Is nature entirely “red in tooth and claw”?


One aspect of nature in general and evolutionary theory in particular that gives many Judeo-Christian believers some pause is its reliance on forms of competition that in many cases we would consider cruel. Parasites often destroy their living hosts from within. Female spiders, in many cases, devour their mates. And anyone who has watched a nature show on TV, with gazelles being chased by hungry lions, recognizes that nature is certainly “red in tooth and claw.” This fact was noted by Charles Darwin himself, who wrote in a letter to his colleague Joseph Hooker [Darwin1856], “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature.”

Many religious scholars have struggled with this issue, as part of the greater mystery of why suffering and evil occur. The philosopher David Hume, echoing an argument first made by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC), asked [Hume1935, pg. 244], “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then cometh evil?”

But there is an answer to Hume’s question: evolution. Yes, evolution, “which at first seemed to remove the need for God in the world, now has convincingly removed the need to explain the world’s imperfections as failed outcomes of God’s design” [Ayala2007, pg. 159]. In the words of Aubrey Moore, a nineteenth century British theologian [Moore1891, pg. 99], “Darwinism appeared, and, under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend.”

Catholic theologian John Haught adds the following [Haught2008, pg. 107]:

As the ultimate ground of novelty, freedom, and hope, the Christian God offers the entire universe as well as ourselves the opportunity of ongoing liberation from the lifelessness of perfect design. Evolution, therefore, may be understood, at a theological level, as the story of the world’s gradual emergence from initial chaos and monotony, and of its adventurous search for the more intensely elaborate modes of being. The God of evolution humbly invites creatures to participate in the ongoing creation of the universe. This gracious invitation to share in the creation of the universe is consistent with the fundamental Christian belief that the ultimate ground of the universe and our own lives is the loving, vulnerable, defenseless, and self-emptying generosity of God.

Is nature entirely “red in tooth and claw”?

What’s more, nature is not entirely “red in tooth and claw.” Many organisms exhibit remarkable cooperative behavior. The intricate behavior of bee colonies is just one of many examples. The point has been made perhaps most strongly by biologist Frans de Waal in a recent work that documents numerous examples of altruism, sharing and compassion among primates and other animals [deWaal2009]. Here are just a few of the examples he mentions:

  1. Oscar the cat. A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine documents how a cat makes daily rounds in a geriatric clinic in Providence, Rhode Island, sniffing and observing each patient, and then selecting one to curl up and purr beside. The cat has nurtured at least 25 patients, sensing with uncanny accuracy when one is about to die [deWaal2009, pg. 73].
  2. Washoe’s rescue. When Washoe, known as the first language-trained chimpanzee, heard another female chimpanzee scream after grabbing an electric guard wire at a zoo, she raced across two electric wires to reach the victim and pulled her to safety [deWaal2009, pg. 106].
  3. Social scratching. Wild chimpanzees in the Mahale Mountains in Tanzania have a curious custom of scratching and grooming each other, often for hours at a time. As de Waal notes, this “social scratching” is unlikely to be innate, because only the Mahale chimps show this behavior [deWaal2009, pg. 110].
  4. Chimps help humans. In an experiment at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, chimpanzees at a sanctuary in Uganda were shown a human unsuccessfully reaching through some bars for a plastic stick. Many of the tested chimps spontaneously came to help the person by picking up the item and handing it to them. They were not “trained” or “rewarded” for this assistance. The results held even when the experimenters increased the cost of helping, by requiring the chimps to climb a platform to retrieve the stick [deWaal2009, pg. 114].
  5. Dolphins assist a distressed companion. As a result of an explosion off the coast of Florida in 1954, a bottlenose dolphin was observed to be stunned — it surfaced, listing badly to one side. Soon two other dolphins came to its side, buoying it to the surface in an apparent effort to allow it to breathe while it remained partially stunned, until their companion had recovered [deWaal2009, pg. 128].
  6. Humpback whale thanks humans. In 2005, a female humpback whale was spotted off the coast of California entangled in (and being injured by) some nylon ropes. Divers from a rescue team spent about one hour in a difficult (and treacherous) job of disentangling the whale. When the whale finally realized she was free, she swam in a large circle and nuzzled each diver in succession, evidently thanking them for their help [deWaal2009, pg. 130].
  7. 4000-year old crippled boy (not in de Waal’s book, but worth mentioning). In 2007, Australian archaeologists excavating a site in northern Vietnam found the remains of a boy who had been crippled with fused vertebrae and weak bones. Subsequent analysis, published in 2012, concluded that he had suffered from a congenital disease known as the Klippel-Feil syndrome, which left him paralyzed from the waist down and with little use of his arms. Yet he lived for another ten years, evidently lovingly cared for by his extended family [Gorman2012].

Cooperation versus conflict

With regards to the cultural development of mankind, numerous writers have observed that all of human history can be seen as a progression in cooperation in lieu of war and violence. Scholar Robert Wright concludes that this built-in social impetus to pursue “nonzero sum games” is virtually a law of nature. He observes [Wright2001, pg. 17, 332],

[I]f … we talk about the objectively observable features of social reality, the direction of history is unmistakable. When you look beneath the roiled surface of human events, beyond the comings and goings of particular regimes, beyond the lives and deaths of the “great men” who have strutted on the stage of history, you see an arrow beginning tens of thousands of years ago and continuing to the present. And, looking ahead, you see where it is pointing. … Maybe history is … not so much the product of divinity as the realization of divinity.

In a similar vein, evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel, in his 2012 book Wired for Culture, argues at length that human society is different precisely because we have acquired a propensity for cooperation with a much larger group than our immediate family, potentially extensible to the entire human family. He concludes by writing [Pagel2012, pg. 369]:

The message of this book is that our genes have created in us a machine capable of greater inventiveness and common good than any other on Earth. The key is to provide or somehow create among people stronger clues of trust and common values than might otherwise be suggested by the highly imprecise markers of ethnicity or cultural differences that we have used throughout our history, and then to encourage the conditions that give people a sense of shared purpose and shared outcomes. That is the recipe that carried us around the world beginning around 60,000 years ago, and it still works.


So nature is much more than “red in tooth and claw.” Nature has endowed humans to set aside war and to see each other respectfully as allies in beating back poverty and ignorance, even in completely different societies that historically have been continuously at war. And nature has endowed humans with the capacity, seemingly far beyond the requirements of our basic survival, to contemplate our very existence. It is a compelling picture, one that led Charles Darwin to declare, as the final paragraph of Origin of Species [Darwin1859]:

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. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

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