Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

The guiding principle of Darwinism is the survival of the fittest, and there’s no argument here that this can be seen within the natural order. As this is so, I have yet to understand how atheists argue that morality is also part of the evolutionary process.

I believe the argument goes something like this: “Human beings, like other primates, are communal animals. We observe communal ‘caring and compassionate’ behavior among groups of gorillas and chimps. This communal, caring behavior has developed as a way for the whole group to survive and the successful survival of the group assures the survival of both the individuals and the species. Human morality is simply a more highly developed form of this basic communal and caring behavior.”

This sounds very plausible, but on examination it doesn’t hold up because basic communal compassion and nurturing is of a completely different order than the demands of morality. A mother nurtures her young. A dominant male protects the mother and child. A group of dominant males may protect the tribe or herd. A group of elephants seem to mourn their dead. A dog stands guard next to his master’s grave. A chimp shares his grape with another chimp who has been given celery out of kindness and a sense of fair play. We can multiply the examples of seemingly noble and ‘moral’ behavior and emotions among animals, and we can acknowledge these instincts within the animal kingdom.

Do these realities invalidate the idea of Natural Law? The atheist would say they do–that this ‘moral’ behavior is simply part of the way things are. Allow me to stand this on it’s head and point out that the existence of ‘morality’ within animals is further proof that the principle of Natural Law is even more ‘natural’ than we once thought. In less developed forms it exists within the animals as well. That is to say, it is written not only in human hearts, but into the whole warp and woof of nature itself.

We may conclude, “Well, there it is…it is simply part of the way the world works. No need to call in a Creator.” Really? Here we are faced with a strange contradiction. We say that nature is red in tooth and claw and the basic rule is the survival of the fittest, and yet there is this strange tendency–even among the animals towards ‘morality’ of some sort. Why on earth would a herd of elephants mourn their dead? Why would a chimp evidence fair play and sharing? Why would a dog grieve the loss of his master? Why should a dominant male protect his female and his young? The ‘rules’ of nature and the survival of the fittest would demand that the dominant male kills and eats his young, the dog eat the body of the dead master, the elephants walk on–oblivious to the death of one of their members and the dominant chimp should steal the grapes from the loser.

It seems clear that there is some higher rule, some more noble instinct–even among the animals–that develops into what we call morality.  This higher principle is one of self sacrifice, and because this contradicts the survival instinct it cannot be explained by the survival instinct.

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  • Reluctant Liberal

    We just talked about this a few weeks ago. Survival of the fittest is NOT how evolution works.

    Evolution works by promoting the species, kin group, or individual best able to promote the reproduction of their genetic material. An individual that can run faster than others of its kind can better escape predators. Therefore it is more likely to reproduce, causing its genes to be over-represented in the next generation. But a species that cares for members of its own kind is more likely as a whole to survive. So while self-sacrificing behavior may reduce the chance of the individual to pass on its genes, it increases the chance that others of its species will pass on their genes. Thus a species that has many predispositions to self sacrificing behavior could have an advantage.

    So yes, actually, evolution does account for self sacrifice. I think self sacrifice is more than evolution, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to ignore what evolution can and cannot explain.

  • Nathan

    Hi Father,
    I’m not entirely convinced those are examples of “moral” behavior in animals, rather they seem to be instinctual behaviors, i.e. it is in the very nature of the dominant male to protect the female and young in some animals and not in others (e.g. a polar bear). Morality requires free will, which hasn’t been demonstrated to exist in the animal world. E.g. it’s not true that some polar bears decide to protect their mate and their young and others do not, no polar bears do. We can’t judge the male to be morally bad for not doing it, it is not sinful behavior, it is just the natural behavior of the polar bear. Also, we don’t see animal behavior changing throughout observed history, e.g. male polar bears were not protecting the females 100 yrs ago and are not today and will not be 100 yrs from now. If the animal has no free choice in the matter, it isn’t really capable of a moral decision or moral praise or blame. This obviously isn’t true with man. E.g. we can see, in the animal kingdom, some species (e.g. beavers) mate for life, other species do not. Man, on the other hand, is morally required to mate for life, but is free to reject it and to live immorally.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I agree. I suggested that these were animal behaviors that were ‘moral’ on a much lower instinctual level–making the point that even at this base level there is a golden thread of ‘morality’ running through creation.

  • David F

    Reluctant has it right. Evolution can account for self sacrifice if the self sacrifice of an individual sufficiently improves the fitness of relatives it’s functional adaptive. Evolution is not fixed in place with Darwin any more than theology is fixed at St. Paul. Further just as biologists misinterpret and underestimate the sophistication of religion out of ignorance it’s easy to make the same error in reverse.

  • jose

    “Here we are faced with a strange contradiction. We say that nature is red in tooth and claw and the basic rule is the survival of the fittest, and yet there is this strange tendency–even among the animals towards ‘morality’ of some sort.”

    Tennyson came up with that expression to refer to predation and the general nastiness in nature. But scientists have been working since Tennyson’s days, and that vision is simply incomplete. As science makes progress, our perception of the natural world changes according to the new findings, which include the examples you gave about nurturing behavior, fairness, etc. So we find a range of behaviors in the natural world, from the horrible “zombie-ant” fungus to a young, depressed baby chimp adopted by another adult when his mother is shot down by poachers.

    I’m not familiar with elephants, but it’s easy to see why chimpanzees, who live intensely social lives in the same communities for many years, would find fair play and sharing important. Sharing reinforces social bonds, as does mutual grooming and reconciliations after fights; fair play is a topic of current research, no doubt related to empathy, which is the mindset beneath all these reciprocity-based behaviors. It’s not hard to see why a group of asocial chimpanzees wouldn’t last long.

    Science has no problem with this wide range of behaviors because it does not adhere moral meaning to the facts of nature. Now here’s a problem for you: if natural law permeates the whole of nature, including animals, why is there nastiness at all? Do you think the lion who kills all the cubs when he takes over a group is an example of God’s love for his creatures? Or does natural law only apply to those animals that science has discovered show rudiments of moral behavior?

  • David F

    The theological answer is that sin created the disunity in the natural world and in the new world to come the Lion will eat grass and lay down with the lamb. Sound familiar?

  • Lynda

    I would have thought the “survival of the fittest” was somewhat of a distortion or licentious elaboration of Darwin’s theories on evolution of certain species. Experience tells us that the practice of moral behaviour by man in a particular society conduces to the survival, the flourishing of that society.

  • Lori

    Yes…but how could sin have created disunity even before there were human beings on the earth? The red teeth and claws were there long before the sinful people.

  • Irenist

    Great question!
    Perhaps in much the same way, but operating with opposite effect, that Christ’s Redemption on the Cross allowed His Mother to be immaculately conceived decades beforehand. Spiritual realities exist outside spacetime. It is as trivial for them to act backwards and forwards in time as it would be for a projectionist unspooling a role of film to glance backward and forward between different frames.
    (I’ve occasionally wondered if sometimes many of our prayers are answered retroactively–but living in the timeline in which they were, we’d have no way of knowing. Nevertheless, upon hearing of an accident without having heard if anyone was hurt, e.g., I don’t think it absurd to pray “God, please reach back in time and let everyone have survived unharmed. ”
    I am currently awaiting the results of a bar exam I took this summer. I won’t know the results for a month or two, so I do find myself praying, “Lord, if it be Your Will, please let me have passed the exam.” The results already exist, but for me, they might as well be Schodinger’s Cat; I don’t know what they were and are yet, so I’ll keep praying.)

  • Mark

    “So while self-sacrificing behavior may reduce the chance of the individual to pass on its genes, it increases the chance that others of its species will pass on their genes.”

    That is perhaps one of most ridiculous non sequiturs I have ever heard. Who is feeding you such lousy peanuts? My God, come, eat some steak with us, friend.

    What you’re doing, unbeknownst to you and your scholastic society, is ascribing intelligence to the evolution process. Think about it . You’re asserting evolution is akin to an operating system in which there are arrays of programming instructions to respond to various inputs to ensure the system operates in a certain way to meet a certain objective…… And yet… And yet you are content to believe this highly intelligent operating system poofed into existence without an architect , blueprint or programmer . Really ? Who are the insane ones, us or you?

    What you’re doing by denying an intelligent designer for the process of evolution is the equivalent of asserting the iPad I am typing on right now made itself . Seriously. That is how wacky your theory is.

    Please come to the table of plenty and join us for a nice warm banquet. Stop settling for peanuts

  • Paul Susac

    Close but not quite.

    An individual (of any species) might sacrifice himself to protect his kin in so far as those kin are also carrying copies of his genes. So it’s not about THEIR genes, it’s about HIS genes IN THEM. Thus, a parent’s genes would be well served if he sacrifices himself for two or more of his offspring because (assuming there is still more time to reproduce in the life cycle of the individual), the copies of his genes in his offspring will live on. Genes algorithmically express themselves, in behaviors that promote their successful transmission into future generations.

  • Paul Susac

    Oops, this was in reply to Reluctant Liberal above.

  • Paul Susac

    So what is the evolutionary advantage of grief?

    To answer this let’s start with a related question: What is the evolutionary advantage of attachment?

    Attachment is a psychological phenomenon which causes the organism to form emotional bonds with others. These emotional bonds incentivize nurturing, and mutually supportive pro-social behavior which in turn results in increased opportunities for survival and mate selection for the individuals involved.

    ASIDE: Think about that for a moment. We human beings evolved the capacity to love one another as a strategy for passing on our genes. This means that ALL healthy humans have both a desire to love and a desire to be loved! Right now you are surrounded by apes who are genetically programmed to love you, and given half a chance they will! Pretty cool, huh?

    Ok, now on to grief. Evolution has not only equipped us with a capacity to attach to each other, it has also created a mechanism to dis-incentivize anti-social behaviors. Parents who abandon their young, who break up their pair-bonds or who get kicked out of their pack/tribe, suffer emotional pain as a result. We call this pain grief. This makes sense, because in the wild there are no lawyers to write up behavioral contracts and there are no state agencies to enforce them, so nature has installed a “fail safe switch” which causes us to suffer when we experience a loss. In effect grief increases the cost of abandoning our attached relationship.

    The grief switch activates ANY TIME we experience the loss of an attached relationship (voluntary or involuntary). This is because these sorts of emotional incentive mechanisms don’t need to be fine-tuned to specific social situations. This is why you may find that you are sad for “no reason” even when you choose to end a relationship that you know is bad for you. Evolution doesn’t care whether or not you are happy. Evolution doesn’t care about anything. It’s a mindless process that programmed you to have emotional responses whether or not they make sense in the here and now.

    So elephants and dogs grieve for the same reason we do: They are highly social animals with dependent childhoods, requiring a high degree of parental investment.

    For more on this subject I recommend:

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    We’re talking about someone who sacrifices himself for his enemy.