September 26, 2023 | David F. Coppedge

Nature Read in Youth and Paw

The wild chase of predator after prey happens,
but we shouldn’t make overly much of it.

 

Lions have to eat. Yes, the lioness will prowl upon a herd of wildebeest or zebra, break into a fast gallop, and leap upon her target, gripping its neck or throat and bringing it down like a car crash as the herbivore’s eyes silently scream in pain and go dark. Only desiccating bones will be left after the pride of lions has its meal and the scavenging hyenas, jackals and vultures have consumed the leftovers. Similar dramas are played out daily in every ecosystem: the grizzlies taking down elk in the American west, the wolves in Canada targeting a young musk ox as the herd surrounds it in defense. But is the public being given a balanced picture of life in this hard, cruel world?

The Draw of the Chase

Film documentaries love to focus on the chase. With driving drumbeats, they play back their prize footage of the lion or cheetah shown in blinding speed racing against the herd, taking down a helpless impala. Then they follow up the adrenaline rush by showing other predators and scavengers gorging themselves on the flesh, as the survivors in the herd look on with human-like sorrow at having lost one of its beloved. Victorian reports from distant lands like this led Alfred Lord Tennyson to speak of “nature red in tooth and claw” as a challenge to Christian theism. Nature looked ugly, full of death and struggle. Darwinism was on the rise: the world belongs to the fittest! Every part of every animal was focused on survival and nothing else.

One thing I noticed on a recent safari in Africa was very different: how peaceful and quiet everything was.

Most of the wild animals we saw in the South Africa bushveld were carrying on their daily business of moving about and eating, or resting comfortably. At one point we did watch a big male lion gorging on a newly-caught wildebeest, roaring at the cubs to keep away till he was finished, as the rules of the pride require. The following morning, however, the whole pride looked well fed, and the cubs were playing and wrestling with each other as mom and pop rested, occasionally joining in the harmless roughhousing. The faces of the king and queen of beasts were all clean, licked of any trace of blood. They looked like big kittens. No red teeth or claws were visible on any of them. The lioness yawned and licked her paw, eyes half-closed—a picture of comfort.

Contented cat: lioness in South Africa, clean and comfortable. (Photos by DFC)

Nature as Resort and Playground

We had passed herds of prey animals miles away, far from danger, grazing happily. We watched giraffes sparring with their necks in a harmless dance of fluid motion befitting a Strauss waltz. A rhinoceros snorted and wielded its horn against a rival male for a few seconds, but no harm was done, and the herd paid little attention as they enjoyed one another’s fellowship. Elephants pushed over trees in the bush, eating and fulfilling their ecological role as the ground clearing crew, lifting their flexible trunks high to sniff us. Every species had what it needed and seemed to be on vacation for the most part. The safari resort for humans looked like a resort for wildlife.

The TV documentaries don’t show scenes like that. They would be boring. It would be like reading a novel that said, “It was a beautiful day. Everyone was comfortable and well fed. The kids played in the yard and nothing bad happened.” Conflict is what drives a good story, not peace.

As food for thought, consider this essay in Science Magazine by an evolutionary biologist of all people. She’s not your typical death-and-struggle type of Darwinian storyteller.

Mother Nature’s playground: Sometimes in the wild it is all about fun (Science, 21 Sept 2023). Terrie M. Williams is an evolutionary biologist at University of California in Santa Cruz. One day she had a revelation that set her mind toward a new view of reality that would have startled Tennyson.

From surfboard-stealing sea otters to sailboat-chomping killer whales, the summer of 2023 was a landmark year of wild animal antics. Why is wildlife suddenly interacting with humans and their toys in this way? Speculation and headlines have espoused theories about learned behaviors due to enticements with food, increased intrusion, and proximity of humans in wild habitats, as well as aberrant animal responses instigated by oceanic noise or disease-related neurological disorders. However, the most honest answer is, “We don’t really know. Maybe the animals are just playing around.”

This response throws cold water on Darwin’s favorite yarns. Playing around? Darwin was horrified at the thought of cats playing with mice, and used it as an argument against a benevolent Creator. He certainly would have been appalled at documentary footage of killer whales tossing a seal calf between themselves as a prelude to lunch. But in such cases, are humans anthropomorphizing their own emotions onto the animals?

Peaceful Coexistence and Balance

Scenes of peaceful comfort in many ecosystems are the norm. Death is the exception, otherwise ecosystems would collapse. The balance of nature requires cooperation more than struggle. Consider that herds of prey vastly outnumber the predators. Ecologists know this. A typical pride of lions in a region may number five to ten, while herds of wildebeest and zebra number in the thousands. Prey animals are not without defenses, either: the horns of the antelope or the kicking feet of a zebra can leave a predator injured for life, and their abilities to run from danger are usually matched to the speed of the predator. Cheetahs, we learned, do not run long distances at top speed, but try to get as close as possible before sprinting. Many prey animals live out their lifespans of 15, 20, 30, or even 60 years without ever feeling the tooth or claw of an apex predator. Given the choice of death, which is certain, would a wildebeest losing a chase in the prime of life quickly versus collapsing in a slow death of old age consider the former a better way to go?

Prey may safely graze. Wildebeest and zebra, South Africa.

Selective Focus Skews the Story

Focusing on the occasional kill is like TV news that focuses on crime. “If it bleeds, it leads,” they say, ignoring the millions of adults going to work and returning home to dinner and family time. Any ecosystem, including human ones in cities, can be made to look horrendous or blessed depending on the camera angles and the editing.

Williams’s training about nature red in tooth and claw took a turn when she heard a professor ask a simple question.

I once heard this explanation of animal behavior at a dissertation committee meeting, after a sweating PhD candidate presented a 40-minute discourse on foraging theory and energetic balance in seabirds. Every second of daily living, every calorie in or out of the birds had been calculated. Quick addition by one of the committee members, an expert in metabolism of vertebrates, revealed a major gap in the birds’ daily timeline; it seemed they were so efficient at catching fish that they were left with hours of nothing to do each day. “What do you suppose these efficient birds are doing with all of their extra time?” he had asked. Before the student became too flustered, he added, “Maybe they just have fun.” What he was trying to say was that sometimes in nature, there can be room for undefined play.

Undefined play: that undermines the Darwinian theme that play in animals is mere practice for the struggle for existence they will face in life. It can’t be that they were designed to “just have fun” in the long stretches between shopping for food. Our safari group watched the lion cubs playing, chasing and roughhousing with each other like they were having a great time. Never would they bite or claw one another to cause harm.

Undefined Play

Keeping their physical skills in tune undoubtedly helps when they grow up and need to use them for hunting. This does not rule out the possibility that they were designed for mostly happy lives with fun included. Are otters who sled in snowbanks merely practicing to escape predators? If human children play for fun with useless skills like swinging on swings or spinning on merry-go-rounds, why would we deny those kinds of feelings to animals?

Felid cubs provide a perfect example. Anyone who has spent time on safari or viewed wildlife documentaries showcasing leopard or African lion cubs recognizes their curiosity and erratic rambunctiousness. It is the very definition of play, which overrules any semblance of energy conservation in youngsters.

The flaw in the PhD student’s “sweating” discourse was in feeling obligated to account for every calorie of effort as an investment in survival. Not so, Williams is suggesting. Sometimes a bird, or a cat, or a prey animal, just wants to have fun. There is a time to struggle, but a time to play, too. Not everything has to be seen through a survival-of-the-fittest lens. Animals possess a natural curiosity to explore their environments. Maybe they enjoy doing it—for fun. After describing a classic book on lions, that explained play in terms of survival practice, she noted:

Many of the activities involved in lion play simply defied a causative explanation. Rather, play time was just that, a free period of the day dedicated to exploring social and physical limits, when burning excess energy could be made up later by calories provided by mom.

Nature read in youth and paw: lion cubs in friendly play.

Curiosity, Not Cruelty

Consider the killer whale tossing the seal pup around in this light.

Likewise, killer whales (also known as orcas) are well known for “playing with their food.” At one time or another, orcas have tried to eat or bite nearly any moving creature in the oceans, except humans (for reasons that are unknown). Large and small fish, seals and sea lions, dolphins and great whales, penguins, sharks, sea otters, and even unwary moose and deer have been reportedly sampled.

The orcas are exploring. It would be illogical to attribute a human criminal motivation onto these magnificent animals. With their curiosity and intelligence, and an innate penchant for fun, they have time for “playful experimentation and testing of potential prey” that can appear shocking to us, especially when one recently chomped into a sailboat (cue “Jaws” theme). Live Science tried to turn this into a Darwinian story of aggression, but the orcas more likely are quickly figuring out that that while sailboats are fun to chase, they don’t taste good. A cited expert in that article admits he doesn’t know the motivation. An alternative explanation for the behavior, though, involves play. Orcas have fads, too:

The unusual behavior could also be playful or what researchers call a “fad” — a behavior initiated by one or two individuals and temporarily picked up by others before it’s abandoned. “They are incredibly curious and playful animals and so this might be more of a play thing as opposed to an aggressive thing,” Deborah Giles, an orca researcher at the University of Washington and at the non-profit Wild Orca, told Live Science.

That’s a new way of looking at animal behaviors that have often been touted as exemplars of the Darwinian struggle for existence in a mean, cruel world. Williams turns from Darwinist to idolatrous priestess in her last comment: “In Mother Nature’s rapidly changing playground, we must make room for everyone to play.

Update 9/27/23: Griffith University reports numerous observations of baleen whales interacting with kelp seaweed. The reason is not known, but one possibility is play. Migrating humpback whales, for instance, “appeared to roll around and ‘play’ with clumps of kelp and seaweed at the water’s surface.

My, what would Darwin think? Or Hitler? Dr Richard Weikart’s book Darwinian Racism quotes Hitler using the “law of the jungle” and “survival of the fittest” theme to promote his views about racial superiority. In June 1944, Hitler motivated his military officers to continue in the great war by saying,

Nature teaches us with every look into its working, into its events, that the principle of selection dominates it, that the stronger remains victor and the weaker succumbs. It teaches us, that what often appears to someone as cruelty, because he himself is affected or because through his education he has turned away from the laws of nature, is in reality necessary, in order to bring about a higher evolution of living organisms. (p. 46).

We all know where that led. What if someone had told him, “No, Adolph, the animals just want to play. They’re having fun.”

Animals sports: is that a subject to investigate? On his marine mammal safaris, Captain Dave Anderson knows that dolphins are incredibly playful, intelligent and curious. They routinely follow alongside his boats and show off their sleek, muscular bodies with leaps and spins as if they are happy to see him and his load of tourists. Arctic terns fly from pole to pole each year, but instead of struggling to survive, maybe they like it. Maybe looking down on the world from the air is fun for them. Do we have to Darwinize the murmurations of starlings as a means to confuse predators? It could include that, but maybe it is their version of sport. Documentary filmmakers could have a great time filming animal play. Let them get off the worn-over theme of Darwinian struggle for survival. Let them showcase the instances of fun,  pleasure and comfort in the world. Those of you with pet dogs, cats, or birds have stories to tell, as popular pet videos attest.

I do not mean to minimize the cruelty in nature (especially man’s inhumanity to man). I know that some creation ministries focus on the horror of death by predators to emphasize the point that God has judged the world because of sin. The horror is undeniable. When ignoring the goodness of creation, though, they risk, in my opinion, putting a creation view of nature out of balance. We live in a beautiful world filled with evidence of God’s providential care, called common grace, that He has bestowed upon mankind and upon all living things. It’s a world filled with what someone called “useless beauty”—design that is gratuitous, beyond what is needed for mere survival. It is also (as the article above relates) a world of undefined play. These speak to a Creator who has blessed animals and people with times of comfort and, yes, “fun” in the experience of life. Consider the spirit of Psalm 104. It recognizes death and suffering, but the Psalmist remains enraptured by the daily show of God’s goodness and care for creation.

19 He appointed the moon for seasons;
The sun knows its going down.
20 You make darkness, and it is night,
In which all the beasts of the forest creep about.
21 The young lions roar after their prey,
And seek their food from God.
22 When the sun rises, they gather together
And lie down in their dens.
23 Man goes out to his work
And to his labor until the evening.

24 Lord, how manifold are Your works!
In wisdom You have made them all.
The earth is full of Your possessions—
25 This great and wide sea,
In which are innumerable teeming things,
Living things both small and great.
26 There the ships sail about;
There is that Leviathan
Which You have made to play there.

27 These all wait for You,
That You may give them their food in due season.
28 What You give them they gather in;
You open Your hand, they are filled with good.
29 You hide Your face, they are troubled;
You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
30 You send forth Your Spirit, they are created;
And You renew the face of the earth.

31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
May the Lord rejoice in His works.
32 He looks on the earth, and it trembles;
He touches the hills, and they smoke.

33 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.
34 May my meditation be sweet to Him;
I will be glad in the Lord.
35 May sinners be consumed from the earth,
And the wicked be no more.

Bless the Lord, O my soul!
Praise the Lord!

And so I ask Christ followers as well as atheists and evolutionists to consider this alternative way of looking at life. Without denying the ugliness of death and pain, can we also find room for the good? The lion pride may spend an hour on a hunt but days in rest and play. Wildebeest and impala are occasionally startled by predators and have to run, but they can live 15-30 years in their habitat in peaceful grazing, finding food and water in abundance. The occasional run helps them stay physically fit and healthy, and perhaps feels good to them in the process.

These things are possible because of an amazingly habitable planet. No other body in the universe we know of comes close. The air is good. The soil is good. Millions of creatures flourish in all kinds of habitats, and an unseen world of microbes, earthworms, weather patterns and geological processes keep it functioning. Scientists worry about a 1.5° rise in temperature, but that represents an unfathomably small amount within the range of temperatures found in space, where temperatures range from near absolute zero to millions of degrees. Michael Denton’s book The Miracle of Man is an eye-opener about the number of factors that have coincided for our benefit on Earth, and he proves it by science without even considering God or the Bible. Surely the number of good things we have here should arouse our awe. It is both illogical and irresponsible to concentrate on bad things all the time.

For atheists and evolutionists, I ask you to ponder whether unguided natural processes without mind or intent could put together the sleek body of an orca, the spotted racing car of a cheetah, or the colorful bird of paradise in its glory, or the eyes and ears of a newborn baby. And instead of focusing on every human ailment, how about focusing on the many things that work at all in your own body? You have quadrillions of rotary motors keeping you alive at all times, even in sleep. Your heart beats almost every second day and night. The atmospheric oxygen level is just right to give us metabolic energy for active lives without raising the risk of spontaneous combustion. Are the dozens of “coincidences” for life just accidents, or designed? Freeman Dyson quipped, “As we look out into the Universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked together to our benefit, it almost seems as if the Universe must in some sense have known that we were coming.” Give creation serious consideration.

Most religions teach either resignation with the evil, or human effort to gain acceptance from a god or gods. Only the Biblical worldview explains and balances the good and evil in the world. The world was created “very good” it says in Genesis 1, and the first human pair was innocent with a choice to follow God or disobey. In essence, it was a choice to believe the voice of God or the voice of Satan. The evil in the world resulted from their bad choice. Because God is holy and just, there had to be consequences: death and struggle. Earth was put under a curse. The good news is that the curse is only temporary. Because God is also love, he set in motion a master plan to rid the world of evil. At first, God prolonged the death of the first humans so that individuals could see enough good to realize the world was designed, and choose to repent and believe in his provision. Then he provided the final sacrifice for sin at the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Now whoever calls upon the name of the Lord can be saved by his grace through faith. Christ followers receive eternal life at the moment of receiving God’s gift, but will continue to live and die in the cursed world until death itself is vanquished when Christ returns. Our job for now is to spread the good news of God’s love to a dying world that groans under the curse, waiting for the new heavens and new earth to come.

To Christ followers and creationists, I invite us to seek a good balance in our presentation of ecological science. Too much focus on “nature red in tooth and claw” might play into the hands of Darwinists, leading to misrepresentations of God as all judgment and no mercy. Too much focus on the beauty and design risks overlooking the realities of pain and suffering that people feel. In Christ the justice and love of God harmonize. Let’s be careful to include both and seek the right balance.

 

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