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The Cultural Evolution of Suffering


B.Contestabile       admin@socrethics.com       First version 2007   Last version 2018





Table of Contents




1.      Introduction

2.      Basics

2.1  Suffering

2.2  Cultural Evolution

3.      Biological Mechanisms

3.1  Quality of Suffering

3.2  Quantity of Suffering

3.3  Distribution of Suffering

4.      The Belief in Progress

4.1  Technological Progress

4.2  Social Progress

5.      Skepticism towards Progress

5.1  The Ambivalence of Science

5.2  The Ambivalence of Technology

5.3  Social Cycle Theories

5.4  Other Reasons for Skepticism

5.5  The Threat of Human Extinction

5.6  Statistics and Risk Estimations

6.      Conclusion











Starting point

The capability to feel pain increases with biological evolution and seems not to be limited. The capability to feel pleasure increases as well, but pain cannot be compensated by pleasure across individuals.



Type of Problem

- Does suffering increase with cultural evolution as well as with biological evolution?

- To what extent can culture overrule the biological mechanisms?

- How will suffering end?




In analogy to the biological evolution of pain

- suffering increases quantitatively and qualitatively in the course of cultural evolution

- the general trend is an increasing inequality (injustice) in the distribution of suffering.


At the present state of knowledge it is impossible to foresee, if this trend can durably be broken.

The counterproductive mechanisms of technological and social change are largely unknown or repressed.


There is a fair chance that human suffering will end by the extinction of the human species.






1. Introduction



Starting point

The capability to feel pain increases with biological evolution and seems not to be limited. The capability to feel pleasure increases as well, but pain cannot be compensated by pleasure across individuals.



Type of Problem

         Does suffering increase with cultural evolution as well as with biological evolution?

         To what extent can culture overrule the biological mechanisms?

         How will suffering end?




2. Basics



2.1  Suffering




         Suffering is a basic affective experience of unpleasantness and aversion associated with harm or threat of harm in an individual. It constitutes the negative basis of affective states (emotions, feelings, moods, sentiments) (Suffering, Wikipedia).

         For a definition of pain see The Biological Evolution of Pain.


The relation between pain and suffering is complex:

         Examples for suffering without pain:

o   death of a family member

o   loss of a job

o   regret of violence

         Examples for pain without suffering:

o   Little accidents like stubbing a toe on the driveway

o   Insensitivity to pain in the context of the Sramana movement

o   Pain asymbolia, Congenital insensitivity to pain

o   Masochism

      For more information see A New Discipline about Suffering.




1)      Objective indirect measures

a)      The International Human Suffering Index relies on the statistic of the World Bank, UN and other readily available resources. It was originally published by the Population Crisis Committee in 1987 (see Population Action International). Natural disasters are excluded in order to limit the measure to preventable suffering.

b)      A different index measures the suffering caused by calamities (natural and man-made disasters) and precipitous conditions out of the UNDP Human Development Report and associated data files [Anderson, 7-9].


2)      Objective direct measure

Pain intensity can now be measured from the outside, say researchers using a technique for analyzing MRI scans [Hamzelou]. Their claim reopens the debate over whether pain can be measured objectively.

The MRI-method could possibly be extended to the phenomenon of suffering.


3)      Subjective measure

Measures for subjective happiness (e.g. the Life Satisfaction Index) can be transformed into measures for subjective suffering [Anderson, 5-6].




1)      Objective measures

a)     Objective indirect measures do not consider the ambivalence of progress.

The suffering caused by increased competition and unnatural ways of living is discarded; also the negative side effects of technology.

Example: Car accidents are not included in calamities; they are in particular not included in Anderson’s “violent death rate”.

b)     MRIs cannot be taken from people in critical situations.


2)      Subjective measures

a)     The term “suffering” is much too general, i.e. doesn’t consider the differences in individual vita.

The comparison of individual vita and corresponding emotions is an immense problem. It is almost impossible to describe feelings by language. Surveys on life satisfaction attempt to circumvent this problem by using point scales or percentages.

b)     How is it possible to know, if a person suffers? We can never unlock its inner perspective.

In many cases (e.g. brain damage, young children) there is no language for communication. Even if there is a communication the investigator might be deluded by fraud or semantic differences.

c)      The most suffering people are excluded.

People who are directly involved in accidents, wars, crimes, severe diseases, strokes, natural catastrophes etc., as well as dying people, do not participate in surveys on life satisfaction.


3)      It is unclear to what extent the different measures correlate.




We are far from a reliable measure for global suffering.




2.2  Cultural Evolution




Cultural evolution is an evolutionary theory of social change.

Historically, there have been a number of different approaches to the study of cultural evolution, including dual inheritance theory, sociocultural evolution, memetics, cultural evolutionism and other variants on cultural selection theory (Cultural evolution, Wikipedia).


Today most anthropologists reject 19th-century notions of progress and instead call attention to the Darwinian notion of "adaptation", arguing that all societies had to adapt to their environment in some way. A prominent example is Marvin Harris’s cultural materialism (Sociocultural evolution, Wikipedia).


Cultural evolution, in the Darwinian sense of variation and selective inheritance, could be said to trace back to Darwin himself. He argued for both customs and "inherited habits" as contributing to human evolution, grounding both in the innate capacity for acquiring language (Cultural evolution, Wikipedia).




Richard Dawkins' 1976 book The Selfish Gene proposed the concept of the meme, which is analogous to that of the gene. A meme is an idea-replicator which can reproduce itself, by jumping from mind to mind via the process of learning from another via imitation. Along with the "virus of the mind" image, the meme might be thought of as a "unit of culture" (an idea, belief, pattern of behaviour, etc.), which spreads among the individuals of a population. The variation and selection in the copying process enables Darwinian evolution among memeplexes and therefore is a candidate for a mechanism of cultural evolution (Cultural evolution, Wikipedia).

In biological evolution, the transfer of information is unidirectional and vertical, whereas in cultural evolution it is bidirectional, and vertical, horizontal or oblique – in other words, network-like [Portin]:






Random versus goal-directed evolution

Human society evolves. Change in technology, language, mortality and society is incremental, inexorable, gradual and spontaneous. It follows a narrative, going from one stage to the next; it creeps rather than jumps; it has its own spontaneous momentum rather than being driven from outside; it has no goal or end in mind; and it largely happens by trial and error – a version of natural selection [Ridley].


Is evolution a random process indeed?

On the biological level randomness is disputed. Richard Dawkins, for example, insists that although mutations may be random, evolution is not. If we look at how evolution has turned out on neighboring islands, then we see the constraints to randomness. There are only limited ways of flying and swimming, for instance, which is why wings and fins have independently evolved on many occasions (see Convergent evolution) [Holmes, 2015].

Similarly, if we compare evolution in isolated cultures, we observe that there are only limited ways of managing competition and cooperation, constructing weapons, developing languages and dealing with the human condition. A concern which has independently evolved in all cultures is the desire to avoid or reduce suffering.



The conflict between biological and cultural evolution

As memes are “selfish” in that they are only “interested” in their own success, then that could well be in conflict with their biological host’s genetic interests (Cultural evolution, Wikipedia).

In this paper we concentrate on the conflict between the cultural interest to reduce suffering (example of a memeplex) and the biological interest to survive and reproduce (the host’s genetic interests):

         On the biological level pain has an adaptive function (see The Biological Evolution of Pain), i.e. the hedonistic system serves the biological goal. The most consequent cultural implementation of this principle is Social Darwinism. But even in unsuspicious political systems the long-term success of a cultural goal may be defined by the influence it has on the genetic success of its supporters. If that is true then cultural goals serve the biological goal or disappear. It is known, for example, that religiosity has a positive influence on the fertility rate of a population [Blume] and that the cultural criteria for human mating are strongly influenced by the biological utility function [Buss 2007].

         The range of biological forces is a controversial issue. According to Bob Holmes cultural evolution is a goal-directed activity and has even an effect on the human genome [Holmes 2013, 35]. But cultural attempts to invert the priorities and put the reduction of suffering on top have a hard stand. Compassionate, retreat-oriented ethics like (early) Buddhism, for example, succumbs in the competition with power-seeking, expansionist ideologies.

An interesting compromise between biological and cultural interests is Rawls’ Theory of Justice, a concept which tolerates a competitive society and at the same time strives to improve the welfare of the worst-off. But even in a society of perfect fairness suffering could be immense. Can cultural evolution ever reverse the biological trend towards higher levels of suffering?




3. Biological Mechanisms



3.1  Quality of Suffering


The emergence of higher levels of suffering is not an accidental by-product of cultural evolution; it is (amongst others) the consequence of the adaptive role of suffering.



The capability to suffer

1.      Biological mechanism: 

The increasing capability to feel pain has to do with the increasing importance of learning mechanisms. The importance of learning mechanisms increases with the lifetime of the creatures and with the complexity of the environment. The behaviour of long-lived creatures is shaped by painful experiences acting on these learning mechanisms. A wide range of emotions enhances the capability to respond to the environment. A wide range of emotions implies a high level (intensity and duration) of pain. Under these premises the capability to feel a high level of pain is superior with regard to biological fitness.


2.      Cultural analogue: 

Cultural evolution so far prolongs the lifetime of humans. It also adds to the complexity of the environment and increases the need for adaptation so that learning mechanisms become more important. Humans with a higher sensitivity are better equipped to master the challenges of adaptation. As a consequence the survival value of sensitivity increases. Higher sensitivity implies the capability to experience a higher level of suffering.



The infliction of suffering

1.      Biological mechanism:

         Evolution by selection has produced competitive mechanisms that function to benefit one person at the expense of others [Buss 2000].

         Human violence has a biological origin [Buss 2007][Miles]. Killing the competition means more bounty for your own genes [Hooper]

         The proportion of human deaths phylogenetically predicted to be caused by interpersonal violence is similar to the one phylogenetically inferred for the evolutionary ancestor of primates and apes, indicating that a certain level of lethal violence arises owing to our position within the phylogeny of mammals. It is also similar to the percentage seen in prehistoric bands and tribes, indicating that we were as lethally violent then as common mammalian evolutionary history would predict [Gomez].

         There's a considerable literature on violence and cannibalism among non-human primates, and some of what goes on looks awfully like torture. Some of this has to do with enforcement of dominance hierarchies (Ask a Biologist).


2.      Cultural analogue:

As far as the infliction of suffering has to do with the enforcement of dominance hierarchies, it could be called adaptive, because it contributes to the biological fitness of the dominant person.

         The fact that natural selection can be a poor designer explains not only glitches like supernormal stimuli (see Pain), but also glitches in the infliction of suffering, like sadistic behavior which is not, or at least no longer directly adaptive.

         As far as the history of torture is related to the enforcement of dominance hierarchies, it has a biological root. Hierarchies gain in importance with the size and complexity of the communities. One could argue that nowadays torture is outlawed by the signers of the human rights convention, but in practice many of these signers just outsource the dirty work. Furthermore, torture which is obviously related to the enforcement of dominance continues to exist in violent gangs, in drug cartels, in the territory of war lords and – exercised by pathological individuals – in the middle of civilized communities. Because of the overall increase in population size, the number of victims is larger than it was at earlier times.



The repression of suffering

1.      Biological mechanism:

The following asymmetry in the acceptance of suffering and happiness seems to improve the biological fitness:

       It is more difficult to take part in other people’s suffering than to take part in other people’s joy.

       A person who masters his/her grief gets more recognition than a person who remains controlled in the hour of triumph.

       Compassion and tears are considered to be a sign of weakness (unless the emotions express admiration for heroic people). Conversely happiness is

interpreted as a sign of strength so that people don’t hesitate to show it.

[Smith, chapter 1, section 3].

The capability of an individual to “forget” negative events and look optimistic into the future clearly improves his/her biological fitness.


2.      Cultural analogue:

       In her novel The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas Ursula K. LeGuin describes a city where the good fortune of the citizens requires that an innocent child is tortured in a secret place [LeGuin]. The child stands symbolically for the innocence of extreme sufferers. The setting is reminiscent of the French movie Le Sang des Bêtes where peaceful scenes of Parisian suburbia contrast with scenes from a slaughterhouse. Also the separation of old, ill and dying people from the rest of the society follows a similar logic. The dislocation of a suffering minority to remote places is a form of repression and improves the survival value of the majority.

       Why are distorted perceptions not corrected by experience? The cultural experience of suffering is systematically annihilated by the death of all witnesses. Most cultures do not have a long-term memory with regard to negative emotions. The suffering created by past wars, epidemics, natural catastrophes etc. is forgotten as quickly as the fate of extremely suffering individuals.




3.2  Quantity of Suffering


1.      Biological mechanism

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation (…)

If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored (River out of Eden, Richard Dawkins).


2.      Cultural analogue

A cultural analogue to the biological mechanism was described by Thomas Malthus in his Essay on the Principle of Population and renewed by ecological thinkers like Garret Hardin and Safa Motesharrei et al. in Human and Nature Dynamics.

Its validity in high-tech societies, however, is disputed, see

a.       Malthusian Catastrophe

b.      Malthusian Trap

c.       Demographic Trap




3.3  Distribution of Suffering


1.      Biological mechanism

There are two opposing trends in the distribution of pain:

         Biological evolution is a process of increasing differentiation, implying increasing inequalities. Not only are the various forms of life unequal, but also the individual members within each form. Complex organisms differ more from each other than simple organisms. Evolution creates unequal distributions within all dimensions of life, and therefore also unequal distributions of pain. With an increase in the degree of pain, the degree of injustice increases as well.

         Certain kinds of pain (e.g. the pain of starving or being attacked by predators) are prevented or mitigated by biological altruism:

The net result of these two opposing trends is an increasing injustice in the distribution of pain.


2.      Cultural analogue

         Cultural evolution, as well as biological evolution is a process of increasing differentiation, implying increasing inequalities. Even if the average suffering in the population decreases, higher levels may emerge in minorities. Reasons are among others the aberration from statistical normality and the exclusion from benefits (see examples below).

         Certain kinds of suffering are prevented or mitigated by altruism.

The net result of these two opposing trends is an increasing injustice in the distribution of suffering.



Statistical normality and aberration

For every technological and social change there are winners and losers. Undesired side-effects of cultural progress are tolerated as long as they concern a minority of the population only:

         Pathological narcissism is an undesired side effect of self-control and individualism.

In a pathologically narcissistic civilization - social anomies proliferate. Such societies breed malignant objectifiers - people devoid of empathy (The Psychology of Serial and Mass Killers, Sam Vaknin).

         The higher velocity in transportation dramatically increased the number and cruelty of accidents. Since these accidents concern a minority only, they are tolerated and reported as a daily sensation in the news.

         Economic pressure motivates people to spend organs for money or subject themselves to medical experiments.

         Medical research at the root of suffering like palliative research has a high cost-benefit ratio but also a high risk of addiction and abuse. The development of high-tech torture on the basis of analgesics research stands for the actuality of this observation. Experience has shown that it is almost impossible to prevent the abuse of technological know-how in the long run. As a consequence the trend towards a qualitative increase in suffering cannot be broken.

Thesis: As long as there is a potential for a higher level of suffering (keyword technology) at least a minority will be affected by an unforeseen development or by hazard.



Exclusion from benefits

For almost every kind of suffering which is culturally defeated, there remains a fraction of the population which is excluded from the benefits. Because of the overall increase in population size, this fraction is often bigger than the original number of sufferers.


Example 1:

Although world hunger decreases, the growing world population brings about that the absolute number of hungry people is still bigger than it was at any point in history until the 20th century. According to the 2016 Global Hunger Index, levels of hunger are still serious or alarming in 50 countries. Whereas the hungry children in these countries struggle to survive the next day, researchers in other parts of the world work on life extension through nanomedicine.


Example 2:

According to anti-slavery-organizations the actual number of slaves exceeds the number of slaves that were shipped from Africa to America:

         The number of slaves today is higher than at any point in history: 12 to 27 million (Slavery, Wikipedia). The International Labor Organization estimates (2015) that about 21 million people suffer from contemporary forms of slavery (forced labor).

         From the 16th to 19th century: ca. 12 million slaves were shipped across the Atlantic (Atlantic slave trade, Wikipedia).

For information about slavery by nation, see Global Slavery Index, Wikipedia.


Example 3:

Discussions on extreme human suffering frequently evoke examples of torture and overlook untreated medical suffering. Unalleviated medical suffering is comparably severe to torture and significantly more common (…). I cannot find good estimates, but it is reasonable to assert that the number of people tortured every year is dwarfed by the millions dying in unmet need of palliative care (ref). Without giving an exhaustive illustration, metastatic cancers alone slowly but surely splinter limb bones, destroy vertebrae, tear contiguous tissue, necrosis in breasts, cause severe and unremitting head pain, and more. When they are capable, some patients take their own lives or attempt to (ref) (…). In 2011, it was estimated that 5.5 billion (83%) people live in countries with low or non-existent access to adequate pain management (ref). (from Increasing Access to Pain Relief in Developing Countries, by Lee Sharkey)

Because of the growing world population the absolute number of extremely suffering people is bigger than it was at any point in history until the 20th century.




4. The Belief in Progress



4.1  Technological Progress



Empirical findings

Following World War II, universal health care systems began to be set up around the world. From the 1970s to the 2000s, Southern and Western European countries began introducing universal coverage, most of them building upon previous health insurance programs to cover the whole population. Beyond the 1990s, many countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Asia-Pacific region, including developing countries, took steps to bring their populations under universal health coverage, including China which has the largest universal health care system in the world (Universal Health Care, Wikipedia)

         Life expectancy increases, child mortality decreases (see World Health Statistics 2015).

         There is considerable progress in the development and availability of analgesics and palliative care.

         In the industrialized countries social welfare systems and psychotherapies have reached a previously unknown prevalence.


World Bank data shows that the percentage of the population living in households with consumption or income per person below the poverty line has decreased in each region of the world since 1990 (Poverty, Wikipedia):

World hunger decreases:





Picture taken from Global Hunger Index, Wikipedia


The Index ranks countries on a 100-point scale, with 0 being the best score (no hunger) and 100 being the worst, although neither of these extremes is reached in practice. Values less than 10.0 reflect low hunger, values from 10.0 to 19.9 reflect moderate hunger, values from 20.0 to 34.9 indicate serious hunger, values from 35.0 to 49.9 reflect alarming hunger, and values of 50.0 or more reflect extremely alarming hunger levels.



Optimistic speculations

         The current situation is unique in history:

Theoretically it is possible to use biotechnology to eradicate aversive experience in all sentient life. Life-long happiness could be genetically pre-programmed. In the post-Darwinian Era, applied nanotechnology could extend hedonic engineering to all life-forms on the planet (David Pearce, Negative utilitarianism).

         The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life. The abolitionist project is hugely ambitious but technically feasible. It is also instrumentally rational and morally urgent. The metabolic pathways of pain and malaise evolved because they served the fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment. They will be replaced by a different sort of neural architecture - a motivational system based on heritable gradients of bliss. States of sublime well-being are destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health. It is predicted that the world's last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event.

Two hundred years ago, powerful synthetic pain-killers and surgical anesthetics were unknown. The notion that physical pain could be banished from most people's lives would have seemed absurd. Today most of us in the technically advanced nations take its routine absence for granted. The prospect that what we describe as psychological pain, too, could ever be banished is equally counter-intuitive. The feasibility of its abolition turns its deliberate retention into an issue of social policy and ethical choice (David Pearce, Hedonistic Imperative).

         Technological progress becomes a vision when it is interpreted in the context of Paradise-engineering, i.e. if it serves the hedonistic goal instead of power-seeking and domination. Mental states like consciousness may not depend on biological substance. Someday life could be transformed into a spiritual form free from suffering. If this vision becomes true, then suffering could be seen as a limited, intermediary state associated with the birth of a new world – similar to the pain that goes with the birth of a child. Cultural evolution could be regarded as a (transhumanist) project which reduces or eliminates suffering, whereas otherwise it would persist or increase. If suffering can be besieged one day then the accumulated suffering up to this point may be the least among all possible paths of evolution.





This picture was taken from the internet (author unknown)



4.2  Social Progress



Optimistic interpretations of historical data

Stephen Pinker argues that violence, including tribal warfare, homicide, cruel punishments, child abuse, animal cruelty, domestic violence, lynching, pogroms, and international and civil wars, has decreased over multiple scales of time and magnitude [Pinker].  Pinker considers it unlikely that human nature has changed. In his view, it is more likely that human nature comprises inclinations toward violence and those that counteract them, the "better angels of our nature". He outlines six 'major historical declines of violence' which all have their own socio/cultural/economic causes (Stephen Pinker)

1.      The Pacification Process – Pinker describes this as the transition from "the anarchy of hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies … to the first agricultural civilizations with cities and governments, beginning around five thousand years ago" which brought "a reduction in the chronic raiding and feuding that characterized life in a state of nature and a more or less fivefold decrease in rates of violent death."

2.      The Civilizing Process – Pinker argues that "between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century, European countries saw a tenfold-to-fiftyfold decline in their rates of homicide". Pinker attributes the idea of the Civilizing Process to the sociologist Norbert Elias, who "attributed this surprising decline to the consolidation of a patchwork of feudal territories into large kingdoms with centralized authority and an infrastructure on commerce"

3.      The Humanitarian Revolution – Pinker attributes this term and concept to the historian Lynn Hunt. He says this revolution "unfolded on the [shorter] scale of centuries and took off around the time of the Age of Reason and the European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries" (though he points to historical antecedents and to "parallels elsewhere in the world"). He writes: "It saw the first organized movements to abolish slavery, dueling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic punishment, and cruelty to animals, together with the first stirrings of systematic pacifism.

4.      The Long Peace – a term he attributes to the historian John Lewis Gaddis.This fourth "major transition", Pinker says, "took place after the end of World War II"; in it, he says, "the great powers, and the developed states in general, have stopped waging war on one another"

5.      The New Peace – Pinker calls this trend "more tenuous", but "since the end of the Cold War in 1989, organized conflicts of all kinds — civil wars, genocides, repression by autocratic governments, and terrorist attacks — have declined throughout the world".

6.      The Rights Revolutions – The postwar period has seen, Pinker argues, "a growing revulsion against aggression on smaller scales, including violence against ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals, and animals. These spin-offs from the concept of human rights—civil rights, women's rights, children's rights, gay rights, and animal rights—were asserted in a cascade of movements from the late 1950s to the present day…”

(The Better Angels of Nature)

The book aroused criticism on a variety of grounds, such as whether “deaths per capita” is an appropriate metric, and Pinker's interpretation of historical data.



Empirical findings

         Illiteracy decreases worldwide (see Literacy, Wikipedia).

         There are signs of an increasing global risk-awareness and a corresponding international cooperation (see United Nations activities).

         The phenomenon of globalization reduces the number of major armed conflicts. If property is dispersed worldwide, it makes no sense to attack foreign nations.

         There is an increasing interest in ethical issues; theoretical and applied ethics get more funds and improve in quality.

         The number and quality of charitable organizations has reached a level never seen before.

         New insights from evolutionary psychology show that self-deception can be a very successful strategy. From this point of view philosophical pessimism is a maladaptation, a dangerous loss of "mental health" in a biological sense. But now things are beginning to change. Science is increasingly interfering with our natural mechanisms of repression [Metzinger 2009, 280-281].



Optimistic speculations

         Survival strategies are in conflict with strategies to combat suffering. Buddhism, which gives highest priority to the fight against suffering, has rejected the strategy of self-deception from the beginning. The philosophical hopes to reduce suffering in this world are based, as in Buddhism, on the increase in consciousness and knowledge. These hopes are deceived by the thesis that consciousness may only be an epiphenomenon and does not have a controlling function. Apart from the fact that this thesis is still heavily disputed, one must not forget that even unconscious mechanisms can have a positive effect. The phenomenon of biological altruism, for example arose without a contribution from consciousness. Furthermore the various mechanisms of cooperation and competition – which are not centrally and consciously controlled – induce a sustainable progress in the medical sector.

         The success of reason in science and technology will spread out to ethics. The majority will turn away from irrational (religious) arguments in the context of voluntary euthanasia, population ethics etc.

         The increasing complexity of the living environment asks for an increasingly intense reflection. This in turn drives behavior away from its primitive biological roots.

         The increasing lifespan implies increasing experience with suffering. Experience with suffering enforces risk-aversion.

         Modern societies preserve experiences better than historical predecessors.

         Technological progress created writing, mass literacy and finally the current information technology. Each step in this process extends social networks and, in turn, induces an extension of empathy [Rifkin].

Possibly the world community passes thru a learning process which leads to a global consensus on a high degree of risk-aversion with regard to suffering, according to the German saying “Durch Schaden wird man klug” (“Being hurt, makes you wiser”). But even if the normative force of reason is grossly over-estimated or the concept of free will proves to be a complete illusion, suffering could still decrease because of mechanisms like the invisible hand.




5. Skepticism towards Progress





I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure

that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.


Ludwig Wittgenstein





Following some factors – besides the biological mechanisms described in chapter 3 – which contribute to skepticism in the fight against suffering:



5.1  The Ambivalence of Science



The loss of meaning

Pessimism is certainly much older than the scientific revolution but the demystification of the world in the 16th and 17th century suggested for the first time – with scientific authority – that the suffering in this world might be without a sense.


Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value (Nihilism, Wikipedia)






A man asks the waves

What is the meaning of man?

Whence did he come?

Whither does he go?

Who dwells up there in the golden stairs?


In response

the waves murmur their eternal murmur,

the wind blows, the clouds fly,

the stars twinkle, indifferent and cold

and a fool waits for an answer.


Heinrich Heine [Barash, 165]





Nietzsche’s God is dead was inspired by empirical sciences in the 19th century. Nietzsche replaced the metaphysical speculation about otherworlds by the scientific speculation about eternal recurrence, a controversial issue among the physicists at the time. In a revised form, the speculation is still going on. Following some recent theories, which suggest that the universe does not require a Creator:


1.      Quantum theory has become the most successful, peerlessly predictive theory of basic reality ever devised. Wave functions define the quantum world in terms of probabilities and the transformation of possible states into concrete states may be a question of probabilities as well. A recent theory promoted by Daniel Sudarsky suggests that wave functions are real entities – rather than just knowledge about the quantum world – and that they collapse randomly, by themselves. Under these premises, in the early universe it was only a question of time before the wave functions of matter collapsed into an uneven distribution from which stars and galaxies could form [Cartwright].


2.      The zero-energy universe hypothesis proposes that the total amount of energy in the universe is exactly zero. The theory originated in 1973, when Edward Tryon proposed in the Nature journal that the universe emerged from a large-scale quantum fluctuation of vacuum energy, resulting in its positive mass-energy being exactly balanced by its negative gravitational potential energy (Zero-energy universe, Wikipedia)


3.      Pantheists like Spinoza and Einstein believed that physical laws are identical with divinity, but they imagined physical laws as something beautiful, universal and eternal. The competing vision of an absolutely contingent world emerged with the discovery that the gas laws are of a statistical nature, a discovery which inspired Alfred North Whitehead’s work in metaphysics:

Laws are observed orders of succession. This doctrine defines laws as little more than the observation of the persistence of patterns. Laws are merely ‘statistical facts. Each observed fact is a contingently new moment. There is no underlying principle of reason or a principle of causation [Dunham, 4].

The thesis that all physical laws are merely statistical facts could not be confirmed so far. On the other hand the history of physics has shown that more and more laws that seemed to be universal and eternal are in fact contingent [Scheibe]. According to Quentin Meillassoux there is truly no reason for anything:

Meillassoux claims that mathematics is what reaches the primary qualities of things as opposed to their secondary qualities as manifested in perception. He tries to show that the agnostic scepticism of those who doubt the reality of cause and effect must be transformed into a radical certainty that there is no such thing as causal necessity at all. This leads Meillassoux to proclaim that it is absolutely necessary that the laws of nature be contingent (Quentin Meillassoux, Wikipedia).





It takes a long time

to understand nothing


Author unknown





The loss of paradises

The loss of faith is tied to a loss of hope, in particular the loss of a possible paradise. There are several types of paradises:

         The paradise in the Book of Genesis is a repetition of daily life without its painful conditions. It is the ideal of an agricultural society, i.e. a life undisturbed by crop failure, famine, illness and death [Hahn, 110]. Different concepts of paradises mirror different societies.

         Some paradises represent better states in the here and now, i.e. they represent memories of better times or expectations of a better future. In societies with a complex structure, the concepts can even differ within the same society. The general rule is the following: Social classes in decline glorify the past and vice-versa. The belief in progress, which is typical for the age of enlightenment, mirrors the collective advancement of the bourgeoisie; the romantic glorification of the past is the swan song of the disempowered aristocracy [Hahn, 115]. Happiness is located in a place where society hasn’t arrived yet or in a place where society was long time ago.

         The New Testament says: “No one has seen the paradise that is afforded to those who love the Lord”. This kind of paradise is abstract to an extent which makes it impossible to even attempt a falsification. On the other hand it is hardly attractive for non-philosophers and non-theologians which are deeply in sorrow about their daily life. Abstract paradises are made for religious virtuosos (Max Weber) [Hahn, 119].

All paradises have one thing in common: once they are unmasked as wishful thinking, they are lost forever.




Mythical gods turned (and still turn) into scientific gods who continue to humiliate people:


1)      Freud said that there had been three great humiliations in human history (The Interpretation of Dreams, Paul Brians)

a)      Galileo's discovery that we are not the center of the universe

b)      Darwin's discovery that we are not the crown of creation

c)      Freud’s discovery that we are not in control of our own minds.

2)      Gerhard Vollmer describes up to nine humiliations, resulting from nine different disciplines of science [Vollmer 1994].


The philosophers of Enlightenment thought that the elimination of religious forms of guilt (sin) would be an immense relief and liberation. But knowledge soon proved to produce new forms of guilt. In a contemporary philosophical debate suffering cannot be charged to a divine creator any more, but (indirectly) to all individuals who procreate. If humans put themselves in the position of god, then the theodicy falls back on them.





Reality is that which,

when you stop believing in it,

doesn’t go away.


Philip K.Dick





The ambivalence of utopias

A utopia is a community or society possessing highly desirable or near perfect qualities. The word was coined by Sir Thomas More in Greek for his 1516 book Utopia (in Latin), describing a fictional island society in the Atlantic Ocean. The term has been used to describe both intentional communities that attempt to create an ideal society, and imagined societies portrayed in fiction (Utopia, Wikipedia)

An utopia is usually described as a goal that is hard (if not impossible) to reach: Example: Franz Hohler Die Insel Utopia (1985).


Utopias have a certain potential to replace above paradises, but they encounter a paradox: The more a utopian society improves our living conditions, the more painful death becomes. Death is bearable

1.      if it sets an end to suffering

2.      if we identify ourselves with a group and the group survives

3.      if we feel that we have seen whatever there is to see

All these conditions are satisfied in simple societies, but not in the current visions of individualistic high-tech societies [Hahn, 121-124].


A hypothetical victory over death leads to paradoxical consequences as well:

Things do not gain meaning by going on for a very long time, or even forever. Indeed, they lose it. A piece of music, a conversation, even a glance of adoration or a moment of unity have their allotted time. Too much and they become boring. An infinity and they would be intolerable." (Simon Blackburn, Wikipedia, Immortality)




In the age of Enlightenment the insight into the futility of suffering was overruled by Condorcet’s vision of progress, but finally the evolution of knowledge proved to be ambivalent. In contrast to the philosophy of Enlightenment postmodern philosophy questions the benefit of reason. But what is the alternative?

1.      Drop science and technology because they are ambivalent and their abuse cannot be prevented?

2.      Resume the animistic lifestyle of hunter-gatherers because they were (are) happier [Everett]?

3.      Resume mythical world views because they are a prerequisite for happiness [Hahn 109-124])?

Even if people were happier and the world was safer in former times; it is impossible to turn back the clock and resume irrational world views. For the time being, “uncivilized” cultures require a protecting power.




5.2  The Ambivalence of Technology



Empirical findings

         In his influential book, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), Herbert Butterfield made a strong case against the “Wiggish” view that history involves progressive evolution toward where we are now. This picture is often another form of ethnocentric projection, and in fact changes of many sorts occur for many reasons (Relativism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


         Medical progress has reduced child mortality and maternal help, but also led to overpopulation and (as a consequence) to epidemics and wars.

         The development of high-tech torture puts the whole research for analgesics in question, even if the risk concerns only a tiny minority.

         The technological improvement of welfare may have to be “paid for” by increased technological risks.

         Ethical progress trails far behind technological progress. Oligarchies and nepotism are hard to control (even in socialism, communism and theocracies) and conspiracy theory is still alive.

         One of the issues of postmodern nihilism is the manipulation of feelings (values) by medicaments, drugs and the media

         The harm done to animals in factory farming, slaughterhouses and animal testing is immense. For information on the suffering of animals see List of animal rights groups.

         The world’s superpowers increasingly invest in military robots. A third world war was – so far – prevented by the MAD doctrine and not by ethical progress.





“Mr.Ghandi, what do you think of Western civilization?”


 “I think it would be a good idea.”






Pessimistic speculations

         If cancer, Parkinson’s disease and dementia replace death from bacterial and viral infections, then the prolongation of lifetime goes with a prolongation of suffering [Barash, 122]. The defeat of the mentioned diseases will hardly be the end of medical research and nobody knows if the trend from quickly killing diseases to long-term agonies can be broken. The striving for immortality theoretically creates the risk of hell on earth, i.e. the risk of eternal suffering.

         New forms of ecstasy create new risks of deprivation (drug withdrawal). Death becomes more threatening by the same degree, as life can be made more attractive.

         New technologies to prolong lifetime may be unjustly distributed and increase the suffering from early death.

         The higher the risk of terror, the more likely a restriction of privacy will be accepted by the majority. This in turn increases the risk to be controlled by dubious governments:

Universal surveillance is becoming technically feasible and could plainly be a safeguard against unwelcome clandestine activities. Techniques such as surgically implanted transmitters are already being seriously mooted to monitor criminals. If the threats escalated, we might become resigned to the need for such measures.(…) A “transparent” society in which deviant behavior couldn’t escape notice, may be accepted by its members in preference to the alternatives [Rees, 67].

         The increasing complexity of technology strikes back on all aspects of human life: education, economic and working environment and even the private sphere. Technological change seems to develop a momentum of its own. Individuals are increasingly controlled by complex systems [Revell].

         Doubts concerning the controllability of progress are not only caused by the complexity of culture, but also by the complexity and lacking controllability of each individual’s life. For information on this issue see An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Freedom of Will

         There is a growing awareness that the physical and mental capabilities of humans are stepwise surpassed and replaced by technology. Humans are in danger to be replaced by man-machine hybrids or genetically improved versions of their own species. The supersession of human intelligence by artificial intelligence may produce more losers than winners. Humans will be inferior to transhumans in much the same way as animals are inferior to humans [Bostrom]. Who guarantees that transhumans will not abuse technology?



Risk Factors

         It is often impossible to get “familiar” with risks because the power of contingency only reveals in a unique event: The worst case, i.e. the interaction of several areas of risk may be incalculable, especially if human error, irrationality and destructive potential is involved. According to chaos theory complex systems can break down in an unpredictable way [Leslie, 6]


-        Bhopal disaster

-        Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

         Access to modern technology can exert huge “leverage”. We are entering an era when a single person can, by one clandestine act, cause millions of deaths or render a city uninhabitable for years [Rees 61-63].

         The counter-productive effects and undesirable side effects of a new technology are often hard to estimate because they show up with a delay.

         Technologies involving unfamiliar risks (like new weapons and genetic mutations) are often imposed by threats of war and competition. The struggle for (economic) survival explains why technological innovation accelerates even in areas of high risk.

         Example for a combination of natural and man-made risks:

Eruptions of the scale of Mount Pinatubo 1991 occur roughly every 100 years. The impact of such eruptions needs to be taken into account when assessing long-term climate trends. Eruptions are sporadic, unpredictable and vary in size. Ash and gases vary in composition. These factors present a challenge to climatologists seeking to isolate volcanic effects from other influences on past global climate. There is a reasonably high probability that the temperature record will be influenced by volcanic activity in the next decade (Volcanic eruptions and climate change, by CSIRO Atmospheric Research).

         Interestingly the immense efforts to control complexity by means of systems theory create a new source of risk because the (imperfect or deficient) indicators and computer models are mistaken as reality [Gugerli].

         In an ancestral environment risk-tolerance improves the biological fitness [Birnbacher, 37]; in a modern environment it might be fatal.




5.3  Social Cycle Theories


Social cycle theories suggest that cultural decay is only a matter of time.


1)      One of the most important recent findings in the study of the long-term dynamic social processes was the discovery of the political-demographic cycles as a basic feature of complex agrarian systems' dynamics. The presence of political-demographic cycles in the pre-modern history of Europe and China, and in chiefdom level societies worldwide has been known for quite a long time and already in the 1980s more or less developed mathematical models of demographic cycles started to be produced. At the moment we have a very considerable number of such models


2)      Recently the most important contributions to the development of the mathematical models of long-term ("secular") sociodemographic cycles have been made by Sergey Nefedov, Peter Turchin and Sergey Malkov. What is important is that on the basis of their models the authors have managed to demonstrate that sociodemographic cycles were a basic feature of complex agrarian systems (and not a specifically Chinese or European phenomenon). The basic logic of these models is as follows:

a)      After the population reaches the ceiling of the carrying capacity of land, its growth rate declines toward near-zero values.

b)      The system experiences significant stress with decline in the living standards of the common population, increasing the severity of famines, growing rebellions etc.

c)      As has been shown by Nefedov, most complex agrarian systems had considerable reserves for stability, however, within 50–150 years these reserves were usually exhausted and the system experienced a demographic collapse (a Malthusian catastrophe), when increasingly severe famines, epidemics, increasing internal warfare and other disasters led to a considerable decline of population.

d)     As a result of this collapse, free resources became available, per capita production and consumption considerably increased, the population growth resumed and a new sociodemographic cycle started.


3)      It has become possible to model these dynamics mathematically in a rather effective way. Note that the modern theories of political-demographic cycles do not deny the presence of trend dynamics and attempt at the study of the interaction between cyclical and trend components of historical dynamics. Modern social scientists from different fields have introduced cycle theories to predict civilizational collapses in approaches that apply contemporary methods that update the approach of Spengler, such as the work of Joseph Tainter suggesting a civilizational life-cycle. In more micro-studies that follow the work of Malthus, scholars such as David Lempert have presented "alpha-helix" models of population, economics, and political response, including violence, in cyclical forms that add aspects of culture change into the model. Lempert has also modeled political violence in Russian society, suggesting that theories attributing violence in Russia to ideologies are less useful than cyclical models of population and economic productivity

(Social Cycle Theory, Wikipedia)






History doesn’t repeat itself……

historians merely repeat each other.


Author unknown






5.4  Other Reasons for Skepticism



Empirical findings

         The majority of the world population still adheres to irrational world views (see List of religious populations). Believers of the revealed religions maintain that we are not legitimated to valuate life or they assume that there is an omniscient god who knows the sense of suffering and doesn’t disclose it to humans. The belief in salvation and the hope that suffering will be compensated by happiness in an ulterior world also contribute to the tolerance of the world “as it is”. The best known illustration of the irreconcilable antagonism between a dogmatic and a critical rational foundation of ethics is the following passage in the Book of Genesis:

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: Of every tree of the garden (Eden) though mayest freely eat: But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil though shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

         Not only religions, but also most secular ethics influences people to think positive. The empirical data about suffering therefore has to be distinguished from its valuation. Interpretation can make the world look positive, without manipulating the survey data. Positive utilitarianism, for example, compensates the suffering of the minority with the happiness of the majority [Broome]. The evaluation of global suffering, however, is distorted by a status quo bias or existence bias [Metzinger 2017, 243]. For more information on this topic see The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.

         Right knowledge and right action are not the necessary result of a natural development as evolutionary epistemology and evolutionary ethics suggest. The Darwinian train is a train to nowhere [Hampe]. Ecological behavior, for example, is in the interests of the whole of humanity, but it is thwarted by unconscious biological/ evolutionary mechanisms.

-       Biological evolution is not only short-sighted, but absolutely blind with regard to the future: the design of the organisms is adapted to a "race in the here and now".

-       Genetic reproductive success (the ultimate biological measure) is based to a large extent on efficient resource utilization.

Both mechanisms stamped our psyche and created the mentality of depletion [Voland, 145].

         No utopia has ever existed. Large human societies tend to be governed by coercion. The instinct of warfare has been a driving force in nearly every civilization of the last five millennia, from ancient Mesopotamia to the British Empire.

A possible exception is the Indus civilization that flourished from about 2600 to 1900 before BC. The Indus script, however, is not deciphered and it remains unclear, if there were battles, sacrifice, torture and slavery as e.g. in the ancient Maya culture, which was once thought to be exceptionally peace-loving – until their hieroglyphs were deciphered [Robinson].

         The world has become slightly less peaceful between 2008 and 2015 [Institute for Economics and Peace, 45].






I don’t know with what weapons World War III will be fought,

but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.


Albert Einstein






Pessimistic speculations

         Religions (except Buddhism) tolerate all kinds of suffering which are not caused by humans. Among the successful traditions are Stoicism and Christianity. Both emphasize the divine origin of nature, as compared to the human origin of technology. Both developed in times, where little could be done to influence the course of nature and a positive attitude towards natural risks therefore improved the survival value [Birnbacher, 37]. The capability to glorify life and endure (natural) suffering which was promoted and awarded in both traditions contributed to their success.

         In the evolution of the nervous systems, both the number of consciousness subjects and the richness of the emotional nuances in which these subjects can suffer have steadily increased and this process has not yet come to an end. We are constantly forced to be as happy as possible - to feel good - without ever reaching a stable state. If we follow the naturalistic world view, there are no purposes (...). Subjective purposes arise in our brains, but evolution does not respect them in any way; It takes no account of the sufferings of individuals. If this is true, the logic of psychological evolution reveals that the fact of being caught in a hedonistic treadmill is hidden from the ego [Metzinger 2009, 280-281].

         Even in a society with perfect fairness suffering could be immense. Rawls’ principle of intergenerational moral impartiality allows such a state to persist.

         Because of the increased risks in violent conflicts the cultural trend goes towards less physical violence; see Steven Pinker. The decrease in physical violence in turn may have to be “paid for” by an increase in sadomasochism and/or by an increase in structural violence.

         Even if research comes to know that free will is no illusion, the normative force of reason could still be grossly overestimated. The fact that religiousness correlates positively with the fertility rate of a population [Blume] makes clear that reason is a means in evolution and not an end. If reason doesn’t serve the biological goal, it is simply dismissed, control is passed to irrational forces or the semantics of the term reasonable is modified until it complies with the biological goal. Suffering-averse ethics like Buddhism may be justified by experience, but as soon as it reduces the fertility rate, its adherents take themselves out of the game (see Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition). Compassionate, risk-averse and non-violence ethics succumbs in the competition with less compassionate, less risk-averse and more violent ethics. Ethical concepts are subject to the forces of evolution, as well as biological and technological concepts. Possibly life-affirming ethics of any kind is counter-productive in the long-run, because it serves an inscrutable evolutionary process which perpetuates suffering [Zimmer, 214-215].

         Brain research has created its own perspective under which one can look at the known part of the physical world and the evolution of consciousness: namely as an expanding ocean of suffering and confusion in a place where such a thing has not previously existed (...) Psychological evolution has not optimized us for lasting happiness - on the contrary, it has placed us on the hedonic treadmill (...). We can recognize this structure within ourselves, but we will never be able to escape it. We are this structure [Metzinger 2009, 280].




5.5  The Threat of Human Extinction



Extinction by natural forces

Fatalist, Hindu, back-to-nature and other philosophies maintain the thesis, that suffering cannot be defeated on a global level. In order to release this world from suffering, life as a whole has to be terminated by natural causes.


An asteroid measuring over 1000 meters in diameter is potentially capable of destroying human civilization. Chances of a major asteroid impact in the 21st century are a mere 0.0002 percent, although there is a 2 percent probability of Earth colliding with a 100 meter asteroid before the year 2100 (from Deflecting Asteroids Difficult but Possible)


Volcanic eruptions include a rare class of “supereruptions”, thousands of times larger than the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. A supereruption in northern Sumatra, seventy thousand years ago left a one-hundred-kilometer crater and ejected several thousand cubic kilometers of ash, enough to have blocked out the sun for a year or more [Rees, 97]


The term supervolcano refers to any volcano capable of throwing out at least 300 cubic kilometers of magma during an eruption. (…) One of the most recent was the Toba eruption, 74’000 years ago. A medium-sized super-eruption, releasing 1000 cubic kilometers of magma, would wreak the same devastation as a 1-kilometre-wide asteroid smashing into the Earth. (…) Previous super-eruptions have been linked to mass extinction events (…).

A super-eruption is 5 to 10 times more likely than an asteroid strike. At least one supervolcano explodes every 100’000 years or so, the geological record suggests [Ravilious, 32].



Conscious extinction

Philosophers who identify the human race or the mechanisms of life as the cause of suffering may develop a wish to destroy humanity or life as whole. The first promoter of conscious extinction was Eduard von Hartmann (1842-1906):

In The Self-Destruction of Christianity and the Religion of the Future (1874), Hartman predicts that humanity will come to a collective realization of the futility of their atheistic fates, and choose to bring about their collective annihilation (Investigating Atheism, University of Cambridge).


Hartman’s vision is resumed by the German philosopher Thomas Metzinger, who suggests that super-intelligent beings might tend to annihilate themselves. That could explain why it is impossible (so far) to make contact with alien intelligence [Ananthaswamy].

A different vision says that artificial intelligences could silently prepare for the extermination of all human beings – on purely ethical grounds [Metzinger 2017, 253].



Extinction by unawareness, high risk tolerance or accident

In his 1973 book, Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins, Konrad Lorenz addresses the following paradox:

“All the advantages that man has gained from his ever-deepening understanding of the natural world that surrounds him, his technological, chemical and medical progress, all of which should seem to alleviate human suffering... tends instead to favor humanity's destruction.” (Konrad Lorenz, Wikipedia)


Hartmann’s successors may wish to destroy life but (by the lack of access to technology) cannot realize their dreams. On the other hand global destruction could be caused by people who desperately want to live, e.g. the creators of the MAD doctrine, the millions of people who cause a climatic catastrophe or the transhumanist researchers who strive for omnipotence. The corresponding philosophy of apocalypse is therefore mixed with cynicism and irony or it insinuates that there is a subconscious death wish.

Ulrich Horstmann (*1949) pushed the pessimism and misanthropy of his mentor Schopenhauer to the extreme. He puts forth the theory that mankind has been pre-programmed to eliminate itself in the course of history—and also all its memory of itself—through war (thermonuclear, genetic, biological), genocide, destruction of its sustaining environment, etc. (Ulrich Horstmann, Wikipedia).


Self-destruction is not a new phenomenon in socio-biological systems. Animals can’t consider the long-term consequences of their actions and blindly attempt to maximize the propagation of their genes. Natural selection doesn’t invariably favor tendencies toward self-preservation, neither on the species level (see e.g. Autotoxicity in Plants) nor on the individual level [De Catanzaro].




A collection of ideas how the trend for self-destruction could be broken was published by Nick Bostrom in Existential Risks, chapter 9. But efficient countermeasures require an excessive reinforcement of control mechanisms. The price for preventing technological disasters and self-destruction could itself be disastrous [Rees 73-88].




5.6  Statistics and Risk Estimations




-        Human Suffering and Measures of Human Progress

-        List of anthropogenic disasters

-        World Health Statistics

-        World Report on Disability

-        Timeline of Wars

-        List of Wars by Death Toll

-        AKUF: Report on current wars



Risk estimations

-        Annual Report on Global Risks by the Global Challenges Foundation

-        Global risk report by the World Economic Forum

-        SIPRI Yearbook: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security

-        Doomsday clock

-        Global catastrophic risk

-        Human extinction




6. Conclusion


In analogy to the biological evolution of pain

- suffering increases quantitatively and qualitatively in the course of cultural evolution

- the general trend is an increasing inequality (injustice) in the distribution of suffering.


At the present state of knowledge it is impossible to foresee, if this trend can durably be broken.

The counterproductive mechanisms of technological and social change are largely unknown or repressed.


There is a fair chance that human suffering will end by the extinction of the human species.





An optimist thinks it is the best possible world in which we are living

–  a pessimist thinks this is true


Author unknown








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