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Is the cruelty in nature consistent with Judeo-Christian theism?
David H. Bailey
Updated 26 March 2022 (c) 2022
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." This is discussed in more detail at
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 a few of the examples he mentions, plus some others that have recently come to light:
- 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].
- 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].
- 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].
- 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].
- 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].
- 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].
- Sperm whales adopt deformed dolphin. In January 2013, researchers studying a group of sperm whales found that the group had evidently adopted an adult male bottlenose dolphin -- the dolphin nuzzled and rubbed members of the group, which reciprocated. Normally sperm whales avoid bottlenose dolphins, because they often chase and harass sperm whales and their calves. What's more, the dolphin has a rare spinal curvature that likely would have been seen as a deformity among its dolphin community. "Why would sperm whales accept this animal in their group?," said Monica Almeida e Silva, one of the researchers who published the study [Wald2013].
- 4000-year old crippled boy. In 2007, Australian archaeologists excavating a site in northern Vietnam found the 4000-year-old 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].
- Bonobos share with strangers. In January 2013, Duke University researchers announced that some bonobos they had been studying will happily share their food with a stranger (even if it means foregoing their own meal), provided that the stranger offers some social interaction. The researchers speculate that the common ancestor of humans, chimps and bonobos may also have had this trait [Bhanoo2013]. Along this line, researchers have also found that evidence that bonobos develop sensitivity to the emotions of other bonobos while still juveniles (ages three to seven), suggesting that this is a native, inborn trait, which, because of the close kinship of bonobos to humans, is likely is also inherited by humans [SD2013c].
- Monkeys care for dying and grieve loss. In May 2016, researchers at Kyoto University in Japan, who were observing a group of 150 snub-nosed monkeys at the Zhouzhi National Nature Reserve in China, saw the alpha male spend a tender final hour with his partner, who had fallen from a tree to her death. Before she died, he gently touched and groomed her, and after she died he remained at her side, gently holding her hand and behaving as if he was suffering significant grief over her passing [Coghlan2016].
- Humpback whales rescue seals. In 2009, marine ecologist Robert Pitman witnessed an incident where a seal, being pursued by hungry orcas, was rescued by a humpback whale. Seeing the distressed seal, two hummpbacks swam to the seal, which was thrown by a wave onto the back of one of the whales. That whale then arched its chest out of the water, protecting the seal. Intrigued, Pitman collected 115 other accounts of similar incidents, many from commercial whale-watching operations. Humpbacks were often observed bellowing, slapping fins and tails and otherwise "definitely on the offensive" in their efforts to protect seals [Stokstad2016].
Altruism in human society
More importantly, altruism and cooperation have been noted in all human societies, from the most "primitive" to the most "advanced" [deWaal2009]. In fact, the development of cooperation in human society is now thought to be a key step in human evolution. Chimpanzees, which in many cases exhibit mental faculties comparable to a small child, score much lower in cooperation and social interaction [deWaal2014]. In a similar way, monogamy is now thought to have played a key role in the dramatic increase in human civilization [Edgar2014].
Human parents (especially biological parents) frequently sacrifice their own welfare for their children, and seldom harm their own children. In one recent Canadian study, researchers found that genetic, married fathers were 39 times less likely to beat a child to death than married stepfathers, and were 320 times less likely than common-law stepfathers [Daly2001]. In a similar vein, mother-son incest is extremely rare, and biological father-daughter incest is three times less common than stepfather-daughter incest. These data and other related studies strongly suggest that evolution has built into the human psyche an instinctive repulsion against violence or sexual abuse of our own kin [Pinker1997, pg. 456-458].
Similarly, humans evidently have a deeply rooted aversion to incest between siblings, a phenomenon known as the "Westermarck effect." This was first noted in Israeli kibbutzim, communal villages in which boys and girls, close in age to one another, are raised in communal living quarters beginning shortly after birth. Although when adults they were free to marry each other provided they were not biological siblings, researchers were not able to find a single instance of marriage or even of sexual relations among those raised together. Evidently raising these children together mimicked the environment of siblings raised together and inhibited any sexual or romantic interest [Brown1991, pg. 120]. Similar results were found in a study of Chinese "minor marriages," in which a young girl was adopted into a family of a husband selected by her parents. Researchers found that such marriages were significantly less productive of children and significantly unhappier, with many more divorces, compared to traditional marriages [Brown1991, pg. 121].
Yet even these examples do not explain the many remarkable examples of altruism that we see in human society. Humanitarians such as Albert Schweitzer, Mohandas Ghandi and Mother Teresa abandoned promising careers, forfeited chances for financial independence, and instead devoted their lives to serving the sick, poor and unfortunate, all at significant personal risk and with no possibility of reciprocal benefit. In a similar way, German industrialist Oskar Shindler, at considerable personal risk rescued more than 1,000 Jews from extermination, certainly not because they were closely related kin, but instead because of an overarching desire to prevent human suffering and death. In response to a comment in the closing lines of Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene, "We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators" [Dawkins1976, pg. 215], British physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne adds, "Not only we can, but we frequently do." [Polkinghorne1998, pg. 18].
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.
For additional discussion, see
Evolution-progress and Violence.