Nature, Not Always “Red in Tooth and Claw”

In “River Out of Eden,” Richard Dawkins wrote this passage on the cruelties of nature:

 “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” (Dawkins 2008: 131-2)


I think this view of nature is one of the primary reasons that many people run away from the idea of evolution.  For some, the notion of an indifferent nature, where organisms can be reduced merely to genetic ‘copy me’ programs  with the goals of survival and reproduction, is too bleak. Eugenie Scott, Director of the National Center for Science Education, has written that for many non-biologists the notion that evolution is an unguided, mechanistic process implies that “life has no meaning.” Microbiologist Kenneth Miller, a staunch defender of evolution, has relayed that in his experience one of the main concerns of many anti-evolutionists is not with the science, but with the implications of evolution, which is perceived as threatening to moral order. For example, Miller referred to this statement from Rick Santorum, the former Presidential candidate and Senator from Pennsylvania:

“(evolution) has huge consequences for society. It’s where we come from: Does man have a purpose? Is there a purpose for our lives? Or are we just simply the result of chance? If we are the result of chance, if we are simply a mistake of nature, then that puts a different moral demand on us – in fact, it doesn’t put a moral demand on us – than if in fact we are a creation of a being that has moral demands.” Source.

I’ve encountered similar ideas elsewhere, from students, family and friends, or just floating out there on talk radio or the internet. I think to a lot of biologists, it’s not worth the effort to confront these ideas, since they rarely resolve anything and only end up stirring up conflict. Maybe it’s better to stay above the fray.

But I agree with Holly Dunsworth, who wrote that evolution has a PR problem because many people are offended by the idea that life boils down to survival and reproduction (though as she pointed out, “reproduction really worked out great for me!”). Sometimes, I take note on how evolution is perceived and portrayed by the public, and often it isn’t good. One example comes from October 2006, after yet another mass shooting in the United States (this particular time occurred in an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania). CBS News then had a running segment called “Free Speech” which featured ordinary Americans giving their opinion on current events. On this occasion, they invited the father of a child who had been killed in the tragic, infamous 1999 Columbine High School shooting, who said:

“This country is in a moral freefall. For over two generations, the public school system has taught in a moral vacuum, expelling God from the school and from the government, replacing him with evolution, where the strong kill the weak without moral consequences. And life has no inherent value.”

Despite having lost my own brother years ago, I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose a child under those circumstances, and don’t want to come across as being indifferent to the plight of that poor man or any parent who lost a child. But I still have to take issue with this portrayal of evolution, simply because it’s wrong and because it keeps recurring.

Nature is not always “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson wrote. Certainly it can be that. As the Dawkins quote above addressed, we face predation, debilitating infectious microorganisms, and the callousness of chronic disease and senescence. As Ed Yong put it, sometimes it seems like nature wants to eat you. But it can also be much more than these things, and we are fortunate for that fact (see Weiss 2010). The primatologist Frans deWaal explained why it is problematic to focus solely on the colder, cruel side of evolution:

“The error is to think that, since natural selection is a cruel, pitiless process of elimination, it can only have produced cruel and pitiless creatures. But nature’s pressure cooker does not work that way. It favors organisms that survive and reproduce, pure and simple. How they accomplish this is left open”  (2009: 58).               

Out of that pressure cooker comes many examples of species behaving altruistically toward kin, fellow conspecifics, or even individuals from other species. The bad news is that nature is indifferent (and often just plain weird). But the good news is that it’s not sadistic. Sometimes, nature may even want to hug you.                          

There are too many examples of cooperative behavior to mention, but here are a few, with a primate, mammalian bias. Arguably, some of these may even meet the stricter definitions of altruism:


  • A group of sperm whales near the Azores ‘adopted’ a malformed adult male bottlenose dolphin. (Link)
  • Keeping with the adoption theme, a flock of sheep adopted a young red deer in Suffolk in the UK. (Link)
  • A pair of titi monkeys adopted an infant from another group for more than a year, with the adult female nursing the infant aside her own offspring and the adult male providing additional care. (Link)
  • A mother chimpanzee drowned attempting to rescue her three-year old son in a zoo moat in Dublin, Ireland. (Link)
  • An adult male chimpanzee drowned while trying to save an unrelated infant who had fallen into water, again in a zoo moat. (Link – Goodall, 1990)
  • An adult female gorilla in an Illinois zoo carried an unconscious 3 year-old boy to an entrance used by zoo staff, as if to bring him to safety. (Link)
  • Wild mountain gorillas have been seen disabling snares they could otherwise have avoided, perhaps for the benefit for younger inexperienced individuals who might be caught by them. (Link)
  • Male savanna baboons, who are normally antagonistic toward each other, became much more peaceful after a tuberculosis epidemic wiped out most of the high-aggression individuals. This pattern of affiliative behavior persisted for at least twenty years, and into subsequent generations. (Link – Sapolsky 2006) 


This doesn’t even get into the examples of cooperative behavior from our own species. Sandra Aamodt has written that “Caring about others is part of our mammalian heritage, and humans take this ability to a high level. Helping other people seems to be our default approach, in the sense that we’re more likely to do it when we don’t have time to think a situation through before acting. After a conflict, we and other primates—including our famously aggressive relatives, the chimpanzees—have many ways to reconcile and repair relationships.” Along similar lines, Eric M. Johnson wrote that for most human groups, “generosity or altruism is always favored toward relatives and nonrelatives alike, with sharing and cooperation being the most cited moral values.”

Obviously, we do not always live up to those standards, but from nature’s pressure cooker cooperation has emerged repeatedly. Things aren’t so bleak after all.  



Aamodt S. 2012. Are we cooperative or competitive? Their relationship may surprise you. Oct 15. (Link

Cäsar C, Young R. 2007. A case of adoption in a wild group of black-fronted titi monkeys (Callicebus nigrifrons). Primates 49 (2): 146-148. (Link)

Dawkins R. 2008. River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. Basic Books. (Link)

De Waal F. 2009. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton Books. (Link)

Dunsworth H. 2012. Evolution reduces the meaning of life to survival and reproduction… Is that bad? The Mermaid’s Tale. June 8. (Link

Goodall J. 1990. Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe. (Link)

Johnson EM. 2012. Ayn Rand vs. the Pygmies: Did human evolution favor individualists or altruists?. Slate Oct 3 (Link)

Sapolsky RM. 2006. A Natural History of Peace. Foreign Affairs. Feb. (Link)

Weiss KM. 2010. “Nature red in tooth and claw,” So What? Evolutionary Anthropology 19: 41-45. (Link)



19 thoughts on “Nature, Not Always “Red in Tooth and Claw”

  1. There’s been a noticable shift away from evolution as sturm und drang & an increased focus on things like the evolution of friendship, love, belongingness, empathy. We have people like Barbara King, Barbara Smuts, Frans de Waal, & many others to thank for this shift. I like this talk by Jeremy Rifkin too, in discussing the importance & implications of empathy:
    Larry Schell always emphasized this to an extent when talking about Frisancho definition of adaptation as (paraphrasing), adjusting to the challenges to life. He said that reproduction & survival really isn’t all there is, is there? Why don’t we say that adaptation is adjusting to the challenges OF life? It’s certainly not just kill or be killed. The biological basis of life is reproduction AND maintenance, whether at the cellular level & maintenance is the production of proteins, or at the orgasismic level & maintenance is taking care of your family, or at the community level & maintenance is repairing & healing a community. I just lectured on this today, so I’ve been thinking about it too & it’s fresh. Nice post. Thanks, Patrick.

  2. Thanks, Chris. The people you cite are all good examples, and I like how you frame the issue of maintenance. I think a little life history theory helps us make sense of the general ‘gameplan’ of how a species will grow, develop and reproduce. For long-living species like ourselves there is a LOT of time to spend responding to life’s challenges, before, during, and after making it to the age of reproduction. All those minutes surely count for something, and they’re probably better spent when our relationships with one another are on the cooperative side.

  3. Do you or any of your followers know about a theoretical biologist who wrote about the selective benefits of avoiding conflict? I recall a paper from the 1970s in the journal of theoretical biology maybe, but I’ve never quite been able to find it. I remember it as an elegant corrective to the notion that aggressive behavior (or fighting, anyway) is favored by natural selection.

  4. On GR Price “George Robert Price (October 6, 1922 – January 6, 1975) was an American population geneticist. Originally a physical chemist and later a science journalist, he moved to London in 1967, where he worked in theoretical biology at the Galton Laboratory, making three important contributions: first, rederiving W.D. Hamilton’s work on kin selection with a new Price equation; second, introducing (with John Maynard Smith) the concept of the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS), a central concept in game theory; and third, formalising Fisher’s fundamental theorem of natural selection. After giving all his possessions to the poor, he committed suicide.”

  5. Patrick, liked this piece a lot. Was thinking along these lines as teaching Intro to Bio Anthro this week, and the classic view of selection and of genetics. It ends up missing life. I’m planning a follow-up lecture on Tuesday on the other Forces of Evolution, not the ones just there in the textbook.

    One thing that made me think a bit differently this week was Krulwich’s post on size and mortality. I liked the artistry of it more than the science, as it’s missing the crucial why (math as law comes to take that place). But these lines hit home:

    “It’s hard to believe that creatures as different as jellyfish and cheetahs, daisies and bats, are governed by the same mathematical logic, but size seems to predict lifespan. The formula seems to be nature’s way to preserve larger creatures who need time to grow and prosper, and it not only operates in all living things, but even in the cells of living things.”

    I wasn’t teaching the “grow and prosper” part, just competition and genes into the next generation. But it leaves out the how, the same as Krulwich’s math. Focusing on how we prosper, on that relentless math of life, that too is a way to think through things.

  6. Thanks Daniel. Glad you liked it, and I appreciate the challenges with teaching evolution in Intro to BioAnthro, and the need to inject a bit more life beyond forces of evolution. I’ve had another post in mind that speaks to the points you make here, about the “grow and prosper” part of life. We kind of live in different levels, neither of which we’re consistently conscious of. There’s the survive, grow, pass on genes level, and the “suck the marrow out of life” level.

    Anyway, I’ll have to develop these thoughts further before I can articulate them in any depth, but it’s bizarre that evolution would allow us to have both. It’s also odd how we jump between them, doing things that are at their base about survival/reproduction, and others that evolutionarily speaking are kind of frivolous (whatever that activity may be- I don’t want to deride anybody’s hobby). Yet people can derive so much meaning and happiness from the frivolous, to the point that they can be fulfilled without one of the original functions of the organism.. to pass on their genes.

    There’s a great quote by Steven Pinker on this when he mentioned never having children “By Darwinian standards I am a horrible mistake. . . But I am happy to be that way, and if my genes don’t like it, they can go jump in the lake.” Perhaps evolution has gotten us to the point where we can grow and prosper in whatever ways are meaningful to us, so we don’t miss out on life.

  7. I sympathise with your comments, although I always find it difficult to decide exactly who bears the responsibility for (in essence) dispelling the naturalistic fallacy from public perception of evolution. After all, when you look at the other sciences, you see a long history of progress in which researchers have never had to morally justify their discoveries or spend time making them palatable for a population that is unfortunately left under-educated by an incompetent state. So (although I don’t think this is what you were necessarily saying), I’m wary of anyone who criticises scientists for not making the science comfortable.

    Meanwhile, so long as some scientists do want to engage with this appetite for prettified evolution, we have to make sure that politically-charged pseudoscience does not infiltrate the subject, e.g. group selection.

  8. Callum, you raise difficult questions about the role of science’s obligation to the public. On the one hand, the search for truth is sacrosanct. On the other, there is the need for science to share it’s findings and to try to communicate it well. Whatever we communicate will be interpreted by people based on their prior knowledge and how it fits with what they already know. And we all have different levels of knowledge of different subjects.

    Like you, I don’t think that scientists are obligated to prettify things or make them comfortable, but it’s clear that people have a very incomplete picture of how evolution works, and that will color whether they want it to be taught to their children. We shouldn’t give the impression that evolution is all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. But it’s not Mordor either. Like deWaal said, how a species accomplishes its own strategy for survival and reproduction is left open.

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  10. I think perhaps you’re misinterpreting Dawkins’ quote. I don’t think he’s principally arguing that nature is all about competition. Rather, his thesis is that nature has a lot cruelty in it, in fact far more than human society has, so if the cruelty in human society is a theological problem then the cruelty in nature must be an even greater one. Your argument and his are not closely related.

    • You’re right. I probably could have done a better job of putting Dawkins’ quote in context, but it was a lengthy quote and thought it stood well on its own. In truth, I really wasn’t arguing against him. Rather, I just thought his description of nature was a powerful one.

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