with a segmentally-organized nervous system. One entomologist discusses similar doubts in a recent blog. After reviewing all the evidence, he concludes:
As Carl Sagan popularized, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Insect pain and suffering is one of those extraordinary claims and is going to require extraordinary evidence to definitively say one way or another. However, in the meantime I will not expose any insects to undue suffering when I use them in experiments or add to my insect collection.
It’s noteworthy to see an insect specialist equate the possibility of insect suffering with the atheist’s degree of doubt in God. That the entolologist nevertheless, in his own moral practice, errs on the side of compassion is a good illustration of morality being the way for humans to act in accordance with our nature, and not in accordance with that of parasitic wasps.
We simply can’t know if insects, for example, feel pain – nor, with absolute certainty even higher animals. That uncertainty still gives us our guide to the right moral behaviour (as do the handful of passages in the Bible that urge compassion to animals). Even if cruelty to animals didn’t really cause them suffering, it would still dehumanise us.
But with regard to God’s behaviour in creation, the best theology and the most perfect faith ought to leave the issue in God’s hands as Scriptural theodicies charactistically do. Wasps are not humans, and are not accountable to human morality, because they have both lower and different natures. We don’t know what it is to be an Ichneumonid any more than we know what it’s like to be its host.
But equally God is not human either, so he is not accountable to human morality because he is infinitely higher and also fundamentally different in his essence. We don’t know what it is to be him, but in distinction to the wasps we’ve been told to in trust his goodness: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
For the theist who doesn’t accept this, two theodicies seem possible. The first is to presume that God created animals so that they do not suffer in the way humans do, so it is a non-issue. Wallace’s evolutionary argument is in support of this, and no firm science is against it. Yet is it not presumptuous to insist, in our ignorance, that God has not created suffering when it might equally be the case that he has created suffering for some reason beyond our human frailty to encompass? Why are we so intent on teaching God his business?
The second is to presume that animals do suffer, even though the actual evidence is equivocal, and that furthermore it is undeniably a grievous evil. In that case nature cannot be wholly the work of God after all, but must have demonic or blindly indifferent “natural” elements, in order to exonerate God from the suffering about whose reality you have presumptively speculated. And thus speculation weighs in your balance more heavily than your trust in God’s word that he is the only Creator and the fount of all love and goodness.
That’s your choice – but don’t expect me to to take that line in my articles.