The Fellowship of Life
Sir, - Hugh Montefiore (Opinion, 23 September) makes a good point
when he writes of the difficulty of reconciling evolutionary history
with animal rights. Certainly evolution is wasteful and inevitably
involves suffering, pain, and death. Surely if God really cares for
animals he wouldn't allow them to suffer so much, but as they do suffer
God must regard them as "expendable". Or so the Bishop argues.
The problem with this arguement is that it applies just as much to
human beings as to animals; natural selection was effective during
millions of years of human evolution after all. If the cat playing with
the mouse is evidence of the worthlessness of mice, then what can we
deduce about the rights of a human victim before his torturer?
In truth we cannot make deductions about the moral worth of human
beings or animals from the bare facts of evolution or history alone. A
case for animal rights can be made on the following grounds: 1, animals
suffer pain and fear; 2, they possess independent lives and experiences;
3, they exist for the glory of God, not for human utility. Of course we
do not know what part animals may play in God's purposes, but John
Habgood's recent speculations that some animals might enjoy an existence
beyond death should engender caution.
Clearly there are difficulties involved in talking about animal
rights, but if we deny animals a moral standing, then what is to stop
them being abused and cruelly treated? If they have no rights, then why
should we be concerned for their welfare at all? Christianity involves
protecting the weak and valuing the valueless. Should not Christian love
and compassion embrace animals, those whom St. Francis described as our
brothers and sisters?
...and their future in the next
Sir, - The famous scholar, Alcuin, surely sums up the whole subject
covering animals, and anything else, in the life hereafter, in his
beautiful words: "This is the blessedness of the life hereafter, that
that never is absent which always is beloved."
Science and the doctrine of creation
Sir, - In his column of 23 September, Hugh Montefiore attempted to
grapple with the thorny issues raised by acceptance of natural selection
and evolution. This is good to see, but he is in error in two respects:
human beings are still subject to natural selection (despite attempts by
medical science and the Welfare State to eradicate it), and natural
selection works in far more subtle ways than by simply killing off the
In the first respect he fell into a trap common in a society still
trying to come to terms with evolution. Because the recorded history of
the human race, let alone an individual's lifetime's experience, is
miniscule compared with our evolutionary history, it is easy to think
the human species static. Nevertheless, one can see evolution of
cultures in action, and we know people die of hereditory diseases.
The subtlety of natural selection is such that any letter such as
this can only hope to illuminate certain aspects of it. The most
important in this context is that natural selection does not operate
simply by killing imperfect individuals. Because we are dealing with
change over thousands of years, it is more a question of the most fit
successfully rearing more offspring to reproductive age. Part of this is
via, perhaps, a longer life span. But ability to find food also has an
One must also not forget that the environment itself is constantly
changing. The tendency to assume that evolution is carrying us steadily
to a more perfect world shows that Plato's thought and influence
permeate our society even today. However, we or elephants or any other
modern species are no more perfect than the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs
were a product of their times (and incidentally lasted much longer than
we have so far), and we and our contemporary species are a product of
ours. If you still wish to think in terms of perfection and superiority,
think who would win a competition between a cow and Tyrannosaurus rex.
Where is God in all this? My belief as a biologist is that the
picture of God acting in a fluctuating world is far more exiting than a
tram-track creation. It also fits the model of an infinite God better:
each new generation is perfection, reflecting the infinite perfection of
God. The changing face of the globe has a by-product, wonderful new
islands, full of opportunities for new speculation - but the eruption
also brings about the death of all manner of living organisms, from
protozoans to humans.
Through the incarnation God entered the world to experience the pain
and suffering too.
J. E. Still
Hugh Montefiore: 'Pigs and evolution'
Stephen Jay Gould, in his latest series of reflections, Eight Little Piggies (now published in a Penguin edition), traces an interesting link between the theory underlying Adam Smith's views on the free market, and Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection. In The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith advanced the view (revived this century by Thatcherite economists) that the individual, pursuing his own gain, unconsciously advances the wealth of nations. "He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it...He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which has no part of his existence." According to Adam Smith's theory, in order to achieve the goal of a maximally ordered economy in the laissez-faire system, you do not legislate from above by passing explicit laws. You simply allow individuals to struggle in an unfettered way for personal profit. In this struggle, the inefficient are weeded out, and the best balance one another to form an equilibrium to everyone's benefit. In other words, maximal efficiency involves many victims falling by the wayside. But our moral conscience revolts at the suffering this causes, and even the most ardent Thatcherite usually agrees that some provision should be made by the state, since private charity is manifestly insufficient to cope with the many victims of such a process.
Apparently Darwin had been reading Adam Smith before he formulated his own theory of natural evolution, which contains the same ruthless elements as Adam Smith's. In the struggle for survival, the weakest individuals will fall by the wayside, and the strongest will survive to reproduce themselves. In the struggle for survival, species that are not adapted to their environment will tend to become extinct, while those that fit into a niche will flourish. As Gould puts it, "There is no regulation from on high, no divine watchmaker superintends the works of his creation. Individuals are struggling for success, the natural analogue of profit. No other mechanism is at work, nothing higher or more exalted. Yet the result is adaption and balance - and the cost is hecatomb after hecatomb after hecatomb." He continues: "I call Darwin's system more relentless than Adam Smith's because human beings, as moral agents, cannot bear these hecatombs. We therefore never let laissez-faire operate without some constraint, some safety-net for losers. But nature is not a moral agent, and nature has endless time."
Most Christians, in accepting evolution, do not think through its implications. God has created a universe in which evolution of life by natural selection is inevitable. Is this not even more ruthless than the free market? I have agonised over this problem, and there is only one way through it that I can see, and it will not commend itself to those fighting for animal rights. God must regard animals as expendable in the upward march of evolution until intelligent and self-conscious life emerges. This does not justify us in causing animals more pain or stress than is necessary when we kill them or use them for some purpose (although God does not seem to object when a cat plays with a mouse before killing it). But it does mean that we should give animals far less worth than human beings, because it seems that God does this. If anyone can find any more satisfactory solution, I shall be delighted to hear it.
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