One of the ironies of this time of year is that, as cheerful Christmas decorations appear in shopping malls (even here in Beijing!) and gay festive music fills the air (even on this website!), a certain harshness becomes manifest in the wider world. At mid-to-high latitudes in the northern hemisphere, at least, it’s getting nasty out there. The days are growing short, the nights are growing cold, and food is growing scarce. Sensible birds are migrating south, and sensible mammals (and many other creatures) are hunkering down for a period of hibernation. To the Anglo-Saxons of the Dark Ages, November was the “Blood Month” when cattle considered unlikely to survive the winter were sacrificed. Modern city dwellers are somewhat insulated from the rougher side of the season, literally and figuratively, but human mortality remains higher in the winter than in the summer.
With the moon shining coldly through the skeletal branches of denuded trees, Nature seems less than ever like a benevolent, bountiful Earth Mother. A vicious old crone with a rusty knife up her sleeve, maybe, or an imperious bitch-goddess in the mould of C. S. Lewis’ White Witch. I would argue, though, that the emergence of her brutal streak should be seen not as an unfortunate shift in personality but as something more like the slipping of a mask. After all, Nature is a nasty piece of work at the best of times, once you look past the pretty sunsets and the adorable baby giraffes galumphing across the savannah (which will, if male, grow up to knock seven bells out of each other). I’m currently working my leisurely way through Dry Store Room No. 1, a book by Richard Fortey about the Natural History Museum in London. Fortey has a knack for writing in an understated yet wickedly evocative way about some of the more unpleasant creatures that have been studied by scientists based at the Museum:
Consider the Cameroonian tumbu fly (Cordylobia anthropophaga). The species name alone may furnish a clue. This unpleasant creature lays its eggs in places where it can smell the merest hint of urine. The larvae form ‘warbles’ in the flesh of the victim in the most sensitive parts of the body. For some time humans were infected by way of eggs laid on the gussets of knickers hanging out to dry – providing direct delivery to the right kind of protected habitat. When the little beasts got to feeding, the pain and embarrassment can be readily imagined.
A little later, Fortey mentions another species of fly whose attentions “can reduce a cow to pulp” – slowly and painfully, one imagines. A writer who seems even more fascinated by the dark side of Nature is James Miles, author of Born Cannibal. Miles is especially concerned with whatever instincts humans may have inherited from their close evolutionary predecessors, which results in a natural focus on primates:
All primates are born with an effectively identical behavioural genetic code, the code George Williams calls gross immorality. This codes for species-wide patterns of cannibalism, infanticide (and the voluntary mating with those animals that have killed your infant), rape, levels of lethal violence against same-species members many thousands of times higher than rates found in even the worst human societies, and absolute indifference to the suffering of non-kin.
Only culture, Miles suggests, allows humans to avoid lapsing into this “gross immorality” as a matter of course. There are a couple of important caveats here, to put it mildly. Miles is glossing over some real differences in behaviour among different primate species, and ignoring the fact that cooperation and altruism also play a role in primate societies. Nevertheless, Miles’ perspective is a welcome counterbalance to the excessively rose-tinted accounts of human nature that circulate in some quarters.
The upshot is that Nature is indeed red in tooth and claw, and her savagery acquires a whole additional dimension when her quite considerable age (billions of years) is taken into account. Most of the history of life on Earth, after all, has been just a long orgy of sex, death, precarious survival and slow evolutionary change. I rather doubt that even chimpanzees and dolphins experience suffering in the way humans do, and I’m pretty sure that Palaeozoic reptiles and amphibians didn’t. Nevertheless, the slow algorithm of mutation and winnowing that ultimately led to the emergence of human consciousness was wasteful and inefficient in the extreme, and presumably became increasingly cruel as mammals became more and more capable of processing pain, frustration and despair. Out there in Nature clean deaths are very much the exception, rather than the rule. Blind watchmakers are all very well, but their work tends to require tens of thousands of millennia and even more litres of blood.
Natural theology, in former times, was the pseudoscience of inferring the benevolent wisdom of Yahweh from the beauty and harmony of Nature. An honest natural theology would surely have to admit that Yahweh could be a right bastard. Atheism, however, offers no particular salvation. In the absence of the gods, humans have simply been coughed up by a brutal and indifferent universe. Nature isn’t a woman, a person, or even a thing – it’s just the sum total of the physical processes that take place on our wretched, magnificently cruel plane of existence. Insofar as those processes are indifferent to human welfare and comfort, they qualify as evil and inimical. It’s a good thing that we have a bit of holiday cheer, a bit of holly and ivy and mistletoe, to provide some measure of comfort in the teeth of the cold winter winds. Only the sun, rising fractionally higher on Christmas Day than it did on the nadir of the winter solstice, promises better times ahead.
Updated to add: Speaking of the brutality of nature, the Mail Online has published some terrific photos by Marion Vollborn of a non-fatal but somewhat bloody fight over territory between two male tigers. Accounts of aggression within animal species tend to downplay the possibility of real injury and instead emphasize the ritualistic and rather tentative nature of much of the fighting that takes place out there in Nature. Going for the jugular is undoubtedly more the exception than the rule, but one shouldn’t forget that it does happen.