Evolution v. Creation Metaphor Watch: Is Nature “Red in Tooth and Claw”?

In 1850 Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote In Memorium, a long poem of 131 Cantos, in memory of the death of his best friend, who died in 1833. 

Though In Memorium was written nine years BEFORE Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), Canto 56 of the poem has long been thought of as a kind of poetic response to the theory of evolution, for it is here that Tennyson coins the phrase NATURE RED IN TOOTH AND CLAW and bemoans the great and fearful lapses of time that the new science of geology was uncovering, and the extinct species being discovered

From scarped [steep] cliff and quarried stone.

In the popular imagination, the great lapses of geological time, the extinct species found in rocks, and “nature red in tooth and claw” have often functioned as a shorthand summing up of what organic evolution by natural selection means—and carries with it the implication that belief in evolution is dangerous to any religious ethic based on love of one’s neighbor, for it implies that individuals who practice such an ethic are acting contrary to nature, and what nature teaches us about our own short-lived insignificance in the universe, and thus are fools.

Some scientists, concerned with the popular and reductive summing up of nature as indifferent and “red in tooth and claw,” have tried to set some distance between Tennyson’s canto and evolution, noting that the same nature that fosters competition also fosters cooperation among organisms, and even evolves animals capable of deep affection and love for one another, as Tennyson had for his best friend.

Other scientists, like Oxford’s Richard Dawkins, while having no quarrel with the notion that evolution, over its eons of operation, fosters both violence and love, see no reason to distance evolution from Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw,” for it imaginitively captures something fundamentally true about organisms—and that is that their behavior is, at bottom, self-interested—or selfish

Life is always linked, however indirectly, with a strategy for survival—for bringing certain genes, by competition or cooperation, into the next generation. Hence Dawkins writes at the beginning of his brilliant and disturbing classic, The Selfish Gene (1976), and with his characteristic sharpness,

I think “nature red in tooth and claw” sums up our modern understanding of natural selection admirably. (2)

Darwin, in the sixth chapter of his Origin of Species (1859), expressed similar sentiments about nature’s fundamental selfishness, as in these three separate places:

The foregoing remarks lead me to say a few words on the protest lately made by some naturalists, against the utilitarian doctrine that every detail of structure has been produced for the good of its possessor. They believe that very many structures have been created for beauty in the eyes of man, or for mere variety. This doctrine, if true, would be absolutely fatal to my theory.

And here:

It is admitted that the rattlesnake has a poison-fang for its own defence and for the destruction of its prey; but some authors suppose that at the same time this snake is furnished with a rattle for its own injury, namely to warn its prey to escape. I would almost as soon believe that the cat curls the end of its tail when prepaing to spring, in order to warn the doomed mouse.

And here:

Natural selection will never produce in a being anything injurious to itself, for natural selection acts solely by and for the good of each. No organ will be formed, as Paley has remarked, for the purpose of causing pain or for doing injury to its possessor. If a fair balance be struck between the good and the evil caused by each part, each will be found on the whole advantageous.

Darwin, in the above passage, makes the body of each organism a kind of mini-Benthamite (Utilitarian) society—or Sim City—engaged in trade-offs that try to achieve, on balance, what is best for the organism’s reproductive prospects as a whole. This might entail a mix of aggressive and cooperative strategies. It’s an extremely interesting way of thinking metaphorically about each organism’s life, and its attempt to bring genes into the next generation.     

And one way to metaphorically characterize this fundamental self-interest and protection is “nature red in tooth and claw.”

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: Is Nature “Red in Tooth and Claw”?

  1. Ken says:

    To some extent E. O. Wilson’s expression that “morality is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate” sums up the notion that morality is not what we think it is, in spite of its use of teleology, which is inconsistent with natural selection – genes don’t fob and don’t care whether or not we cooperate.

    I think of Robinson Jeffers as a writer who tried to construct a Darwinian ethic, one that resists nihilism and finds a kind of transcendence or, at least, joy in the grandeur of a world made by chance and necessity, a world in which the only constant is change. But his inhumanist ethic was repugnant to many. It is hard to not see suffering and death as enemies.

    Aldo Leopold is another writer who tried to construct a Darwinian ethic – a kinder version, but still not anthropocentric. He tried to “think like a mountain.” That is hard too.

  2. Pingback: Bookmarks about Nature

  3. nothingbutthepub says:

    Tennyson didn’t coin the term ‘red in tooth and claw’. It was in common use at the time.

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