Red in Tooth and Claw
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed
-- Lord Alfred Tennyson
Preachers are often fond of saying that in the age to come “the lion shall lie down with the lamb.” However, in the world as God actually created it, the lion would make short work of the lamb, a fact that many have found troubling. Among these was the naturalist Charles Darwin, who had studied for the ministry before embarking on his famous five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle. Landing in Rio de Janeiro in 1832, he was collecting insect samples when he came across a parasitic wasp laying eggs inside a live caterpillar, which would later be devoured from within by hungry grubs that had hatched from the eggs. This single incident precipitated a crisis of faith from which Darwin never recovered. As he later wrote to his colleague Asa Gray: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasp] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.”
Nature is indisputably “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson wrote. Certainly, it did not help that Darwin had abandoned his original intention of becoming a physician because he couldn’t stand the sight of blood. However, notwithstanding his squeamishness, Darwin himself was a prodigious carnivore. During his voyage, he dined on giant tortoises, armadillos, iguanas, pumas, agoutis (a large rodent related to the guinea pig) and an ostrich-like flightless bird called a rhea. No doubt he displayed better table manners than hungry Ichneumon grubs devouring a live caterpillar; still, he might well have reflected on how his own eating habits might be squared with the idea of a benevolent God. Before we talk about the lion lying down with the lamb, we might consider whether we are willing to do without lamb chops in our own diet. As for the lion, C.S. Lewis once quipped, “‘If the earthly lion could read the prophecy of that day when he shall eat hay like an ox, he would regard it as a description not of heaven, but of hell.”
Christians have long wrestled with the problem of how evil insinuated itself into God’s creation, and their usual answer can also be applied to the cruelty of nature. According to the biblical creation story, both man and beast enjoyed an idyllic existence in a world without suffering or death before Adam and Eve spoiled everything by tasting the forbidden fruit. Fruit, as it turns out, was a mainstay of their diet, along with vegetables and grain. This was true both of man and beast. There was as yet no meat – not until the miscreants were expelled from paradise. Only then did God’s creatures begin eating one another – or so the story went. Never mind that the carnivores already came with tooth and claw designed for hunting and devouring prey, even when they were supposedly still vegetarian. Nor does any of this explain why the animal kingdom, which was presumably innocent of any wrongdoing, was made to pay for the disobedience of those wayward creatures who were made in God’s image.
As it happens, Darwin and Tennyson were exact contemporaries, both born in 1809 and both attending Cambridge at the same time, although there is no evidence that they knew each other there. The poem in which Tennyson coined the phrase “red in tooth and claw” was titled “In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850” – the initials referring to another Cambridge student at that time, Tennyson’s intimate friend, Arthur H. Hallam. Just how intimate they were remains unknown, but it is worth noting that Hallam’s father destroyed all Tennyson’s letters to his son after his death, and Tennyson’s son burned all Hallam’s letters to his father. We do know the poet was devastated by Hallam’s sudden death from a brain hemorrhage at age 22. Tennyson began his poem soon after and continued working on it for another 17 years.
The poem is a kind of threnody, or lamentation for the dead. Although it addresses the broad theme of nature’s cruelty, when Tennyson writes that nature is “so careless of the single life,” we can read into it his grief over the loss of his dear friend. Like Darwin, he wonders how nature’s seeming indifference can be reconciled with the notion of a loving God. The poem was written years before Darwin published The Origin of Species, which laid out his theory of evolution by natural selection. However, Tennyson was well aware of recent findings in geology, as well as the discovery of extinct dinosaur fossils, both of which cast doubt on the tidy biblical account of creation. Death and destruction were not an incidental by-product of humankind’s disobedience but from the beginning had been integral to the workings of creation. Arthur Hallam had died while a young Charles Darwin was still on his voyage of discovery aboard the HMS Beagle. To Tennyson, it was suddenly clear that nature held no more regard for the life of his friend than, say, for the life of a caterpillar sacrificed to feed Ichneumon grubs.
Tennyson ultimately found solace in the thought
That God, which ever lives and loves,
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves
But for Darwin there could be no such consolation. He as too well acquainted with the savagery of nature to indulge in high-minded musings about its ultimate purposes. Perhaps for him the better model of creation was not the story in Genesis but the version that God presented when he spoke to Job out of the whirlwind. Job had sought an explanation for his sufferings, which were both manifold and undeserved. But the Lord God Almighty had none to offer. Instead he thundered,
"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements--surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?· On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
And so on in this vein for several chapters, until Job was at last reduced to silence in the face of God’s terrible majesty. There is no tidy explanation here for Job’s sufferings and no tidying up of creation to reconcile its workings with our notions of a benevolent deity. Nature is indeed red in tooth and claw; there is no getting around that. The lion does not lie down with the lamb, at least not in the world as God created it. As the Lord demanded of Job, "Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,·when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert?” No? Well then, shut up about it!