Eric Russert Kraemer’s Darwin’s Doubts and the Problem of Animal Pain

This paper interacts with (and appears to defend) Paul Draper’s version of the evidential argument from evil, the argument from the biological role of pain and pleasure. From the introduction: 

It is a truism that the influence of Darwin’s work on evolution is profound and ubiquitous. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the first chapter of Frans de Waal’s book, Good Natured, is entitled “Darwinian Dilemmas.” In this chapter, which sets the stage for his splendid discussion of observation of various kinds of moral behavior in primates, de Waal outlines the history of the debate over the biological status of morality since the implications of Darwinism began to be understood. Assuming Darwinism to be correct, moral behavior must have evolved along with all other features of living beings. The rest of de Waal’s book goes on to make a strong inductive case for the evolution of moral behaviors. In so doing, he provides a powerful attack on the traditional supernatural understanding of the origin of morality which takes morality to require a supernatural creator. Although most mainstream Western religious institutions now claim that evolution is consistent with their doctrines of the supernatural creator,1 the present discussion challenges this alleged consistency of traditional religion and evolution. The main contention of this paper is that if we take both evolution and concern for animal suffering seriously (as Darwin did), then we should reject traditional theism.

If one is earnestly moved by the sufferings of nonhuman animals, must this really affect the religious views one holds? For those concerned about animal rights who are not philosophically inclined, the question may not be one that causes any anxiety. But for serious thinkers, the relation between animal suffering and religion is one that needs to be examined. The present paper begins its exploration of the connection between traditional religion and animal suffering by considering the religious opinions of Charles Darwin, who had serious doubts about religion based on the problem of animal pain. Although not all of Darwin’s views on animal suffering have been appreciated by defenders of animal rights,2 Darwin’s religious progress is of considerable interest, as it demonstrates the development of a persuasive agnostic stance out of a strong concern for animal suffering.

The structure of my paper is as follows. Before setting out and defending Darwin’s arguments concerning religion, I begin by considering Alvin Plantinga’s recent (and influential) discussion of a controversial Darwinian passage (dubbed by Plantinga “Darwin’s Doubt”) which casts doubt on the standard interpretation of Darwin as a defender of both the rationality of accepting evolution as well as the view that human rational powers evolved from those of nonhumans.3 After critiquing Plantinga’s interpretation of Darwin, I set out Darwin’s real doubts, those about religion, which involve an animal variation on the traditional problem of evil. As this particular problem has recently received much attention from serious theistic philosophers,4 I defend Darwin’s views against two of the best recent attempts by traditional theists to deal with the problem of animal pain. Both efforts are shown to be seriously flawed. After discussing and rejecting some non-traditional attempts to save religion from Darwin’s argument, I conclude with a general assessment of Darwin’s claims about religion.


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About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.