The Cruel Gene




The Cruel Gene



I can forgive the genes their selfishness; it is their cruelty I can’t forgive.  [1] I understand their need to build survival machines to preserve themselves until they can replicate: they need the secure fortress of an animal body. But why did they have to build suffering survival machines? Hunger, thirst, pain, and fear—why did they have to make animal bodies feel these things? Granted the survival machines benefit from having a mind, but it was cruel of the genes to produce so much suffering in those minds. Couldn’t they have found another way? Are they sadists?

            The answer is that suffering is an excellent adaptation. Genes build animals that suffer because suffering keeps the animal on its toes. If the body is the genes’ bodyguard, it pays to make the bodyguard exceptionally careful. Since pain signals danger, and hunger and thirst signal deprivation, and fear motivates, the genes will build bodyguards that are rich in these traits. To build a bodyguard that suffered less would be to risk losing out to genes that build one that suffered more. This is why we find suffering so widely in the animal kingdom—because it is so useful from the genes’ point of view. It probably evolved separately many times, like the eye or the tail. Pain also has many varieties, also like the eye and tail. There doesn’t seem to be any complex animal that lives without suffering, so the trait is clearly not dispensable. Surviving and suffering therefore go hand in hand.

            Most adaptations have a downside: a thick warm coat is a heavy coat, brains use up a lot of energy, and fur must be groomed. In fact, all adaptations have some downside, because all need maintenance, which calls upon resources. But pain and suffering have very little downside from the point of view of the genes. They don’t slow the animal down or make it lethargic or confused; on the contrary, they keep it alert and primed. The avoidance of pain is a powerful stimulus; hunger is a terrible state to be in. Animal behavior is organized around these aversive psychological states—and the genes know it. They are cruel to be kind—to themselves: suffering helps protect the survival machine from injury and death, so the animal lives longer with it than without it, with its cargo of genes. The reason the genes favor suffering is not from altruistic concern for the life of the animal, but merely because a longer life helps them replicate. The genes aim to reproduce themselves, and this requires a fortress that can withstand adversity; suffering is a means they have devised for keeping their fortress alive and functioning until reproduction can occur. Since there is so little downside to pain, from their perspective, they can afford to be lavish in its production. Thus the animal suffers acutely so that they may survive. They know nothing of pain themselves (or anything else), but natural selection has seen to it that pain is part of animal life. Nature has selected animals according to the adaptive power of their suffering. Genes for suffering therefore do well in the gene pool.

            Suffering has no meaning beyond this ruthless gene cruelty. It exists only because natural selection hit upon it as an adaptive trait. A mutation that produced a talent for pain, probably slight pain initially, turned out to have selective advantage, and then the adaptation developed over the generations, until spectacular amounts of pain became quite routine. As giraffes evolved long necks, and cheetahs evolved fast legs, so animals evolved high-intensity pain. As an adaptation, pain is very impressive, a clever and efficient way for genes to keep themselves in the gene pool; it is just that pain is very bad for the animal. Pain is an intrinsically bad thing for the sufferer—but it is very beneficial to the genes. But they don’t care how bad it is for the sufferer—they don’t give it a second thought. Pain is just one adaptation among many, so far as they are concerned. Maybe if there was another way to obtain the beneficial effects of suffering—another way to keep the survival machines on their toes—the genes would have favored that: but as things are suffering is the optimal solution to a survival problem. The genes are unlikely to spare the animals that contain them by devising another method more compassionate but less efficient. Suffering just works too well, biologically. It wasn’t used for the first couple of billion years of life on earth, when only bacteria populated the planet; but once complex organisms evolved pain soon followed. It probably came about as a result of an arms race, as one animal competed with another. Today plants survive and reproduce without suffering: it is not an element in their suite of adaptations. They are the lucky ones, the ones spared by the ruthlessly selfish genes. Mammals probably suffer the most, and maybe humans most of all, at least potentially. We suffer acutely because the genes decided they needed an especially finely tuned and sensitive survival machine to get themselves into future generations. The possibility of excruciating torture was the price they left us to pay. Theydon’t suffer as their human vehicle endures agonies; yet the reason the agonies exist is to benefit the genes. The genes are the architects of a system of suffering from which they are exempt.

            Animals are probably tuned better for suffering than for pleasure and happiness. It is true that the contented sensation of a full belly is a good motivator for an animal to eat, but then the animal has already eaten. Far more exigent is the demand that an empty belly prick the animal into action. The pleasure of grooming might motivate animals to groom, thus avoiding parasites and the like. Far more exigent is the need to avoid injuries from bites and battering. The system must be geared to avoidance, more so than to approach. Thus animals are better at suffering than at enjoyment—their suffering is sharper and more pointed. Some animals may be capable of suffering but not enjoyment, because their pattern of life makes that combination optimal. But no animal feels enjoyment in the absence of a capacity to suffer, not here on earth. Suffering is essential to life at a complex level, but enjoyment is optional.

            This is why I can’t forgive the genes: with callous indifference they have exploited the ability of animals to suffer, just so that they can march mindlessly on. They have no purpose, no feelings, just a brute power to replicate their molecular kind; and they do so by constructing bodies that are exquisite instruments of pain and suffering. If they were gods, they would be moral monsters. As it is, their cruelty is completely mindless: they have created a world that is terrible to behold, yet they know nothing of it. It just so happens that animal suffering follows from their prime directive—to reproduce themselves. Animal suffering is how the genes lever themselves into the future. It is one tactic, among others, for successful replication. Its moral status is of no concern to them. The genes are supremely cruel, but quite unknowingly so—like blind little devils.


Colin McGinn

  [1] I indulge in rampant personification in this paper, knowing that some may bristle. I assure readers that it is possible to eliminate such talk without change of truth-value. Actually it is a helpfully vivid way to convey the sober truth.

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