Michael Murray

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Sunday Quote! – Do Trilobites Yield a Greater Good?

nrtc-murrayEvery Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!

Trilobites Yield a Greater Good

Recently, I finished reading Nature Red in Tooth and Claw by Michael Murray. It is, essentially, a look into animal suffering and how it plays into the problem of evil. It was a phenomenal read and I have to say I learned quite a bit from it. One quote I particularly enjoyed was actually from a quote Murray provided from George Frederick Wright, a 19th century theologian and geologist.

The purpose of that low organism [the trilobite] is by no means exhaustively explained when we have taken a measure of the sensational happiness he derived from his monotonous existence…  But a far higher purpose is served in the adaptation of his complicated organism and of the position of his tomb in a sedimentary deposit to arrest the attention and direct the reasoning of a scientific observer. The pleasure of one lofty thought is worth more… than a whole heard of sensational pleasures. (142, cited below)

There is much to unpack in this quote, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll just examine one facet. Wright asserted that the final cause–the ultimate purpose–of a trilobite is not merely found in its own existence, but also in its existing to “arrest the attention and direct the reasoning” of a more highly developed organism. Indeed, Wright argued that the learning the life (and death) of the trilobite brought to the scientific observer was a far greater good than the life the trilobite lived of sensational pleasures.

A number of issues would need to be addressed before a fuller theodicy could be developed from this point. First, not every trilobite was able to convey its life to the good of a scientific observer. Second, is the good of scientific observation really better than sensational life of the trilobite?

Of course, I personally think the point by Wright is interesting and compelling to a point–but to develop that argument would take as much space as Murray dedicates to it. My final observation would be that Wright’s argument was not intended as the final word on the subject. It is but one among many facets of a greater good theodicy or a conjoined theodicy with other varieties of approaches to the problem of evil. Nature Red in Tooth and Claw develops a number of these in very interesting and compelling ways. I recommend it.


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Animal Pain Re-Visited– Over at Reasonable Faith, Michael Murray defends some theses of his book that I discussed above.


Michael J. Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (New York: Oxford, 2008).


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