Why does love exist? Why is there suffering?
Why is anything the way it is in the natural world? Because of evolution. That, at any rate, is the answer provided by those who believe in naturalistic evolution. Naturalistic evolution (NE) is the theory that every feature of life, including physical structures, physical functions, and also behaviors, has come about by the process of natural selection (NS) acting upon random variation (RV). Along with NS and RV there may be some other forces operating such as genetic drift or punctuated equilibrium, but actually “force” is a misnomer for such things; they are statistical effects, the result of chance survivals and deaths, so I’ll use the shorthand CSD for the lot of them. NS and RV are the big players in the game.
And there is only one game. To the question, why is anything the way it is in nature, there is exactly one answer: evolution. On the proper and appropriate level of analysis, there is no other answer; evolution has been the cause of everything. What caused feature x? Evolution. What caused behavior y? Evolution. It’s comprehensive. It explains all.
I don’t mean to over-simplify the study of how evolution does all that. There have been thousands of papers published on that question. They do seem to come down, however, to just three things: RV, NS, and CSD. Note that two of those are essentially matters of chance, however, so we could simplify our answer to why is anything the way it is in nature? to, (1) it just happened to be that way, and (2) natural selection. Those two mechanisms, the first of which I’ll shorten to Chance, explain everything.
This, I take it, is in accord with standard naturalistic evolutionary thinking. Proponents of NE ought not to find much in it to disagree with. It has the virtue of simplicity. For all the grand and complicated questions of life, there is one all-sufficient and comprehensive answer: Chance and NS.
And that’s all. It’s all the explanation NE requires, and it’s all that it allows for.
So we have answered a complicated question with a simple answer (conceptually simple, that is; I’m still not trying to downplay the details). Now let’s ask another seemingly complicated question. We’ll find out that it, too, has a simple answer. That question is, how does evolution make anything happen in nature?
It’s an important question, for if NE is responsible for everything that exists in the biological world, then how does it do that job? We already know that it’s by Chance and NS. We can set aside Chance as being little more than a statistical term for whatever happens with no systematic cause. What’s really of interest is, how does NS make anything happen in nature?
As it turns out—and again, I’m quite sure I’m fully in line with standard NE theory with this—NS can do one thing. It has exactly one competency. This, too, is quite satisfyingly simple. NS can take the raw materials handed to it by Chance (which in this case includes RV along with environmental factors), and it can cause that which is more reproductively successful to survive and to propagate.
That’s all NS knows; it is all that it can do. It can cause reproductively successful populations to endure, and less successful ones to fall away. NS has exactly one skill, in other words: seeing to it that reproductive success gets conserved to future generations.
Now, that gives us an interesting term to substitute back into the answer to the question we started with. Why is anything the way it is in the natural world? Our answer: Because of chance, and because it has served the purpose of some population(s)’ reproductive success.
This, too, is perfectly in line with standard NE, as I understand it.
At this point, though, I have to wonder how carefully NE’s proponents have thought through the implications of this simple answer. It is comprehensive. It is, one might say, totalitarian. Yes, that’s an emotionally freighted term, and yet I introduce it into the discussion to provoke the reader to ask, is there room for any other answer whatsoever, if NE is true? I don’t think there is. Everything that exists in the world of biological nature exists because of chance, and on account of successful reproduction. Period. Nothing else added.
Causation in biology is closed. There is chance, there is NS, the conservation of reproductive success, and there is nothing else.
If that is true, and I think it is, then we now have the capacity to answer a whole lot of questions that seem otherwise very difficult. We have to be careful with how we do this, of course. The chief stumbling block to this approach is that every question can be answered on multiple differing levels of analysis. For example, on naturalism the answer to every “why” question in the world of observable physical objects, including living things, could be found on the level of elementary particles’ interactions according to natural law and quantum indeterminacy, with room for adjustment of that answer based on any future scientific discovery. That’s one level of analysis. On the opposite extreme is the level of proximate explanation. Why did I treat my daughter with care and compassion this afternoon while telling her no to a certain request? Because I love her.
But where a higher-order explanation such as “because I love her” comes in to play, it comes from somewhere. Now, love is a feature of human function and behavior; and all human functions and behaviors come by way of Chance and NS. Therefore to the extent that anything other than Chance is at play, the love I have for my daughter is strictly a result of NS (the conservation of reproductive success) operating through natural history. Again, everything in human physiology and behavior comes from either Chance or NS. But that means that everything in human physiology and behavior has been produced either for nothing (Chance) or because it has stood in service of successful reproduction within and among populations—and for no other reason whatsoever.
The causal closure of NE has some very clarifying, simplifying implications for any number of hard questions. For example:
The reason there is love is either for nothing (Chance), or else because it has stood in service of successful human reproduction–and nothing else whatsoever. Causation is closed with respect to those two principles, and there is no room for any other to operate.
The reason behind human moral experience is either for nothing (Chance), or else because it has stood in service of successful human reproduction–and nothing else whatsoever. This is the conclusion I find reading Richard Joyce’s Evolutionary Morality, for example, one of the better treatments of the subject from an evolutionary perspective.
That much I have seen discussed often enough, and you probably have, too. But how about this one: The reason we experience suffering (including the suffering we inflict on one another) is either for nothing (Chance), or else because it has stood in service of successful human reproduction–and nothing else whatsoever.
That hasn’t been batted around near as much as the one concerning love. Maybe it’s because we thought suffering was inevitable in a competitive biological world, but I don’t see why it should have been. Plants don’t suffer, as far as we know. What that means is that the experience of suffering has served exactly the same function in natural history as love and moral experience have served.
And that brings me at last to the question I have been leading toward with all this. If love and suffering have served the same function in natural history, does that mean that they are morally equal to one another? If there is something that has made love morally different from suffering, where did it come from? Based on the causal closure of NE, it could only have come from the very same source: Chance or its contribution to reproductive success. In other words, if there’s some factor f that makes love morally different from suffering (including the suffering that we inflict upon each other) that factor f became f just because it helped us to make babies that made babies. And no other reason whatever.
I leave that with you as a question. I’ll restate it for clarity. (Bear in mind that this has to do with a certain defined level of explanation, but that this level of explanation seems to be appropriate, since NE implies that this level of explanation is the level of real interest with respect to the origin of biological structures, features, and behavior.)
1. Love exists as a human experience either for no reason (Chance) or because it has served the function of successful reproduction, and for no other reason whatever.
2. Suffering (including the suffering we inflict upon one another) exists as a human experience either for no reason (Chance) or because it has served the function of successful reproduction, and for no other reason whatever.
3. On the face of it, it would appear that since they serve the same function, there might be no moral or ethical difference between the two. If however some factor f exists to cause some moral differentiation between the two, then f exists either for no reason (Chance) or because it has served the same function of successful reproduction.
4. But then we really ought to inquire into what it is about f that raises it morally above the inflicting of suffering. Is there some factor g that differentiates f from the inflicting of suffering? Then where did g come from? Chance and baby-making are the only two possible answers. And then we have to ask the same question about g, then h … The question repeats itself forever.
5. Is this a fair conclusion to draw from NE, and if not, why not?