Evolution v. Creation Metaphor Watch: Does the “War of Nature” Lead Its Survivors to “Vigor, Health, and Happiness”?

Given that most people do not have advanced degrees in mathematics or the sciences, debates and discussions surrounding evolution and creationism appear in the public square in the form of competing metaphors, similes, and extended analogies.

In other words, we use metaphors, similes, and extended analogies to simplify and grasp issues that might be otherwise inaccessible to us.

Hence we can keep a look-out for the ways in which our use of language, especially metaphorical language, frames and structures discussions of evolution and creationism.

Today’s metaphor concerns what the “war of nature” means, and comes from the end of chapter 5 of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). It is here that Darwin, perhaps implicitly appealing to Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarian philosophy (“the greatest happiness for the greatest possible number”), attempts to quell an obvious ethical objection to his theory: Isn’t natural selection a brutal process, generating gross levels of suffering and genocide for the benefit of only a few?

Here’s Darwin’s calming, epidural response:

All that we can do, is to keep steadily in mind that each organic being is striving to increase at a geometrical ratio; that each at some period of its life, during some season of the year, during each generation or at intervals, has to struggle for life, and to suffer great destruction. When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.

This “full belief” in the mostly benign nature of natural selection is qualified by Darwin twelve years later, when, in 1871, he publishes The Descent of Man. Toward the beginning of the third chapter of that book, Darwin writes:

It is often difficult to say whether animals have any feeling for each other’s sufferings. Who can say what cows feel, when they surround and stare intently on a dying or dead companion? That animals sometimes are far from feeling any sympathy is too certain; for they will expel a wounded animal from the herd, or gore or worry it to death. This is almost the blackest fact in natural history unless indeed the explanation which has been suggested is true, that their instinct or reason leads them to expel an injured companion, lest beasts of prey, including man, should be attempted to follow the troop. In this case their conduct is not much worse than that of the North American Indians who leave their feeble comrades to parish on the plains, or the Fijians, who, when their parents get old or fall ill, bury them alive.

Aside from the grossly racist comparison that Darwin makes between tribal people and animals, abandoning their weak for the sake of convenience, or for the survival of the “herd”—and implicitly distancing “civilized” Europeans from such behavior—Darwin here confesses that social animals of whatever type—cows or humans—having once been conditioned to belong to a group—and then to be suddenly and coldly abandoned by the group to linger alone, and suffer alone, and, at last, to die—is “almost the blackest fact in natural history.”

And the notion that Darwin entertains here, if not endorses, that natural selection might imply that a group’s survival depends upon abandoning or killing off its weaker members, forecasts the way that natural selection, the “survival of the fittest,” and the “war of nature” would be talked about among 19th and 20th century Social Darwinists and eugenicists.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Evolution v. Creation Metaphor Watch: Does the “War of Nature” Lead Its Survivors to “Vigor, Health, and Happiness”?

  1. Ken says:

    I think the cruelty of nature, including that of humanity, always made Darwin shudder. I sense terror in Darwin’s “calming, epidural response” and something less than “full belief” in the expression that you quoted here. Another example in Origin of the Species where I think Darwin used language like this to fight his terror and repugnance for the cruelty of nature is where he wrote that “we ought to admire the instinctive hatred of the queen bee” who kills her fertile daughters, I think the expression “ought to” is more likely to mean that he could not admire it than to mean he was endorsing it.

    It was the cruelty and suffering in life that turned Darwin away from his earlier belief in God. (A good God could not have made such a world.) In addition to reading Darwin’s writings as the development of a profound scientific paradigm, his work can be read as apologetics for the ways of nature, for the ways of a world founded not by God but on chance and necessity. Indirectly, Darwin’s work amounts to a theodicy – writing that absolves God of responsibility for the cruelty and suffering in life. He blames chance and necessity.

  2. santitafarella says:

    I agree with you that, by Victorian standards, and even by our own, Darwin was a sensitive and liberal person—someone who clearly loved animals and human beings—and opposed slavery. And I agree with you that, like a theologian justifying God’s ways to man, that Darwin does his best (at least in places) to justify the ways of nature to man, and give a Panglossian “all is ultimately for the best” argument for natural selection.

    But I’d also ask you not to rely solely upon the Origin of Species for your perspective on Darwin’s wrestling with the death and genocide implicit in his theory. I’d ask you, if you have not already done so, to read Darwin’s The Descent of Man—written a dozen years after he published the Origin. I detect, when I read this book, a distinct hardening of his position with regard to what survival of the fittest fully entails. It is hard to be a liberal (as I am) who fully accepts Darwin’s theory as science, and not be sobered by Darwin’s General Summary and Conclusion (the title of the last chapter in his book—chapter 21) to The Descent of Man. If you don’t have time for the whole book, read just the last couple of pages. It is there that Darwin most explicitly defends his cousin’s notions about eugenics (Mr. Galton) rather vigorously, and with a callousness and frank racism that I find deeply troubling.

    I think that the human world has a long, difficult road ahead, grappling with the consequences of Social Darwinism and what it implies with regard to eugenics. I don’t think that horrible chapter of history is even half-written yet.

  3. Ken says:

    I have not read Descent of Man, but now I am indeed curious (and frightened) to see what he wrote.

    I agree with your concern about the implications of his writings. I think I may have sounded like I was defending him where I suppose I only meant to analyze his thoughts. I do admire Darwin’s genius and ability to make such close observations of nature, and I do have the sense that he lived life decently. I do not mean to defend his work to the extent it argues that chance and necessity are the sole authors of life, and I think that a world that believes they are is a dangerous and hopeless world.

    BTW, I am really enjoying reading your literary analyses of his work.

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