Animal Pain and the Cruelty of God

John Clayton

FOR SINCE THE CREATION OF the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" ( Rom 1:20). Let's take a look at one aspect of nature in which is revealed the wise nature of God.

As mankind has assumed a dominant position over virtually all forms of life on planet earth, he has become increasingly better informed about how these forms of life survive. All of us have seen the films and videos made of everything from lions to bacteria on programs on the Discovery Channel, National Geographic specials and Disney presentations that start out with scenes of amazing peace and tranquility and then show incredible violence and horror as a lion rips a wart hog to pieces or a polar bear rips into a seal. Nature is frequently described by the narrator of such shows as mindless, cruel, violent, and governed by chance and a mindless mechanical drive for survival of the fittest.

The question that all of this raises is how God could be considered to be a kind, benevolent, loving God and still create a world seemingly full of such brutality. This question even intrudes into the area of human suffering because we too are sometimes affected by the violence of the natural world. There are a number of points that can be made to help in this area of concern, some of which are scientific in nature.

Much of the question of cruelty involves the tendency of humans to humanize animals. From early childhood, we are shown animals acting like humans. In cartoons and comic strips, animals talk, kiss, dance, play golf, and sing as humans do. Recent films like Lion King have carried the tradition of Disney on with the same effect.

The inability to distinguish between fantasy and the real world has become a problem in many ways in our culture, but it is especially serious when it results in human suffering and need. Animals are not humans and the portrayals that give them the total range of human abilities and feelings is at least misguided.

Animals do not feel pain as we do. Pain is a psychological experience separate from behavioral reactions to injurious stimuli. Pain involves both perception and an emotional response. When you hit your thumb with a hammer, there is an immediate perception that you have been injured. the emotional aspect that follows involves suffering, but is not necessarily a part of the perception. You can have a great deal of pain that results from the death of someone you love and not have any perceptual response at all.

The term nociception refers to the detection of an injury by the nervous system (which may or may not lead to pain). A starfish has a primitive nervous system that interconnects sensory receptors that detect injurious stimuli with muscle cells that cause movements enabling the starfish to move away from the nociceptive stimuli. Starfish have no brain so there is no pain.

The human nervous system has a large cerebral hemisphere and a brain stem connected to a spinal cord. Nociceptive stimuli can cause an immediate protective reaction called a reflex, but pain has not been felt by the person. The nociceptive activity is transmitted from the brain stem to various parts of the cerebral hemisphere where it activities conscious awareness of the nociceptive stimulus and generates the emotional unpleasantness of pain.

In a fish, you have a simpler version of the spinal cord and brain stem, but the neural functions are similar to that of humans. The cerebral hemisphere of the fish lacks the regions necessary for conscious awareness and for generation of pain experience. Awareness of pain is associated with the brain stem and spinally generated behavioral reactions.

All mammals have enlarged cerebral hemispheres that are mainly an outer layer of neocortex. In humans, this neocortex is massively developed and this is the key to our ability to experience pain. If the cerebral hemispheres of a human are destroyed, a comatose vegetative state results. If the cerebral hemispheres of a fish are destroyed, the fish's behavior is normal in most ways. The unpleasant part of pain in humans is generated by specific regions of the frontal lobes of the cerebral hemispheres. Other mammals have radically different sized frontal lobes. The brains of sheep and deer, for example, have a tiny fraction of the frontal lobe mass that humans have. Their perception of pain cannot possibly be anything like ours. (Note: The above data is from an article by Dr James D. Rose, Department of Zoology and Physiology at the University of Wyoming, entitled "Do Fish Feel Pain?," In Fisherman, Dec. 1999.)

The alternative to predation is worse. When a zebra is killed by a pride of ions ( a type of predation), it may appear to be a horrible end to a beautiful life for the zebra. The reality of the situation is that predation is normally a merciful end to a troubled animal. In a balanced natural ecosystem, healthy animals are rarely eaten. It is the old, crippled, infirmed, diseased and wounded animals that are usually the victims of predators.

What would happen if there were no predation? Suppose every animal born lived to a ripe old age with no threats of ever being eaten or removed from the population. It is very obvious that in short order there would be so many animals that all food supplies would be exhausted. Low food supplies make animals vulnerable to all kinds of disease and problems.

It is easy to look at a particular situation and pronounce it to be cruel or violent. When you look at the whole picture of the natural world, you see violence and destruction to be the exception, not the rule. Overall, the natural world functions in a very consistent and beautiful way with various forms of plants and animals assisting and providing for one another in complex ways. We would suggest this system is a much stronger argument for God's wisdom and design than for His cruelty.

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