Aaron Hirsh in Nautilus:
Epidemics have a way of making one wonder about death. To put it plainly, in the raw form it takes as it first rises from our hearts: Why? Why on Earth does it have to be this way?
In The Plague, Albert Camus’ novel of harrowing disease in an Algerian city, Father Paneloux, a faithful Jesuit, steps to the pulpit and offers his explanation. “This same pestilence which is slaying you,” Paneloux says, “works for your good and points your path.” In another sermon, Paneloux goes further: “The suffering of children was our bitter bread, but without this bread our soul would perish from its spiritual hunger.”
A young Charles Darwin, too, wondered about this problem, and for a while, he thought perhaps he had found an answer. Indeed his argument had something in common with Paneloux’s sermon: Death and suffering were linked inescapably to a higher good, though Darwin’s good was different from Paneloux’s. Where the Jesuit placed spiritual direction and nourishment, Darwin inserted the evolution of wondrous living things. The final paragraph of On the Origin of Species includes this remarkable sentence: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.”