Were our ancestors too stupid to appreciate pain?

When you think about pain, especially chronic pain, you have to wonder about the supposed cleverness of the body’s design. Certainly immediate, sharp pain — say, from stepping on a nail — has a clear and useful message: get away from this nail (and tend to your foot.) But if that pain persists with you for months or years (in a muted form) what’s the point? Certainly one could ask what’s the point of phantom limb pain which is pain from a part of the body that doesn’t even exist anymore.

I’m reading an interesting book called “The Emotion Machine” by Marvin Minsky, an author most famous for his contributions to the realm of artificial intelligence in computers. He makes similar comments about the “injustice” of pain.

It seems fair to complain that, in this realm [pain], evolution has not done well for us — and this must frustrate theologians: Why are people made to suffer so much? What functions could such suffering serve?

He then offers a theory as to why we might suffer from chronic pain.

Perhaps… the bad effects of chronic pain did not arrive from selection at all, but simply arose from a “programming bug.” The cascades that we call “Suffering” must have evolved from earlier schemes that helped us to limit our injuries — by providing the goal of escaping from pain with an extremely high priority. The resulting disruption of other thoughts was only a small inconvenience before ancestors evolved new, vaster intellects. In other words, our ancient reactions to chronic pains have not yet been adapted to be compatible with the reflective thoughts and farsighted plans that only later evolved in our brains.

Basically, if you’re Neanderthal moron and you’re sitting there thinking “Duuuuuuuhhhh…” all day, you don’t really mind the intrusion of pain in your thoughts. But as humans evolved and became highly intellectual creatures, that constant nag induces what Minsky refers to as “Suffering.”

This explanation seems to be missing something — there’s more to the quality of pain than just disruption of our thoughts. But it’s an interesting idea.

2 Responses to “Were our ancestors too stupid to appreciate pain?”

  1. John Saleeby

    Speaking of Neanderthal Morons, “The Rick And Bubba Show” has finally been dumped by our local AM Talk Radio Station! This is even better than Bin Laden getting shot.


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