[I’m writing this on a snow day, stuck indoors, in between episodes of work and playing with my kids].
A few years ago, Ed Yong started a tongue-in-cheek blog titled Nature Wants to Eat You. Playing off that idea, I wrote a blogpost citing several examples of altruistic behavior in various animal species, adding that “sometimes, nature may even want to hug you.” The point was that nature isn’t all bad. Nature isn’t nasty or nice; it’s indifferent. Out of that indifference, life has even evolved to allow some species to engage in play. Maybe, nature wants to play with you.
I quoted the primatologist Frans deWaal, who 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).
An evolutionary perspective properly emphasizes the importance of survival and reproduction. However, not every moment is filled with life-and-death-and-mating situations. 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 of those moments surely count for something, and they’re probably better spent when they are pleasurable, when we can find meaning and happiness, and when our relationships with those around us are cooperative rather than antagonistic. Somewhere in that calculus, nature has allowed several species to engage in play.
Example A. Goats playing on a metal sheet (source).
University of Colorado Professor emeritus Marc Beckoff wrote that one of the reasons that play might exists among other species is that it’s exploratory, to help them prepare for future environmental challenges: