How Cruel is Nature?

Recently I saw an advertisement on television for a nature series titled Trials of Life. The ad claimed "uncensored, shocking, explicit footage....of a savage and untamed realm" that would make me change how I look at myself and nature. Skeptics frequently respond to design arguments for the existence of God by citing the cruelty of the natural world as a contradiction to the nature of God. There is no question that there is violence in nature. The degree of that violence and the actual cruelty of it, however, is another matter. It is the claim of this discussion that there is no contradiction between the wisdom of God's design in the world and the reality of what happens in the natural world. There are, however, some major misconceptions and exaggerations that need to be addressed in order to believe that the previous statement is true.

Man is a neutral bystander in observing nature. It is almost impossible for man to observe nature and not let his own nature influence what he observes. The first thing we do is anthropomorphosize what we see--in other words, we attach humaness to what we see. We assume a solitary animal is lonely. We think the death of one of the group is mourned or viewed as a great loss. We read in our own emotions and cares to the experiences of what we observe. Comments by observers that involve words like lonesome, worried, spoiled, stressed out, pleasured, etc., are human read-ins and are usually misapplied.

Even a more real problem is the influence that man has on the natural situation. Several writers in the 197Os reported on the barbaric nature of the female praying mantis in the reproductive relationship with the male. Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard was one of those who gave elaborate evolutionary explanations as to why, after copulating, the female praying mantis bites off the male's head and eats his entire body. In recent years, it has been reported that this behavior is only seen when the mantis is in captivity. In nature, it apparently does not happen. Humans in captivity will do things they would not ordinarily do. No behavior seen under such conditions is indicative of what the organism normally does. It is exceedingly difficult to observe nature without influencing it, and speculations about the cruelty of nature with such unusual influences are rarely valid.

Nature is mostly violent. Modern textbooks tend to focus on talk of cutthroat competition in nature. Dr. Betsy Dyer, a biologist at Wheaton College in Massachusetts says, "Symbioses are the rule rather than the exception..." Symbioses refers to two organisms that live together in such a way that both are benefitted. There are countless examples that can he given of symbiotic relationships. In the past decade, there have been extensive studies done on the relationships that exist between fungi and the root systems of plants. We now know that there are 6,000 fungi species that interact symbiotically with over 300,000 types of higher plants. These fungi grow on root systems, using the plant's chlorophyl and photosynthetic processes to produce some of the food the fungi need. Fungi help the plant by forming vast thread-like nets that can cover miles of territory. They bring nutrients to the plant's roots, provide hormones the plant uses, and eliminate some toxins.

This is just one example of a vast symbiotic relationship that has been generally ignored by many scientists. The point is that violent situations are not the rule in nature. In Discover (April, 1993, pages 24-26), Anne Fausto-Sterling has an article tilled "Is Nature Really Red in Tooth and Claw?" The subtitle of the article is "Maybe it's time to stop thinking of the world as a dog-eat-dog sort of place."

Death is necessarily cruel. We have all seen movies of a pride of lions killing a zebra, a pack of wolves killing a moose, or a shark killing a seal or fish. It is easy for us to anthropomorphisize what we see and be repulsed by death of any kind. The older this writer gets, however, the less repulsive death gets. Mercy killings, assisted euthanasia, and abortion are all becoming a part of the moral issues of our day. Why is it that skeptics view the death of a human being as desirable in a wide variety of situations and yet refuse to apply the same thinking to a moose or seal or zebra. The fact is that predators, when they are not influenced by man, usually kill their prey quickiy, kill only what they can eat, and kill the sick, elderly, overpopulated, and injured. In human beings, moral considerations become an issue, but in dealing with animals, there are clear advantages to this design.

I am not suggesting that we cannot see things in nature that disturb us and that we do not understand. The fact is, though, that the better our understanding becomes, the more we see a logical reason for what happens. Nature is mostly symbiotic, mostly merciful, mostly understandable, and always wise. The wisdom of the design built into the natural world has been so great that it has survived man's arrogance, immorality, selfishness, exploitation, carelessness, and pollution. That, in and of itself, is a testimony to a superlative design.

For that which can be known of God lies plain before our eyes,... through the things He has made.. The unbeliever then is without excuse. --Romans 1:18-20

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