Nonmoral Nature, It is what it is.

Nature is harsh. This reality is evidenced with potential discomfort to those who care to open their eyes to what goes on around us. Most living creatures struggle to survive, facing either limited resources or predation on a continual basis. In most developed nations many humans escape this reality, but not too long ago even we had to struggle survive.

I remember the reality of this struggle burning into my memory cells as a child while watching nature shows like The Underwater Odyssey of Commander Cousteau and Wild Kingdom. I vividly recall the horror and intrigue I experienced watching cheetahs and lions chasing down and killing antelope or gazelles. To this day I experience a visceral response when I witness this predation carried to its conclusion with the blood soaked carnivore licking it’s chops. Harsh indeed!

The moral implications of nature’s harshness has stirred our intellect for quite some time. It certainly weighed heavily on Darwin as he developed his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. A pressing question in natural theology asked how a benevolent and loving God could create such a system with pervasive suffering. Stephen Jay Gould, in perhaps his most famous essay, titled Nonmoral Nature addressed this very issue.

Gould (1982) provides a historical review of this controversy dating back to the mid nineteenth century. One particular scholar from that era, William Buckland, gained comfort from the notion that predation is moral because carnivores increase “the aggregate of animal enjoyment” and “diminish that of pain” because:

Death after all, is swift and relatively painless, victims are spared the ravages of decrepitude and senility, and populations do not outrun their food supply to the greater sorrow of all.”

Buckland concluded that predation on a grand scale is moral. But to some, the real challenge to the morality of nature lies outside run of the mill predation. The reproduction cycle of the ichneumon fly epitomizes this challenge.

The ichneumon fly is is actually a wasp belonging to the ichneumonoidea superfamily. This diverse group of insects lay their eggs on or in other insects setting into motion a synchronized chain of events that defies any sense of morality. The endoparasitic ichneumon wasps insert their eggs into the body of their host (e.g., caterpillars, aphids, or spiders). The larvae upon hatching carefully ingest their host’s internal organs – first devouring the non-essential tissues saving the vital organs for last so as to prolong the life of their meal. The ectoparasitic ichneumons sting and paralyze the host before laying eggs on the exterior of the host’s body. The paralysis is permanent but the host remains alive. Once the eggs hatch the larvae penetrate the host’s body and again selectively devour the incapacitated but fully alive host little by little, sustaining the live fresh meal as long as possible.

This process is, to say the least, horrifying to contemplate. We humans do not cope well with the notion of parasites on or in our body. Think of the circus that ensues when a child comes home from school with head lice. And then there is the horror and shame associated with pubic lice. How about scabies or tape worms? People don’t even like to hear that approximately 10% of our body mass is that of our essential parasitic partners (bacteria). One does not have to use much imagination to shudder with the notion of being slowly devoured from within. ‘Alien’ – need I say more.

The ichneumon reproduction contrivance became the supreme challenge to the morality of the designer. Gould wrote of the 19th Century theologians who attempted to resolve this dilemma by anthropomorphizing the mother’s love for its progeny and by downplaying the plight of the host. They also suggested that this approach may be adaptive for humans as the predation has the effect of minimizing crop loss due to the ravenous appetites of living caterpillars. Finally, they argued that animals are not moral agents, and that they thus must feel little, if any pain. They suggested that lower life forms and even “primitive people suffer less than advanced and cultured folk. It was also believed during this Victorian era that consciousness was only within the realm of man. Needless to say, these arguments fail to resolve the dilemma if one contends that there is a “lurking goodness behind everything.” Darwin wrote in a 1856 note to Joseph Hooker:

What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature!”

Gould wrote that in the face of this conundrum intellectuals had two options:

  1. Retain the notion “that nature holds moral messages” and that morality involves knowing the ways of nature and doing the opposite. Be not a savage – be not an animal.
  2. Accept that nature is nonmoral, that it is what it is, that morality plays no role in the struggle for existence.

Darwin himself leaned toward the second option although he struggled with letting go of the notion that the laws of nature might denote some higher purpose.  In Gould’s Nonmoral Nature essay he suggested that:

Since ichneumons are a detail, and since natural selection is a law regulating details, the answer to the ancient dilema of why such cruelty (in our terms) exists in nature can only be that there isn’t any answer – and that framing the question “in our terms” is thoroughly inappropriate in a natural world neither made for us nor ruled by us. It just plain happens.”

It is a strategy that works for ichneumons and that natural selection has programmed into their behavioral repertoire. Caterpillars are not suffering to teach us something; they have simply been outmaneuvered, for now, in the evolutionary game.”

I too, am inclined toward the notion that nature as it plays out evolution’s dance, is entirely devoid of anything pertaining to morality or evil. We anthropomorphize when we apply these concepts. Even to suggest that nature is cruel is anthropomorphizing. Any true and deep look at the struggle for life that constantly dances in our midst can scarcely lead to any other conclusion but that nature is brutal, harsh, and nonmoral. Should I be wrong about this, I am inclined to be reluctant to meet its designer.


Gould, S. J. 1982. ‘Nonmoral Nature.’ Natural History. 91. pg.19-26.



  1. Very good piece! It helped me a lot understanding Gould’s Nonmoral Nature. Thank you.

  2. I’m more inclined to say that Nature is beyond human description, but words are our way of navigating through the unknown.

  3. Interesting Cathy! I’m thinking that the very function of science is to describe and essentially understand nature. We share what we learn through shared symbols and models using words to facilitate a universal understanding. The unknowns stir further analysis and perhaps different perspectives. What drives all this is an innate and widely shared curiosity – the age old questions of How? What? and Why? Since we are uncomfortable with unknowns and apparently chaotic occurrences, we tend to fill in the gaps with anthropogenic narratives. Some are more comfortable with the latter. Either way, words are the means of sharing these narratives. Thanks for your thought provoking comment!

  4. Mr. Guild, I’m inclined to agree with your argument that nature, as Gould in his essay put forth, exists as a nonmoral force. Where people stumble a bit when approaching issues such as this comes from a much more complex inherent nature we have in defining the world around us in terms that we can relate to. This idea as has been touched on before by others.

    Now, while this is perfectly reasonable, as you can’t really understand where someone or something comes from unless you have experienced something similar itself, it does create some interesting issues that we have yet to resolve as a whole. For instance, when we insist on looking at the world in one way, we blind ourselves to other possible outlooks on life.

    When you apply this to places outside of nature which exists as an external, uncontrollable force, conflict arises. Our history is rampant with conflict between factions of people where the basis of the conflict hasn’t been based solely on struggle for resources but also struggles between ideologies. We only have to look back a hundred years to the European imperialists in Africa who assumed the moral supremacy over the native peoples they abused.

    The reason I bring this up is that in looking at such issues of how we should be applying morality to the things around us, we should be taking a step back and seeing whether our own personal sense of morality should even be applied to the people around us. If we follow the cliche and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, it might help to solve a lot of conflicts.

  5. Very insightful Melissa. We can even see this moral supremacy as it played out/plays out in the United States with regard to how the Native Americans and African Americans were/are treated/regarded. Recall “Manifest Destiny.” I guess that this is even true with regard to the current immigration “crisis.”

    I struggle with the concept of moral relativism as there are many examples of human suffering under the guise of morality. When morality as guided by ideology, results in human suffering, I have a hard time accepting it in the name of cultural sensitivity. Its a tough issue – but I see ideology as deeply problematic in this regard. Focusing on what promotes Human Flourishing has become my focus.

    Thanks so much!

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