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.