Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 3)

Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 3)

You will find HER between Bambi and René Descartes.

That’s my mantra in this third installment in a series on animal suffering and the goodness of God. (Read posts one and two if you’re late to the carnage.)

My point here is that one cannot speak to the relative goodness or evil of animal predation until one first determines the extent to which animals actually do suffer.

To adopt what I’ll call a “Bambi perspective” is to overemphasize the continuity between animal and human experience. While to follow Descartes is to underappreciate the extent to which animal pain does seem—at least in some instances—to approach what one may call a “suffering” that raises questions for theology.

Now for the specifics.


One option in this discussion is to side with René Descartes (1629–1649) in denying the very existence of animal “suffering.”

Descartes’ view was that animals were nothing more than soulless biological machines (automata), devoid of emotion, higher thought, and suffering. This belief led him to perform cruel experiments, including the torture and vivisection of live dogs, to observe their inner “machinery.”

Given today’s standards, this view may (rightly) seem both foolish and barbaric. To take just one example, I have watched what I take to be reliable footage of, say, elephant mothers grieving, sometimes to death, after the loss of a calf. These are not emotionless machines.

Still, one need to not go all the way with Descartes in order to adopt some version of the view that animals do not genuinely suffer. C. S. Lewis famously attempted this in his book The Problem of Pain. In fairness, Lewis was a lover of animals who even campaigned against vivisections. Still, his claim was that while an animal’s nervous system may deliver all the “letters” A, P, N, I – they do not “build it up into the word PAIN” because they lack the consciousness to reflect upon it as genuine subjects.

It is not obvious why Lewis thinks this is so, and later science has tended to disagree with him, even if it is true that animals do not suffer to the extent that humans do (For the scientific argument, see Michael Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, ch. 2: “Neo-Cartesianism”).


An equal and opposite extreme to the Cartesian denial of animal suffering is the sentimental anthropomorphizing of non-human creatures (“Bambi-izing”). This error is at least partly fueled by cartoons, books, and movies in which the animals are “just like us, only more so.”

Examples of “Bambi-i-zation” (I consulted an English professor on that one) may be found on the radical fringe of the animal rights movement in which little or no distinction is made between the value of, say, a human baby and that of a sea turtle or a golden retriever.

It may also happen in a bizarre form of “forced veganism,” in which some pet owners are now feeding their unfortunate housecats “vegan pet food” in an attempt to be humane. To be clear, I have nothing against “vegan humans” (they sound delicious), but when forced on felines, the diet has an unintended consequence: the cats go blind and die.

Finally, a subtler form of Bambi-izing may be at work in the likes of Richard Dawkins. In the opening post (here), I ended with a famous quote from Dawkins’ River out of Eden:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation.

Dawkins then goes on to describe a veritable holocaust outside our doors:

During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease.

The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

To be clear, Dawkins is not wrong about the rasping, running, and devouring. But he is certainly imbalanced when he presents the created order as (seemingly) ONLY one big  bloodbath.

In fact, his work on “selfish genes” has now been roundly criticized by other biologists who point out the importance of cooperation, creaturely altruism, and even something approaching self-sacrifice within the animal realm (see esp. Martin A. Nowak).

The danger in only emphasizing the violent “Redness” of creation is that we invariably place ourselves in the “furry heads” of animals. We invariably–because of human empathy–“walk a mile in their ‘hooves’,” and in so doing we may exaggerate the full extent to which animal pain and suffering is like that experienced by humans.

The big idea is this: Both Cartesian callousness and sentimental Bambi-izing should be avoided.


Try as we might, we can’t know what it’s like to be an animal; thus we can’t know the full extent to which animals suffer. My hunch, however, is that “She” (that is, the truth) “lies somewhere between Bambi and René Descartes.”

Some animals do seem to experience life in such a way that the language of “suffering”—and perhaps “evil”—is appropriate, even while they do not suffer in the same way as humans.

If that is true, then the question of animal suffering and divine goodness is legitimate.

In the next post, I’ll come to a possible solution.


I’m considering this topic for a forthcoming book that is under contract with IVP Academic.

The work deals with the place of speculation in Christian theology.

Look for it (hopefully) in late 2020.


Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 1)

Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 1)

“It’s like the garden of Eden.”

That’s how a friend of mine described the Chobe National Park, near the Okavango Delta.

I first went to Africa in the early 2000s. But it was not until a later trip that I saw Chobe. It is one of the few places left where one finds lions, leopards, hippos, crocodiles, impala, and myriad other species in their natural environments.

I took some students there in 2010.

Eden and elephants
Me, with friend and former student, Eden T.

At one point, our African guide drove the Land Rover alongside a herd of giraffes, and the creatures took flight around us. “Flight” is the best way to describe it—for whatever it was, it wasn’t running. Their spindly legs moved in slow motion though they were more than pacing our speeding vehicle.

Before the stampede.

Later, we sat in a pontoon boat while a massive herd of elephants swam around us, moving from one side of the river to an island in the middle. Their trunks bobbed like fleshy periscopes. At the bank, we pulled close by the herd—too close in fact—and a mother elephant expressed displeasure with a false charge, a shaking of her head, and a trumpet blast of warning. Eden-like.

false charge
Elephant, telling us to “Back away!”

Or was it?

Now for a second Africa story:

On an earlier trip, in the lake region of Zambia, I sat in a wobbly canoe (much smaller than the pontoon boat) as a local fisherman shoved us away from shore. Then the realization hit me: There are probably crocodiles in here.

There were, in fact, (the villagers had told frightening stories of attacks; and I had seen a child scarred across his legs). One father even told of racing into the water to try to pull his son out of the crocodile’s mouth. The canoe had been a gift from my father-in-law, to help the fishermen build a business that did not depend (quite literally) upon the hand-hewn boats that were more vulnerable to local wildlife.

Picture I took of a crocodile/dinosaur, snacking on some hippo meat.


I bring up those two African experiences (Okavango and the “Croc canoe”) to make a point about the animal realm.

It is both blessed and bloody. There is grandeur and there is groaning. It may seem “like the garden of Eden” in Okavango, but it is fueled by a carnage of almost unimaginable proportions. It can even seem, says theologian David Bentley Hart, “as if the entire cosmos were somehow predatory.”

“We know,” says the apostle Paul, “that the whole creation has been groaning … until now” (Rom 8:22, ESV).

Speaking of crocodiles, Ronald Osborn, a former missionary kid from Africa, highlights the possibility that the “Behemoth” of Job 40 may actually be a crocodile, described in one translation as “chief of God’s works” even as he “devours cattle as if they are grass” and “crunches all wild beasts” in his jaws (NEB, vss. 15–34).

Then Osborn goes on to ask how Job’s endorsement of this crocodilic carnage matches up with his own experience.

“I have seen crocodiles on the riverbanks of Masai Mara in Kenya, near the end of the wildebeest migrations, their bellies distended from feasting. It is said they continue to kill even after they are engorged, without any interest in eating their prey.”

In the face of this seemingly wasteful bloodshed, Osborn concludes with frankness:

“These are the realities we must add our ‘Amen’ to if we grant the God of the whirlwind who glories in the Behemoth and the Leviathan the final word” (Osborn, Death Before the Fall, 157).

In the famous words of Tennyson: “Nature [is] red in tooth and claw.” So while we trust that “God is love indeed,” the violence of the natural realm can seem to “shriek against his creed” (“In Memoriam A.H.H.”).

And this bloody reality contributed to Charles Darwin’s loss of faith.


One of Darwin’s haunting questions pertained to what he called “the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time.”

On the one hand, Darwin seemed open to the idea that human suffering might serve the good of “moral improvement” within God’s sovereign plan. But the number of humans seemed like nothing “compared with that of all the other sentient beings” (animals) that “often suffer greatly without any moral improvement” (Darwin, Autobiography, 90).

Darwin’s question was straightforward: Why would an all-powerful, all-loving God permit so many “lower animals” to suffer and die in the countless centuries that he believed to have preceded human beings?

This inquiry led to his most (in)famous pronouncement on the subject:

“What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!” (Letter to Hooker, July 13, 1856)

For Darwin, this was not a minor issue. By his own account, the issue of animal suffering was one of the deciding factors that led him to away from orthodox Christianity and toward agnosticism.

“Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers … for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality” (Autobiography, 85).

But in time,

“the very old argument from the existence of [animal] suffering against the existence of an intelligent First Cause [was indeed] a strong one” (Autobiography, 90).


In the next few blog posts, I want to consider the problem of animal suffering in relation to the Christian belief in a loving, holy Creator.

My question is this: How do those two ideas fit together: the groaning and the grandeur; the beauty and the bloodshed?

Or was Richard Dawkins right to say that,

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites…

The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” (River out of Eden, 132).

Stay tuned.


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Why beetles mate with beer bottles: evolution and perception

Why beetles mate with beer bottles: evolution and perception

What if evolutionary science actually posed a problem for the confident atheism of men like Richard Dawkins?

That would odd: first, because Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist; and second, because believers (especially in America) do not normally see evolution as an ally.

To end the oddity, let’s begin with a picture of a beetle mating with a beer bottle.




This past year, a TED talk by the cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman went viral with over two million views (here). Hoffman studies evolution and perception at UC Irvine, and gist of his research is this:

Evolution rewards “fitness.” And fitness is defined by how effectively an organism passes on its DNA to future generations. Those adapted to do this best survive, while others die out. Hence: “survival of the fittest.”

Now the kicker. As Hoffman states in a recent interview with NPR (here):

An organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but that is just tuned to fitness.

To simplify, Hoffman is saying that evolution doesn’t care whether your brain accurately perceives reality. Evolution only cares if you pass on your DNA by feeding, fleeing, fighting and reproducing. If this means distorting your perceptions, so be it.

(If this is confusing, see the TED talk linked above.)

As Hoffman argues, we do not perceive reality in itself. We only perceive what the neurons in our brain present to us. The brain constructs and reconfigures reality in this process. And while we might think that accurate perception equals “fitter perception,” that is not necessarily the case.

We once thought that the earth was flat, because it looks that way. But we were wrong.  Appearances can be deceiving.  On top of this, Hoffman claims that our brains add to the deception.

As evidence, we return to our besotted beetle.


The Australian Jewel Beetle is shiny, brown, and dimpled. The males fly. The females don’t. And when a male beetle finds a shiny, brown, and dimpled female on the ground, he mates with her, favoring the bigger ones.

But there’s a problem.

The Outback is now populated with another species (humans). And this species also likes shiny, brown, and dimpled objects (bottled beer). Thus, as bottles began to litter roadways and campsites, a strange thing happened: the Jewel Beetle nearly went extinct.

Males ignored the females, and passionately embraced “the bottle.” Just like a Merle Haggard song.

As Hoffman notes: “Australia had to change their bottles to save their beetles.”

Similar cases of cognitive distortion (minus the bottles) can even be found in more complex species, including mammals.

As Hoffman, argues: Natural selection gave the beetle a “hack” to be successful in passing on its DNA: Good mates are dimpled, brown, and shiny—the bigger the better. And this worked for thousands of years. Until it didn’t.

So does evolution actually favor the accurate perception of reality? Hoffman, along with many other evolutionists, say “No.”

But what does this have to do with Richard Dawkins?

Enter Alvin Plantinga.

Alvin PlantingaPhoto by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame
Photo by Matt Cashore, University of Notre Dame


The now 83-year-old Plantinga is an institution amongst Christian philosophers.

He now holds an Emeritus post at Notre Dame, and according to many, is largely responsible for a quiet revival of theistic philosophers in the American university.

Among his more famous arguments is his “evolutionary argument against naturalism” (EAAN). This can be found, most recently, in his 2011 book: Where the Conflict Really Lies.

While the details  are complex, the gist is similar to Hoffman’s argument. As Plantinga writes:

The probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low (p. 314).

This is essentially Hoffman’s claim.

But then Plantinga continues:

If I believe both naturalism and evolution, I have a defeater for my intuitive assumption that my cognitive faculties are reliable. If I have a defeater for that belief, however, then I have a defeater for any belief I take to be produced by my cognitive faculties. That means that I have a defeater for my belief that naturalism and evolution are true (p. 314).


For Plantinga, “naturalism” is the view that “there is no such person as God, or anything like God” (p. ix). Yet it is stronger than mere atheism in at least two ways: First, it rises to the level of a “quasi-religion” in claiming to answer life’s ultimate questions. And second, it proceeds with a religious zeal in confidently asserting that all religion is obviously irrational and silly.

In short, naturalists like Richard Dawkins place massive confidence in the power and reliability of their cognitive faculties. Yet—and this is key!—Dawkins’ very discipline (evolutionary science) is now calling into question the reliability of one’s cognitive perceptions.

Perhaps, say some evolutionists, we are more like the beetle on the bottle than we like to think.

The conclusion is this: You can claim with evolutionary naturalists that our cognitive faculties are deeply unreliable. But you cannot claim this while simultaneously placing a god-like confidence in your own cognitive faculties.

That move is self referentially incoherent.


So what’s my take?

While Hoffman’s research is fascinating, I really doubt that we are essentially in the same position as the beetle on the beer bottle (Merle Haggard and George Jones songs not withstanding!).

Then again, part of my reasoning rests in a Creator who has ensured a general, though not perfect, correspondence between reality and our ability to perceive it.

As for Plantinga, I think he is quite right to challenge the confidence that Dawkins has in his own cognitive abilities. Yet I suspect that he paints too monochrome a picture of the current evolutionary science.

According to a friend of mine in the field, the claims of Hoffman and those like him are hardly universally accepted. And even if they were, it would not mean that our cognitive perceptions are flatly wrong (thus as even Hoffman notes, you shouldn’t try jumping off a cliff…).

Instead, these new findings only mean that we should be more humble in our cognitive assertions, especially about ultimate reality.

And perhaps that’s the problem with both Dawkins and many Christian apologists: a general lack of epistemic humility regarding what we can demonstrate by way of our own brilliance.

In the end, we may not be as deluded as the beetle on the bottle.  But we are limited in understanding.

So here’s to some humility to season boldness.

And as a “thank you” to the insect who helped illustrate this important truth, here’s a tribute to his unrequited love (here).



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