Red in Tooth and Claw

During 1833, Arthur Henry Hallam died suddenly and unexpectedly. This would be one of those sad but unremarkable facts of history were it not for his close friendship with Alfred Lord Tennyson. Tennyson spent the next 17 years struggling with the death of his friend. During this time, Tennyson composed “In Memoriam,” a long poem that wrestles with the shock, sadness and despair he experienced and his search to find meaning from the loss. In Cantos 55 and 56, he penned these words:

Are God and Nature then at strife,

That Nature lends such evil dreams?

So careful of the type she seems,

So careless of the single life, ...

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.

From scarped cliff and quarried stone

She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone;

I care for nothing, all shall go.’ ...

Who trusted God was love indeed

And love Creation's final law

Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw

With ravin, shriek'd against his creed

Anyone who has experienced the unexpected or even the expected loss of a loved one can probably understand some of what Tennyson felt. One incident of incredible evil can color one’s thinking in such a way that it eclipses everything else. But is nature really as grim as Tennyson depicts it? Is nature intrinsically “red in tooth and claw?”

Tennyson was not alone in his concern that nature may be at its core centered on suffering and death. In fact, the portion of In Memoriam quoted above is thought to have been written in response to Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation published by Robert Chambers in 1844, which proposed an evolutionary origin of the universe and life before Darwin published his Origin of Species. Among the evidence discussed was the extinction of fossil species. 1844 was the same year that Darwin wrote what is known as his “1844 Sketch,” a brief summary of his ideas about evolution. Darwin seems to have shared the view of Chambers that older inferior organisms must be replaced by more advanced organisms and to see this cruel concept as a central part of his understanding of nature. In 1856 he wrote to his friend Joseph Hooker:

“What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horribly cruel works of nature.”[1]

It becomes clear from Darwin’s later writings that his perspective led him to view all of nature, including humans, as pitted against one another in a struggle for survival, one in which races he considered to be less civilized must inevitably be wiped out:

“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.”[1]

In this view he was in complete agreement with Chambers, but is this really what is going to happen? The Bible suggests a more optimistic view of nature and humanity. King Solomon wrote:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians stressing that, at least in Christ, there is not a difference in value between people, whatever their race or social status:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28 NIV

Is there some way of observing nature impartially to determine whether the grim view embraced by Darwin or the more optimistic biblical view is better supported by the evidence? Or is life really more complicated than simply one or the other of these views?

It is an oversimplification to say that Darwin’s view was exclusively depressing and the biblical view is nothing but joy and light. Darwin wrote at the end of The Origin of Species about the wonder that is present in nature, with particular reference to the amazing interrelationships between organisms, and optimistically proposes that progress though evolution will lead to organisms more perfect than we may even have now.[2] And the Bible, as it seeks to convey God’s solution to it, talks about suffering in nature. For example, Paul, looking forward in hope to the promised new creation, observed that, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” Romans 1:22 NIV.

Perhaps a better question would be, is the creation dominated by competition, struggle and suffering? Are these the defining principles that result in the occasional beauty that we see? Darwin put it this way:

“[F]rom the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.[1]

The biblical alternative is that the creation was, and still is, wonderful, but is marred by sin. In other words, the goodness God created is there, at least in part, and necessary for life to work, while the suffering and death is an imposition on what was initially created “very good” (Genesis 1:31).[2] Again, it is Paul who states this clearly, Romans 5 is an excellent example of this, where he ends with the hope-filled observation that: “… just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:21 NIV). He later notes, in Romans 8:21 NIV, “that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

Someone seeing reality from the perspective of Darwinism should be alert to every flaw in nature; every evidence of struggle and, perhaps, be a little surprised at beauty and altruistic behavior. The biblical perspective is less constraining. While there is plenty of room for disagreement, it could be persuasively argued that Christians are in a better position to determine whether life is primarily based on struggle suffering and death or elegant, cooperative interdependence. The Bible addresses both evil and good, providing an explanation of both. There is no compulsion to see only peaceful cooperation in nature or only struggle.

Still, while it is impossible to completely set aside one’s worldview, it should be possible to at least try to look at nature, particularly the systems by which life works, and determine whether they are more commonly about “war” or cooperation. When we do this, it is fairly obvious that life probably could not exist, at least as we know it, if all species – or all individuals within species – were at war for survival. In other words, life is not “a kingdom divided against itself,” which Jesus Himself noted could not stand (Matthew 12:25,26; Mark 3:24; Luke 11:17,18).

While all organisms ultimately die, what should be surprising is how few pathogenic bacteria there are and how few predators. This is especially true relative to the vast systems of cooperation we see between organisms. In general, plants do not seem to be at war with the fungi that they live with. In fact, both organisms benefit when fungi amplify the surface area of roots, providing water, minerals and protection to the plant, which, in exchange, gives sugar to the fungus.

On a grand scale, ecological cycles tend to illustrate the division of work in nature that makes cooperation an essential element. Some years ago, my friend and colleague Henry Zuill and I published a paper in Origins on the subject of the nitrogen cycle.[1] This ecochemical cycle operates on a global scale with different organisms performing different steps in the cycle. The amazing thing is that each of the organisms involved – and there are many of them – benefits in some way from their role in the cycle, while at the same time being dependent on the other organisms in the cycle and providing benefits to organisms that are less directly involved. In fact, without the nitrogen cycle, life as we know it appears to be impossible.

Another example of life’s pervasive cooperative interdependence has been the recent realization that complex multicellular organisms live with an extensive microbiome that appears to be essential for their health. This realization has played a major role in development of effective therapies such as distasteful sounding, but remarkably effective, fecal transplants and a booming industry of “probiotic” foods. After more than a century of war with bacteria and other microorganisms, we are finally beginning to realize that most of them are our friends, not enemies. Without them, we probably could not survive, at least in any state of normal health. This should make the discovery that our bodies contain more non-human cells than human cells good news rather than a startling worry.[2]

Both Materialistic Darwinists and Bible-believing Christians should be able to see the beautiful cooperative relationships that pervade nature. I believe that the Darwinian view of life as intrinsically at strife is at odds with the most common reality observed among living things, peaceful cooperative interdependence. This is what makes the suffering that we do observe in nature so startling. Death and suffering are not the cruel tools of progress, they are the consequences of sin that Jesus Christ, the Creator God, has paid the price to overcome. Vestiges still evident today of the beauty that pervaded God’s very good creation provide good reason to look forward to His “new creation” Revelation 21:5. Ultimately, Tennyson himself, through the eyes of faith, grasped the hope that God’s Word gives to all of us who live in a world where we understand so little and suffering is truly an evil in which we can find no meaning.

Thou, from the first, unborn, undying love,

Albeit we gaze not on thy glories near,

Before the face of God didst breath and move,

Though night and pain and ruin and death reign here.

Love – Alfred Lord Tennyson


Timothy G. Standish

Geoscience Research Institute


[1] Zuill HA, Standish TG. 2007. Irreducible Interdependence: An IC-like ecological property potentially illustrated by the nitrogen cycle. Origins 60:6-40.

[2] Note that this is possible because bacterial cells, on average, are much smaller than human cells. But the microbiome is not made up of only bacteria, eukaryotic cells are involved as well.

[1] Darwin CR. 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 1st Edition. John Murray, London. P 490.

[2] I am certain that there is someway of misreading my words or criticizing the phrasing I use here. I am not attempting to make either a grand theological statement, or even a subtle one. I am trying to state an idea in clear simple and concise language that an average reader should be able to understand. Of course, this may mean that some theologians or philosophers, either over trained or untrained, will manage to criticize something about it.

[1] Charles R. Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex 2d edition. (London: John Murray, 1882), 156.

[2] Darwin CR. 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 1st Edition. John Murray, London. P 489.

[1] Darwin, CR. 1856. July 13, Letter to Hooker.