Darwin was less than half joking when he coined the phrase Devil's Chaplain in a letter to his friend Hooker in 1856:
What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature.A process of trial and error, completely unplanned and on the massive scale of natural selection, can be expected to be clumsy, wasteful and blundering. As I have put it before, the racing elegance of cheetahs and gazelles is bought at huge cost in blood and the suffering of countless antecedents on both sides. Clumsy and blundering though the process undoubtedly is, its results are opposite. There is nothing clumsy about a swallow; nothing blundering about a shark. What is clumsy and blundering, by the standards of human drawing boards, is the Darwinian algorithm that led to their evolution. As for cruelty, here is Darwin again, in a letter to Asa Gray of 1860:
I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.Darwin's Ichneumonidae sting their prey not to kill but to paralyse, so their larvae can feed on fresh (live) meat. As Darwin clearly understood, blindness to suffering is an inherent consequence of natural selection, although on other occasions he tried to play down the cruelty, suggesting that killing bites are mercifully swift. But the Devil's Chaplain would be equally swift to point out that if there is mercy in nature, it is accidental. Nature is neither kind nor cruel but indifferent. Such kindness as may appear emerges from the same imperative as the cruelty. In the words of one of Darwin's most thoughtful successors, George C. Williams:
With what other than condemnation is a person with any moral sense supposed to respond to a system in which the ultimate purpose in life is to be better than your neighbor at getting genes into future generations, in which those successful genes provide the message that instructs the development of the next generation, in which that message is always `exploit your environment, including your friends and relatives, so as to maximize our genes' success', in which the closest thing to a golden rule is `don't cheat, unless it is likely to provide a net benefit'?...
In giving rise to man, the evolutionary process has, apparently for the first and only time in the history of the Cosmos, become conscious of itself.So, the Devil's Chaplain might conclude, Stand tall, Bipedal Ape. The shark may outswim you, the cheetah outrun you, the swift outfly you, the capuchin outclimb you, the elephant outpower you, the redwood outlast you. But you have the biggest gifts of all: the gift of understanding the ruthlessly cruel process that gave us all existence; the gift of revulsion against its implications; the gift of foresight--something utterly foreign to the blundering short-term ways of natural selection and the gift of internalizing the very cosmos.