"Why Evolution Does Not Make the Problem of Evil Worse"

Before you can add that ‘good’, you need to know what it is. But when you were asked to specify it, you had no answer.

So, again, what exactly is the ‘good’ of the existence of an egg that gets eaten before it can hatch?

I’m still not sure what the “evil” is in a turtle egg being eaten before it hatches. The embryo isn’t conscious, so it’s not like a sentient being is dying. How is that more “evil” than, say, an abortion or the death of a slime mold?

Edit: It just occurred to me that this might apply to most lethal negative mutations, which are for the most part lethal before birth, correct? I might be very wrong about this.


Roy, in the post you originally responded to I was talking of young animals generally, rather than eggs. But, I think existence of new creatures is good in itself, and turtle eggs are quite beautiful adaptations that are good in the way they nurture new turtles. I also think there is something good in other animals getting food, even though this involves the harm of turtle embryos being deprived of a potential future.

Ultimately though, to get the problem of scale going you cannot just focus on eggs or young animals. You would have to argue that turtles as a species overall add more disvalue than value the world, so that it’s better for turtles to only exist for a shorter amount of time. I don’t think that is plausible at all, and I hope most others also see turtle conservation efforts as valuable.


The discussion is winding down, and I have also spent pretty much all the time I had budgeted for this thread. Thanks to everyone for participating! Feel free to continue without me.

As a final note, I was asked previously about colleagues’ reactions to the argument. Today, I got an e-mail notification of the first reference of my article, by Swedish philosopher Mats Wahlberg. Wahlberg read my article in preprint form, which made it possible for him to reference it so quickly.

Wahlberg’s article is titled “Natural Selection, Scarcity and Evil”, and can be accessed here. Wahlberg agrees with my argument that evolution does not make the problem of evil worse, and elaborates on the ways that evolution might actually help with the problem of evil. According to Wahlberg, evolution makes it easier to see why God would create a world with scarcity and predators, providing an addition to traditional justifications.

Wahlberg’s reference to the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas may be surprising to many who are accustomed to YEC arguments - because Aquinas does not explain predation at all as a consequence of the Fall.


Nor am I, though I’d quibble about consciousness, since (i) there’s not that much difference physically between a turtle the day before it hatches and the day after, and (ii) studies on birds have shown that some hatchlings learn birdcalls before hatching[1].

But Rope keeps claiming there is ‘good’ in their existence. I’m asking what that good is, to highlight the emptiness of the claim.


Hi @John_Harshman @sfmatheson @Rumraket @Roy @Rope @misterme987 and @Dan_Eastwood,

Quick question. I take it you’re all familiar with the term “horrendous evils”, and in particular, “horrendous suffering”. I wonder if anyone would care to estimate the percentage of sentient animals which experience this form of suffering? The reason why I ask is that it seems to me that even if most animals’ lives contain more suffering than pleasure, that’s not a particularly pressing problem for theism if the suffering is not horrendous. But if a significant percentage of sentient animals experience horrendous suffering, then I think any fair-minded person would call that a problem for theism (here defined as belief in an all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful Creator of the cosmos) - not necessarily a defeater, but a severe problem nonetheless.

I haven’t defined the term “significant,” but let’s just say it means “more than vanishingly small.” I’d be inclined to say that 1% is certainly a significant percentage, but I personally wouldn’t say that 1 in a million is, although if I were one of the unlucky individuals in that tiny group, I might well feel differently! Of course, some readers might feel that the existence of even one sentient animal experiencing horrendous suffering is enough to call into question belief in an omnibenevolent Creator. Cheers.

I would submit that the problem is not whether horrendous suffering is experienced by a significant proportion of animals, but whether unjustified suffering is experienced by any animals. For the God of classical theism to exist, all evil must be justified by a greater good that could not have existed without that evil, whether you believe the greater good is free will or some kind of soul-making experience.

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This might seem to be changing the question, but many people (including me) think of “suffering” as an experience that goes beyond sentience and that implies/requires cognitive capacity that is itself very rare. So for example, I consider insects to be sentient but I don’t assume they can suffer. So for me, the experience of “horrendous suffering” is already limited to a small subset of animal life. My answer to the question you posted, therefore, is: a very tiny percentage.

Maybe that’s not what you meant to ask, and instead wonder how people might estimate the percentage of animals who suffer horrendously, among the set of animals who even can suffer. It’s probably greater than 1%. What this means for “theology” or even moral reasoning, I don’t know, given the numerous important unanswered questions such as… for how long? in how long a life? etc etc


I don’t think it’s an empty claim. For some maybe, but not for everyone. First consider all the time and energy spent considering the question, is seems clear there are plenty of people who think there is something there. Second, questions of good and evil are related to ethics, which is definitely not an empty question.

I might go out on a limb and say the problem of evil is better considered from the standpoint of ethics, but I don’t have time to defend such an opinion today. :wink:

I think a big part of this question about the problem of evil is if the suffering, whatever it is, is really necessary to achieve some end. Supposing turtles even with their many premature deaths add some net value to the world, is the suffering that nevertheless follows from the current circumstance, which owes to all sorts of ecological and material circumstances, including the mechanisms of evolution, necessary? Could we not imagine a world that functioned in a different way? I can work my imagination and try to come up with ways in which we could have turtles but without all the young being picked off by predators in their struggle into the open sea, and maybe it would work or maybe it wouldn’t. But if it wouldn’t, that might be a problem with my imagination. A problem God doesn’t plausibly have.

I think to get out of this you basically have to argue God didn’t have a choice here. That this is how it has to work in order to have turtles and the value they add to the world. Now I haven’t seen such an argument, but it would be highly dubious. If for no other reason than another factor of the equation is God’s omnipotence.

Even if turtles add a net good to the world despite the suffering deep time, evolution, and other material circumstances have foisted upon them, the fact is that with God in the equation I just don’t see how that suffering is necessary.

Now you might say that this is merely the problem of evil, and it isn’t clear that evolution makes it worse. But that raises another question I think that keeps coming up when I ponder this question and I have argued it with you and others here. What do we mean by evolution? On the one hand John Harshman above seems to think evolution should be considered only as differential reproductive succes. But you seem to think it has more to do with deep time and the cruelty that might result from concrete instances of natural selection, such as animal deaths due to predation etc.

The problem I have here is that when I consider the problem I can’t help but consider the material circumstances under which evolution actually occurs, and the mechanisms and processes that make it possible, as being part of the problem of evil from evolution.

The sun isn’t evolution, but the sun sure as hell is an enormously important factor that has shaped the evolution of life on Earth, and what has actually happened in terms of differential survival of species, and how instances of selection, death, and suffering have occurred. But if I bring up the sun, you’re going to dismiss it as just some material circumstance and not evolution. And I just find that totally ridiculous. Then we’re back to @John_Harshman’s purely abstract concept of “differential reproductive success” and the question becomes rather meaningless, doesn’t it?
Does differential reproductive success make the problem of evil worse? Well not in and of itself. Case closed?

No, hold on. Not so fast. But it’s how that actually happens in practice that makes the question interesting. It’s that there are material circumstances that CAUSE the differential reproductive success to manifest in physical reality. It’s what the sun does, how volcanoes and weather, nuclear decay, and quintillions of other facts combine that give us the physical manifestation of evolution. This idea of sort of separating out each component and insisting any one of them in isolation (like, mutations) “isn’t evolution” is … forkin nuts. Sorry. In my mind when you pull this trick you lose the argument. It looks and tastes like a dishonest trick. I don’t know how else to put it. Mutations isn’t evolution? Uhh, yes it is. If you disagree we can’t have an argument, we are just at an impasse here.

And this is exactly the problem. What is evolution then, but how it manifests physically? What’s next, we could just call everything “atoms that move in space” and then dismiss every argument in this same way? Turtles die and suffer. But they’re not evolution. Some turtles have more offspring than others, some are born with diseases so they die to UV radiation or whatever. Ahh but the radiation isn’t evolution, nor is the disease, nor the turtle. Etc.

Is democracy better than dictatorships? Well under this dictatorship all these people were jailed for protesting. Ahh but jailing someone isn’t dictatorship. Or worse, they’re just atoms in motion. You see the problem?

IIRC the average adult female fish lays about 100,000 eggs over the course of their life, of whuch only 2 reach adulthood themselves. The rest get eaten, starve or succumb to disease. It’s about the same for octopuses. So your 1% or 1-in-a-million could actually be 99+%, depending on what you count as sentient.

Even in humans, the mortality rate before adulthood is considerably higher than 1%. So your numbers need updating.

P.S. approximately 100% of antelopes get either eaten, burnt or starved. Not one dies of old age. The same is true of almost all wild species.

I don’t think that this line of argument holds. The more philosophers that are thinking about the question, the more philosophers that are likely to be thinking about what other philosophers think about the question, rather than direct experience or evaluation of the phenomenon the question is about.

The more we are dealing with “people talking about other people talking about other people talking about … animal suffering”, rather than “animal suffering” itself.

This would seem to be the perfect situation to allow the discussion to get sufficiently abstracted and divorced, that it can lead to making ‘empty claims’.

I think it is perfectly reasonable at such a stage to ask what is the actual good you are talking about, beneath all these obscuring layers of rhetoric?

Rope’s article would appear to be a particularly bad example of this tendency, as he bases his case, almost-purely, on the work of other philosophers and theologians.

Augustine of Hippo, for example, may be a towering figure in theology, but I find it hard to believe that a privileged urbanite Roman citizen, who spent his youth studying rhetoric, and in debauchery, and his adulthood teaching rhetoric and then preaching, would have sufficient depth of experience and knowledge of animal suffering, to have anything to contribute beyond hearsay and dogma.

One can very easily, if one is not careful, make an empty claim in response to a valid question.

The issue is not that animal suffering is not a valid question, but whether the discussion of it has become too divorced from actual animal suffering to provide any more than an “empty” answer to that question?

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Why don’t you see this as a “pressing problem”, particularly given the magnifying factor of deep time, whereby even a small excess of suffering over pleasure, would be magnified by the billions of animals that would have suffered this imbalance at any given time, over biliions of years?

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A good example of how an excess of abstraction can lead to claims that become detached from reality can be found in Wahlberg’s article above.

Wahlberg, extensively cites Martin’s Nowak’s mathematical and game-theoretical work on natural cooperation, presenting this in an unambiguously positive light.

But it has occurred to me that ‘natural cooperation’ can have its darker aspects – brood Parasitism and particularly the Mafia Hypothesis), whereby brood parasites enforce cooperation with retaliation, comes to mind:

The mafia theory proposed by Zahavi was tested and confirmed by Manuel Soler in 1995. He found that cuckoo birds were using the nests of magpies to lay their eggs. If the cuckoo eggs were removed from the host nest, the cuckoos came back and pecked at the eggs of the magpie to damage them. In certain instances, they even attacked the magpie’s young ones! Soler noted that the cuckoos performed regular check-up visits to their host nests as a part of their mafia behavior. [Source]

One has to wonder if Wahlberg had this type of behavior in mind when he said:

However, the Dominican theologian and biologist Nicanor Austriaco has defended this claim in a particularly interesting way by reference to the traditional idea that creation’s purpose is to manifest God’s goodness and perfections “outside” of God (Austriaco 2019).

Nature and evolution give every appearance of of being profoundly amorally-pragmatic – equally accepting of violence and cruelty as of voluntary cooperation and nurturing.

This would seem to lead any reading of “God’s goodness and perfections” into the natural order to be an exercise in cherry-picking. This exercise would appear to be easier to perform, the more abstract a level it is that you are viewing things at, and the further divorce you have from the counterexamples you are ignoring.

I’m not so sure that’s true. To use an admittedly quite dated source, the late 19th-century naturalist Peter Kropotkin documented in his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution just how widely prevalent within-species, and even cross-species, cooperation is in the natural world. His research appears to be vindicated by more recent computational work showing that cooperation is the most sustainable evolutionary strategy (Caparrós et al. 2010).

I think it’s a mistake to focus on competition in evolution. If by “equally accepting,” you just mean that nature doesn’t have an innate sense of morality, that’s trivially true. But it’s not true that evolution leads equally to competitive and cooperative outcomes.

You are welcome to present contrary evidence. However, it is by no means clear that Kropotkin is such evidence.

Yes, Kropotkin gives a number of examples of natural cooperation – but my above statement does not deny its existence, and in fact explicitly accepts it. However it is altogether unclear that Kropotkin’s examples disprove a likewise-widespread existence of “violence and cruelty”, or even that he was claiming to do so. Also, given that Kropotkin’s experience is largely confined to Siberia and “North Asia” it is unclear “just how widely prevalent” he can demonstrate this to be.

Further, Kropotkin’s examples would appear to be mostly (although not exclusively) drawn from the subset of animals that are social (and thus have a greater propsensity to cooperate). This would appear to bias the impression given, as there are also a large number of animals that are asocial.

And by stating “equally accepting”, and explicitly mentioning “voluntary cooperation and nurturing”, I was explicitly avoiding that “mistake”.

I would however suggest that, in focusing on cooperation in evolution, Wahlberg (and perhaps also Kropotkin) may have been making a similar, if opposite, mistake. Both would appear to have a strong ideological reason for doing so.

No, my point was that nature will accept whichever method give a selective advantage, and will accept a “violent and cruel” one over a “cooperative and nurturing” one whenever this yields an advantage (and vice versa, of course).

(This point is why I used the word “pragmatic” in my original statement – ‘what works’ over ‘what is good/kind/moral’.)

That is likewise “trivially true” – and which strategy is chosen will be entirely situational, and subject to change when the circumstances change.

“Equally accepting of” =/= “existing in equal proportions”

You can be “equally accepting of” pork and chicken, but, it will not mean that you will necessarily be eating pork and chicken in equal proportions (e.g. if you are offered only pork dinners).

So maybe it is empty, or at least subjective , that doesn’t mean people won’t find some way to value it.

Yes, given the wide range of things that people find idiosyncratic value in, this would appear to be almost-trivially true.

I know of wide ranges of activities that “plenty of people” have spent large amounts of “time and energy” that would seem bizarre and unfathomable to the majority of society.

None of this however invalidates @Roy’s question, which attempts to drill down for a less-purely-rhetorical, closer-to-objective, basis for the “good” being claimed.

But that’s just your subjective opinion and valuation - it’s not something that is demonstrable, or that everyone will agree with. It’s not even something that you might always agree with either.

Do you think that the existence of new wasps is good in itself, and that wasp larvae are quite beautiful adaptations that are good in the way they nurture new wasps by eating the innards of living caterpillars? Is there something good in these larvae getting food, even though it involves the harm of another animal being eaten alive from the inside (and being deprived of a potential future)?

How can you objectively evaluate the good of the turtle eggs and hatchlings’ existences and the good of the crabs and raccoons getting food, against the harm of the turtle’s destruction? How can you objectively evaluate the good of the caterpillars’ existences and the good of the wasp larvae getting food, against the harm of the caterpillar’s injuries and death?

You don’t seem able to communicate what the ‘good’ of the existence of a turtle egg that gets eaten actually is, other than you think there is some.