Red in Tooth and Claw: Nature, Violence, and Veganism

Is nature essentially cruel? This might seem like a overly vague, all-too-heady question. How we answer it, though, bears heavily on our view of animals and how they should be treated. It’s the kind of question that, if we can explore it honestly and accessibly, can lead to shifts in cultural thought conducive to the widespread adaptation of vegan values.

In the course writing about veganism and animal rights, I’ve encountered numerous counter-arguments claiming (in reference to Alfred Tennyson’s phrase) that nature is inherently “red in tooth and claw.” The upshot to this assessment is that humans are justified in slaughtering them for food, fiber, sport, and general lust for power. As Jonathan Balcolmbe puts it in his wonderful book, Second Nature, “if nature is cruel and harsh, then we can claim our own savagery toward animals as merely part of the natural process.”

Mother nature is clearly not sponsoring a love-fest. But I wonder if popular culture and mainstream media haven’t grossly overstated nature’s predilection to cruelty. Popular explorations of evolutionary pressure repeatedly stress the violence marking animal behavior. No less an influential writer than Richard Dawkins (whom I read and admire) notes that “the total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation.” Nature shows and popular media reports, adhering to the notion that “if it bleeds it leads,” routinely highlight the drama of animal-on-animal violence. Over and over again, nature is exclusively characterized by blood-stained struggle to survive.

Animals–all of us–struggle. But it’s not always violent. Indeed, struggle is by no means singularly defined by cruelty. The quest to survive–the quest to eat, mate, and seek pleasure–demands not just violence, but cooperation. “Cooperation,” writes Balcombe, “goes to the very core of life.” Examples abound of social animals behaving altruistically. Capuchin monkeys will share fruit with a monkey that was not given any to eat. Jackdaws share preferred food items over less preferred food items. Female vampire bats will regurgitate blood to share it with a sick cluster mate.  And be assured: not all of this altruism is solely for survival–but for pleasure as well. Mammals will engage in oral sex, same-sex sex, and sex outside of fertility cycles. Happiness–and happiness attained through altruism and cooperation–matters.

Why focus on this kind of topic? Western culture is practically defined by the unthinking consumption of animals and animal-based goods. So much so that the prospect of affecting meaningful change can easily be thwarted by the carnivorous reality of daily life. I walk across my college campus, observe what people are eating, and reach my destination discouraged, to say the least. By stressing ideas as well as behavior, though, we go the foundation of human activity. Consciously or not, we all act on our beliefs. By challenging those beliefs, we hold out the prospect of change that’s more than incremental, more than one person at a time, and thus better for the animals who have no voice.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

One Response to Red in Tooth and Claw: Nature, Violence, and Veganism

  1. Pingback: The Vegan Dialogues « Eating Plants

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