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What was the first being on Earth to experience suffering?

by BarryGrimes1 min read10th Jul 20204 comments


One of the most crucial considerations in cause prioritisation is figuring out how much moral weight we should place on the lives and preferences of non-human animals. Jason Schukraft has written about this recently here and here.

I have been wondering about this problem from an evolutionary perspective, which leads to my question: What was the first being on Earth to experience suffering?

I feel very uncertain whether this was a simple organism living in the sea millions of years ago, the first mammal, the first hominid, the first Homo Sapiens, or anywhere in between!

The answer, of course, will depend on your definition of suffering. As a Buddhist, I think about suffering as unmet desire; a craving for the current experience to be different in some way. However, I'm looking forward to reading a variety of perspectives on this question.

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I haven't investigated this question in any detail, but a natural thought is that the emergence of sentience coincided with (either as a byproduct of or causal factor in) the Cambrian Explosion, ~540 million years ago. The capacity for valenced experience probably arose either simultaneously with the capacity for general awareness or shortly thereafter. With the capacity for valenced experience comes the capacity for negative hedonic states, which under many circumstances would constitute suffering, in my view. Depending on how robustly you're defining 'desire,' desires might also have arisen around the same time (e.g., many animals probably have the basic desire to avoid negative hedonic states).

See Michael Trestman's 2013 paper "The Cambrian Explosion and the Origins of Embodied Cognition" for more on the connection between consciousness and the Cambrian explosion. Max Carpendale also wrote about this topic on the Forum last year. For the view that consciousness emerged much later (i.e., not until mammals), see Stanislas Dehaene's 2014 book Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts. For general discussion of the evolutionary origins of consciousness, see Peter Godfrey-Smith's excellent 2017 book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness.