The Problem of Evil and Evolutionary Biology

November 30, 2011    By: Matt W. @ 10:30 pm   Category: Evolutionary psychology

I have discussed the problem of evil in the past[1], and what I feel is the Church’s unique position on how the atonement itself acts as a theodicy, God responding with everything he can to our suffering. I still stand by the general premise of that post, that the universe is governed by eternal laws independent of God [2] and that man has free agency and thus God is not accountable for him. [3] I also still hold that through the Atonement of Christ, God is doing all he can to alleviate our suffering.

I’d like to speculate a little bit more about why God isn’t doing more to alleviate suffering. Here is where some theories associated with evolution come in. [4]

The Human brain is actually three brains.[5] Our central brain, the basal ganglia or reptile brain is associated traditionally with base instinct and response. Wrapped around this is the hippocamal complex, or limbic system, which is commonly associated with procreation and survival characteristics. Sometimes this is compared with a dog’s brain. Finally, wrapped around this is the neocortex, the outer layer which in humans has been associated with our ability to interpret symbols, forecast, imagine, improvise, and communicate. From the perspective of evolutionary   theory, it seems that natural selection required the agonizing long suffering of the ice age to push our ancestors out of their comfortable environment where the did not need the capabilities of the neocortex to survive into the Savannahs where they had to either become phyisically or mentally stronger to survive.

So over millions of years, our ancestors became more intelligent, more societal, and more able to have complex emotions and understandings, all because of what they suffered. We believe God has all these features. We believe ultimately we are meant to progress and become like God. Is it thus possible that God allows our suffering so that we, as a people, may progress, because he knows we would not be able to otherwise?

Your thoughts are appreciated.


[2] D&C 93:33 

[3] Abraham 3:18

[4] I owe much of my understanding here to John Medina’s Brain Rules. 

[5] While I got this from Brain Rules, you can read more here.




  1. Interesting post. I think you reach a conclusion (God allows suffering for our benefit) that nearly every Mormon would find acceptable—we could even find it in our instruction manuals—but you do so in a way (evolution) that many would find objectionable.

    To be clear, I have no problem with that, as I believe in evolution. (I don’t like the Triune brain concept, but that is really a side point in your post.)

    Comment by BrianJ — December 1, 2011 @ 7:53 am

  2. Brian: I am not knowledgeable enough to speak to the science behind the triune brain theory, and it apparently has been discounted as two simplistic, but I think the point still holds that it required millions of years of suffering pain and death for the brain to develop to the level of being a thinking reasoning human. Medina even claims that the pain and suffering was a Goldilocks scenario, where more pain and suffering would have wiped out all of our ancestors and less pain and suffering would not have required us to develop who we are now.

    The thing I like about the evolution example is that is takes my individual pain and suffering and socializes it across time and eternity, adding value and meaning to it. A man dying in the cold millions of years ago can be seen as directly contributing to my ability to read and write today. We are cumulatively coming to our father in heaven in such a scenario.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 1, 2011 @ 8:21 am

  3. Quite the theory but I doubt that suffering emotionally led to a more complex brain. What drives this supposed evolution? Suffering? Thats like saying that natural selection favors those who suffer more than others. Kind of like caveman Jaba’bu wanting to go mate with Kima’ku cause her cave is more open to the weather. Seems to me that natural selection would most likely favor the least suffering situations.

    But then again I don’t believe in evolution by natural selection.

    Comment by Rob Osborn — December 1, 2011 @ 9:03 am

  4. No – that’s like saying a really easy exam is the best tool for selecting the brightest students. It’s not because the stupid and intelligent alike can both get full marks. There is no selection.

    A difficult situation (suffering) selects for brains best equipped to deal with that suffering.

    Comment by gomez — December 1, 2011 @ 9:18 am

  5. Interesting Matt. I am sure I wont articulate this well, but some of this suffering seems inevitable. If there is any indepence and freedom at all, how could it be otherwise?

    Comment by Eric Nielson — December 1, 2011 @ 9:29 am

  6. Rob: Let me give a more specific example. There are two men, named Rob and Matt. They live in the woods. There is a giant fire, the woods burn down and their shelter is gone. Matt, due to the nature of the genes in his fallen body, doesn’t have the capacity to figure out to go somewhere else and find food. Rob does. Matt Dies, Rob doesn’t. Rob has kids, Matt doesn’t (because he is dead). Rob’s kids inherit the capacity to figure out moving, and are also taught by their father that they should move in such a situation. Repeat that scenario 100,000 times or so. So the bad situation (the forest burning down) led to the ancestors of Rob and Matt being more intelligent about what to do in case of forest fires. Eventually they even made tv spots featuring a talking bear ironically named smokey.

    Gomez- I think I agree with you. I assume your critique is for Rob, not me.

    Eric- I agree that some suffering is for the greater good of freedom, etc. I am hearing trying to think of types of suffering that don’t seem to have a direct link to freedom. Things like Hurricanes and Cancer and Famine.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 1, 2011 @ 10:31 am

  7. You may be misunderstanding me, and I may be off my rocker, but what I am thinking is that maybe some suffering is not so much allowed, as it is simply unavoidable. As far as natural evil, it seems that leads to a non-absolute God. It seems one must assign a greater good purpose to everything, or be stuck with a God who is doing the best He can, and is by far the best option.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — December 1, 2011 @ 12:38 pm

  8. Eric- I totally agree. I guess I am trying to decide here where to draw the line between was is allowed and what completely unavoidable. The problem with everything being unavoidable is that it leaves us with an impotent God and scriptures full of stories of miraculous events which become somewhat impossible or “one off”. On the other hand, the problem with everything being allowed for our greater good is that we are left with the challenge of inventing some possible greater good in each instance, and it can often be very unsatisfying. I guess in either scenario, the real hope is to look to Christ and see better days ahead.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 1, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

  9. Matt, 8: I’d add another option: a lot of what we call “catastrophe/suffering/etc.” is just a distraction; i.e., it doesn’t really matter in the “grande scheme of things.” Thus, everything is unavoidable (through God’s power) but God chooses not to meddle with it because it’s not important.

    I dislike this option because it leaves us with an earthly experience that is mostly meaningless and severely lessens how we perceive the suffering of others. But I thought I’d add it to the conversation for completeness’ sake.

    re comment #2: I really think the Triune brain is beside your point, which is why I didn’t focus on it. Either way, your point is that the brain evolved to deal with complexities such as suffering; the Triune brain theory just tries to model that.

    Comment by BrianJ — December 1, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

  10. I’m not sure the brain is the center of thought. It could be just an interface to the spirit self. There have been cases of people living fairly normal lives with nothing but a nub at the end of their spinal column. No Obama jokes please. See

    Comment by Bradley — December 1, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

  11. I guess I am missing the big picture of what you are trying to get at Matt, or perhaps it is because I can’t fit evolution by natural selectiaon on the scale you believe in, in my own head. What you are basically getting at here, if I am getting this right, is that the smarter ones naturally have the advantage at surving life and thus have the advantage of surving and thus end up flooding the gene pool with smarter people. But, I don;t really see how “suffering” works in here. I mean- take us for example- why do people have sex- what is their main drive? Is it that only smart people are flooding the gene pool because they are better at survival? It seems to me that people themselves are not setting up “intellect” as the main driving force in having more children.

    Take firefighters for example- they are strong, intuitivally smart and yet, they seem to not have any statistical advantage for passing on smarter genes than the cashier at Walmart.

    Then on top of all that you have a myriad of cases where chance and luck work into it and it really has no case of suffering or problem solving as being the one that survives to pass along the genes. We make a lot of assumptions in evolutionary thought- like that you bring up. Sure, its a novel idea but is it practical or even testable? Let’s say for example that you did an experiment where you had two islands with monkeys on each island. On the one island you worked with the monkeys on helping them build strong emotional relationships with each other and yet at the same time gave them challenging puzzles that when worked through gave rewards as an incentive. On the other island you kept your distance and instead of challenging them with puzzles you staged attacks by different sources that directly affected their survival capabilities and only the strong would survive. Let’s say, for the sake of the debate, that you were able to keep this experimentation going on for millions of years- on one island they receive love and puzzles to work through without much threat directly to their well being (state of low suffering and high rewards), and on the other island a constant state of sorrow and survival (high state of suffering and low reward factor). Who would thus develop into a more complex creature capable of a higher intelligence?

    Not that there is a right or wrong answer here but it does raise the question of what perhaps, or even “if” DNA is driven to a higher state of complexity due to suffering or not suffering and how that may or may not effect the natural selection process. For all we know, perhaps the smarter of the monkeys on the one island get so caught up in their strive for one more puzzle that they spend less time procreating while their lazy buddies back at the ranch are spoiling all the babes with their seed because they have nothing other to do. And perhaps on the other island, we may find that the more smarter and mightier ones sacrafice themselves for the benefit of the weaker ones survival and thus- the dumb ones end up flooding the gene pool.

    Comment by Rob Osborn — December 2, 2011 @ 12:09 am

  12. The problem reconciling the problem of evil with evolution is that it seems clear that having our bodies develop via evolution isn’t necessary. Thus if evolution produces unnecessary suffering why not develop us differently?

    The issue isn’t whether evolution by itself is avoidable. I think it arises out of the natural laws of the universe and is unavoidable. Rather the issue is whether unaided evolution was necessary. That seems a much more thorny issue.

    Comment by Clark — December 2, 2011 @ 8:34 am

  13. Clark, if I understand you right, your claim is that evolution required more suffering than necessary, because selective breeding (as in cattle) could have achieved the same results.

    I am not sure whether or not that is true. Further, I like the Goldilocks scenario Medina brings up in brain rules, where more adverse conditions would have killed us all, but less adverse conditions would not have gotten us to the state we needed are now in.

    I do agree that it is a thorny issue, and I don’t think this post solves it at all, It is just a thought in that direction.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 2, 2011 @ 8:44 am

  14. Brian J- Meaningless suffering seems pretty detached, and to me feels like it breaks the wall of some other basic LDS concepts like Alma 7’s vision of the atonement. But it is an option. Good call.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 2, 2011 @ 8:47 am

  15. Bradley- Not sure how to deal with that one. Weird indeed.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 2, 2011 @ 8:47 am

  16. Rob Osborn- I’d argue that firefighters have a major statistical advantage. JK…

    In all seriousness. I think I may have mislead you into looking to closely at individuals. Is a society with doctors and samaritans going to be better off in terms of survival than one without? How about a society with artisits and musicians? How about a society of at-one diversity over a society of individualists. I believe the answer to all three of these questions is yes, that society would be “stronger”. It is not whether firefighters are better off than wal-mart clerks (which they are, by the way) It is whether a society without firefighters and wal-mart clerks would be better or worse off.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 2, 2011 @ 9:09 am

  17. Matt: In thinking about Clark’s point, suppose that God can easily influence DNA polymerases, homologous recombination, and the other events and enzymes that are largely responsible for the generation of mutations and variability in genetic material. With that level of control, it would not take long at all to drive evolution from, for example, Ardipithicus to Homo, and thereby minimize the number of individuals who are not quite suited to their environment. (This would be far faster and precise than selective breeding as well.) The Goldilocks scenario isn’t an issue because aided evolution could always “tune” humans to exactly the condition that they need.

    Anyway, in terms of the problem of evil, I don’t see the difference between a “God who allows slow-and-sloppy evolution” and a “God who allows bullying on the playground.”

    On a different note, I think it’s interesting to consider that, of all animals, humans are the most capable of suffering. Pull the legs off a spider and it is (probably) too unintelligent to even comprehend its predicament; on the other hand, discontinue a human’s favorite ice cream flavor and he will cry like his world has ended.

    Comment by BrianJ — December 2, 2011 @ 9:22 am

  18. Clark, if I understand you right, your claim is that evolution required more suffering than necessary, because selective breeding (as in cattle) could have achieved the same results.

    No, I’m saying specific design (i.e. creationism) could have achieved the same or more likely better results. Presumably there is a reason God allowed life to develop via evolution rather than just terraforming a world. But let’s be honest that we don’t know the reason and it does create an issue with the problem of evil.

    Comment by Clark — December 2, 2011 @ 9:56 am

  19. Brian, I think you verge into the real issue. For suffering to be suffering does there need to be consciousness? I’d tend to say yes. But what creatures have consciousness? I’d be willing to say higher mammals do, although I’m not certain. I rather doubt insects do. (i.e. I think a fly resembles a robot more than a human)

    I don’t think this affects my claim at all in the general case but obviously it does affect how one views the level of suffering. i.e. a cat toying with a mouse.

    Comment by Clark — December 2, 2011 @ 10:03 am

  20. For suffering to be suffering does there need to be consciousness?

    Hard to answer; “consciousness” has a range of meanings. But I’d tend toward recognizing suffering in most vertebrates, not just higher mammals.

    But what creatures have consciousness?

    It’s impossible to draw a line, of course, but if we’re talking about “higher order consciousness,” then I’d add many birds and octopuses to the list. And I would absolutely most definitely add all of the Homo and Australopithecus species—which brings up the biggest problem for me with evolution: where did God draw the line between covenant-eligible and -ineligible beings?

    Comment by BrianJ — December 2, 2011 @ 10:31 am

  21. Matt,

    I guess I just don’t get it. I think it would be quite impossible to test any thoery like you propose. I am not sure that suffering drives evolution- that seems pretty far out there. I see suffering as being more damaging to a species rather than helping it. Suffering effects the strong as well as the weak. What we don’t know is how, if any, changes to the DNA code were more helpful or harmful in one situation versus another over the time frame for evolution to occur. What may be helpful or advantageous in some generations may end up hindering it in the long run in different conditions. One thing that is not proven is whether or not populations of large size increase or descrease in the DNA complexity and intelligence individually through natural selection.

    I do know that as far as humans go, we find mates basically off of emotional or physical attraction and hardly any procreation is based off of intelligence. Lets throw this hypothetical out there for good measure-

    Suppose in human evolution that more intelligent DNA was found in people with big heads but that these “big headed people” were far less attractive. And lets also say that less intelligent DNA was found in really athletic and beautiful blonds with smooth skin texture. Natural selection here favors the nonintelligent over the more intelligent. Sure, the big-headed people may be in the advantageous position of solving difficult problems, but it wouldn’t matter if their gene pool is a dying breed! We cannot thus assume that smarter genes would eventually outlast teh less intelligent. You are dealing with a myriad of factors here. Natural selection is not a model of rising intelligence at all. I am a smart individual but I did not naturally select my mate based off of how she may or may not deal with survival.

    In order for your theory to be correct it would thus still have to be in place. To me this would mean that the nations who suffer the worst (Africa comes to mind) will end up being the breed that outlasts the other nations because they have more suffering. But, they suffer because of a lack of learning, a lack of understanding, and basic bad government models. How would natural selection differ for them on their continent versus us on our continent- we obviously suffer less than they do. So will they eventually outlast us and be the next generation of super-human intelligence?

    However, I can see “spiritually” how getting through suffering times can help us become more like God.

    Comment by Rob Osborn — December 2, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

  22. I for one sincerely hope God is not bound by impersonal eternal laws. I can’t imagine this would be a desirable state of affairs. Why should impersonal eternal laws match in any sense our own sense of morality or justice? In fact based on how natural laws work around us. It is extremely likely impersonal natural laws would not in any sense match our sense of mortality or justice. A person locked in a trunk on a hot day will suffer and die according to the working out of natural law whether that person is a crazed serial killer or an innocent child natural law is entirely indifferent to the “justice” of the outcome. If God is truly bound by impersonal laws such that he must let those laws operate irregardless of the justice or mercy of those laws how in the world could he guarantee that in the end all will be made well and justice will triumph? Suppose for example it was an eternal natural law governing the universe that information could not be transmitted faster than the speed of light. If God was truly bound by such a law any person more than a light year or so away from God is going to have to wait a long time for an answer to their prays.
    Now the above are just examples I am not claiming God is bound by the speed of light etc. I am simply using this as an example of the kinds of serious problems that arise when it is claimed God is bound by eternal impersonal laws that he cannot break.

    Comment by Uncertain — December 2, 2011 @ 11:30 pm

  23. Clark, #12 my thoughts exactly.

    Comment by Jacob J — December 6, 2011 @ 12:37 am

  24. I’ve been following this blog for a while but this is my first comment on a topic.

    per Brian #1 I agree the “Triune brain concept” is a weak model at best (My first undergrad degree was in psychology -as a science- most of my courses were focused on neuroscience and the mechanisms of the brain) but still the main point in Matt’s post that a certain level of “suffering” being necessary for growth and development of the society/species, not just the individual, I find interesting.

    Matt, I was a little unclear on your definition of “suffering” though, as (per some of Rob’s points) any random “suffering” isn’t a sufficient condition for growth, and it seems to me that sometimes a lack of suffering can lead to improved evolution and growth.

    Per Uncertain #22: “It is extremely likely impersonal natural laws would not in any sense match our sense of mortality or justice.”
    Actually when we understand the doctrine of Justice and Mercy according to fixed eternal law (and not just lumping it all into a less defined concept of “justice” by itself) then it does give rise to the type of morality and justice (or better “fairness”) that I think you mean, and which we are striving for (which isn’t actually “justice” but is really mercy and grace) as well as leading to the way we see natural laws working around us. If we didn’t have that ‘impersonal’ justice I understand that we couldn’t be saved.

    “Justice” demands consequences for all actions (not just sins) according to fixed eternal laws. So a person locked in a car on a hot day will face the consequence regardless of whether or not is is “fair” or merciful from our point of view. That is still Justice, although not merciful or necessarily “fair” to us. (and of course the person locking them there will face their corresponding eternal consequence according to Justice).

    Its is because of the Atonement however that what we would call “fairness” (which is really Mercy and Grace) is even possible. An I think that is the main point of Alma 42:11-15 (especially verse 14 and 15).

    I would recommend re-reading commandments of Alma to his son Corianton in Alma chapters 39-42 and Section 130:20-21 as a good place to start revisiting the topics of Justice and Mercy.

    Comment by Rio — December 10, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

  25. Suffering is optional (except physical suffering) it is belief dependent and some of physical suffering is optional for the same reason. We learn from adversity.

    Comment by Howard — December 11, 2011 @ 4:56 pm

  26. Clark and Jacob and Brian J- I think Suffering in this scenario can be considered memetically contributing, and not just genetically contributing.

    I apologize for the shortness of time. Tis the season…

    Comment by Matt W. — December 19, 2011 @ 1:28 pm