Charles Darwin on the Problem of Suffering

In a letter to Asa Gray (22 May, 1860):

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.– I am bewildered.– I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.– Let each man hope & believe what he can.

Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical. The lightning kills a man, whether a good one or bad one, owing to the excessively complex action of natural laws,—a child (who may turn out an idiot) is born by action of even more complex laws,—and I can see no reason, why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws; & that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event & consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter.

“The more I think the more bewildered I become.” Darwin too was a Hamlet, and a kin of Jesus (a sensitive man of suffering, acquainted with grief).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Charles Darwin on the Problem of Suffering

  1. ice gal says:

    Yikes I am no match for Darwin, or another major minds. A revision of a poem that I wrote a while ago is what I have to offer.
    My whole life I have lived with WAR.
    Born in the 50’s Korea was the rage.
    Coming of age, Viet Nam had the page.
    On and on it goes today
    Who makes the money.
    What is behind the stage?
    Looks like it’s going to be here to stay.
    Republicans and Democrats
    Never mind solutions, they stand in profits way.
    Sustainability.
    With out that just where are we going to stay?

  2. santitafarella says:

    Ice Gal:

    I think it’s interesting that you asked, “What is behind the stage?” (as opposed to “Who is behind the stage?”).

    I think it is a fair generalization to say that liberals tend to think structurally (“what”) and conservatives in terms of conspiracies (“who”).

    —Santi

  3. rushhumble says:

    I fully understand the conflicted nature of the problem, and the suffering caused. See my post http://2bites.com/2009/12/03/the-harm-that-they-do/, and the one that follows for my own views on putting it all in perspective.
    Sincerely, Rushhumble

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