From The War Of Nature From Famine And Death

Clear-headed as ever, Darwin recognized the moral paradox at the heart of his great theory. He didn't mince words - but he offered the mitigating reflection that nature has no evil intentions. Things simply follow from 'laws acting all around us', to quote an earlier sentence from the same paragraph. He had said something similar at the end of Chapter 7 of The Origin:

it may not be a logical deduction, but to my imagination it is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts as the young cuckoo ejecting its foster-brothers, - ants making slaves, - the larvae of ichneumonidae feeding within the live bodies of caterpillars, -not as specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.

I've already mentioned Darwin's revulsion - widely shared by his contemporaries - in the face of the female ichneumon wasp's habit of stinging its victim to paralyse but not kill it, thereby keeping the meat fresh for its larva as it eats the live prey from within. Darwin, you'll remember, couldn't persuade himself that a beneficent creator would conceive such a habit. But with natural selection in the driving seat, all becomes clear, understandable and sensible. Natural selection cares naught for any comfort. Why should it? For something to happen in nature, the only requirement is that the same happening in ancestral times assisted the survival of the genes promoting it. Gene survival is a sufficient explanation for the cruelty of wasps and the callous indifference of all nature: sufficient - and satisfying to the intellect if not to human compassion.

Yes, there is grandeur in this view of life, and even a kind of grandeur in nature's serene indifference to the suffering that inexorably follows in the wake of its guiding principle, survival of the fittest. Theologians may here wince at this echo of a familiar ploy in theodicy, in which suffering is seen as an inevitable correlate of free will. Biologists, for their part, will find 'inexorably' by no means too strong when they reflect - perhaps along the lines of my 'red flag' meditation of the previous chapter - on the biological function of the capacity to suffer. If animals aren't suffering, somebody isn't working hard enough at the business of gene survival.

Scientists are human, and they are as entitled as anyone to revile cruelty and abhor suffering. But good scientists like Darwin recognize that truths about the real world, however distasteful, have to be faced. Moreover, if we are going to admit subjective considerations, there is a fascination in the bleak logic that pervades all of life, including wasps homing in on the nerve ganglia down the length of their prey, cuckoos ejecting their foster brothers ('Thow mortherer of the heysugge on y braunche'), slave-making ants, and the single-minded - or rather zero-minded - indifference to suffering shown by all parasites and predators. Darwin was bending over backwards to console when he concluded his chapter on the struggle for survival with these words:

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.

Shooting the messenger is one of humanity's sillier foibles, and it underlies a good slice of the opposition to evolution that I mentioned in the Introduction. 'Teach children that they are animals, and they'll behave like animals.' Even if it were true that evolution, or the teaching of evolution, encouraged immorality, that would not imply that the theory of evolution was false. It is quite astonishing how many people cannot grasp this simple point of logic. The fallacy is so common it even has a name, the argumentum ad consequentiam - X is true (or false) because of how much I like (or dislike) its consequences.

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Responses

  • Mara
    What does the mortherer of the heysugge on y braunche mean?
    8 years ago

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