The Evolutionary Problem with Pain

(As Published in Creation Matters, Vol. 16, No. 3, May/June 2011.)

The fact that there is so much pain and suffering in the world has been a puzzle for philosophers and theologians over the years. Theodicy is the name given to the question of how a just and loving God would allow this situation.  But most people are unaware that there is a similar problem with pain for evolutionists. Why is pain so intense? A false step will leave an organism writhing in pain, crying out for days, maybe weeks before healing sets in. The cry of an animal in distress quickly attracts predators.  Debilitating pain is so intense that it overwhelms the desire to eat and procreate. It would seem that natural selection would have favored less sensitive nerves or brain sensations. As the pain sensation was evolving there should have been some “push back” against going overboard. Why go to the extra effort of making it all so excruciating?

According to Darwinian theory, even tiny changes that negatively impact upon survival have been “weeded out” by natural selection.  From a mother dreading childbirth to a toddler learning to walk, to many of us avoiding critical exercise; pain is counter-intuitive towards helping survival and reproduction. Even leading evolutionist Richard Dawkins noted this: “Pain, like everything else about life, we presume, is a darwinian device, which functions to improve the sufferer’s survival…. It remains a matter for interesting discussion why it has to be so…painful. Theoretically, you’d think, the equivalent of a little red flag could painlessly be raised somewhere in the brain…. Perhaps grappling with this question is evolutionary theory’s own theodicy. Why so painful? What’s wrong with a little red flag? I don’t have a decisive answer.”[i]

Not long ago Allen MacNeill, professor of biology and evolution at Cornell University was blogging about the intense pain he suffered while passing kidney stones.[ii] He wrote, “I describe all of this, not to elicit your sympathy, but to introduce ‘the problem of pain’ from the standpoint of evolutionary biology. All of the rest of our senses have a physical referent: heat receptors sense heat, cold receptors cold, taste receptors sugars and ions and acids and bases and certain amino acids in our food, rods and cones sense the presence of light photons, etc. But pain receptors do not sense the presence of ‘pain.’ No, ‘pain’ is an ‘artificial sensation.’ What pain receptors are adapted to sensing is cellular damage…. Yet, two questions immediately present themselves: why should passing a kidney stone produce pain at all, and why is the pain so intense?” The brain has no pain receptors and so patients can undergo brain surgery while fully conscious. But the rest of our internal organs acutely feel pain. There really is no good evolutionary explanation for this.

Perhaps some evolutionist would concur that evolution “overshot the mark” in its development of pain in higher organisms, but they might then argue that the necessary mutations for mitigated pain receptors never happened along for natural selection to choose. But this seems to be refuted by evidence that varying pain thresholds already exist in the population. From a purely biological point of view pain nerves, just like all nerves in the body, have a threshold at which they fire. There is no sliding scale; they are either on or off. The reason that pain may be more intense or not will depend on the amount of nerves firing and the type. But researchers have consistently found varying pain tolerance based on age, physical fitness, and gender. Studies have even suggested non-intuitive traits like hair color[iii] and hand dominance[iv] can affect pain threshold!

So why do we have pain? C. S. Lewis, in his classic book The Problem of Pain, states the issue as follows: “If God were good, he would wish to make his creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty he would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either the goodness, or power, or both.”[v]  Lewis replies to this by saying we need to look more closely at erroneous assumptions built into the words “all-powerful” and “good.”

The “all-powerfulness” of God is taken to mean that God can do anything. But this view is misguided.  Having made the universe to work in certain consistent ways, God does not arbitrarily change these laws whenever potential harm rears its head. If God kept changing the way things normally operate in the universe, it would be impossible for us to rise to genuine challenges or act responsibly within it. Lewis also examines how people tend to misunderstand “divine goodness.” We tend to view goodness as merely making us happy all the time. We need to see that for God, loving kindness is giving us what is the ultimately best for us. If suffering brings us closer to Him, then it is good.  Perhaps one of Lewis’ most famous quotes is: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[vi]

In the Christian worldview, pain is a result of the Fall of Man. Sorrow, pain, and death, is part of the curse found in Genesis 3:16-19. God said to Eve, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children…”  He said to Adam, “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life…” Pain was never part of God’s original creation and the day will come when it will be eradicated from the New Earth that He will create. Revelation 21:4 states, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain:”

[i] Dawkins, Richard, The Greatest Show on Earth, New York: Free Press, 2010, p. 393.


[iii] Binkley, Catherine J., et. al., “  The Journal of the American Dental Association, vol. 140, No 7, 2009, pp. 896-905.

[iv] Pud, Dorit, et. al., “Hand dominancy—A feature affecting sensitivity to pain,” Neuroscience Letters 467 (2009) 237–240.

[v] Lewis, C. S., The Problem of Pain, New York: Macmillan, 1940, p. 16.

[vi] Lewis, Ibid., p. 93.