The Struggle for Existence: The Lovely Deathscape

Nature is beautiful, but it’s really a lovely deathscape: suffering and the struggle for existence are everywhere, and only the trees die of old age.

Fishing in the deathscape

Two young predators forage in the deathscape.


My family I live in paradise.  Our home is perched over a quiet lake. From time to time, white herons roost in a tree by our property.  We have an osprey who shows up occasionally, there are plenty of hawks, and some evenings I’ll see an owl sitting on a fence post or quietly careering among the trees.  Hummingbirds and dragon flies zoom around, and raccoons pass through.  Squirrels play chase through the trees, while songbirds fill the air with melody.

We occasionally see cute young animals, in nests or in shy family foraging.  The lake is full of fish and turtles, and once in a while a community notice goes out to be on alert, a small alligator has gotten into the lake. There are fascinating insects and other small animals everywhere.  Wildflowers, large and small, bloom around us.  There is beauty from the tiniest bug to the tallest tree.

The Deathscape

As I biologist I’m aware that this is all illusion.  Viewed analytically, my lovely surroundings are a deathscape. The songbirds’ lovely melodies are really screaming avian challenges and warnings to potential competitors.  The squirrels’ charming game is a challenge for territory, where the loser has a good chance of starving (if he is unlucky) or being killed by a predator (if he is less unlucky).  The birds of prey we see are hunting the songirds and the squirrels, but they have yet other predators stalking them, from microbes to humans.

The large trees probably have it made – for the moment – but tree seedlings are chopped beneath the lawnmower or pulled up by the squirrels to chew on the roots, and the saplings struggle against overcrowding in the untended woods and border scrub.  All of them are exposed to the elements and face countless diseases, and each animal is one broken bone or infection from almost certain death.  As for all of the nestlings, cubs, and other cute young animals, the odds for them surviving to adulthood are very poor.  If they are fortunate enough to make it that far, their probability of establishing a defensible territory and raising their own brood is also low.

And all of them constantly live on the edge of starvation.  A few days of poor foraging, or the loss of a territory, spells almost certain death.  Every waking minute is a struggle of existence, a battle against the odds, for all of them.  The deathscape awaits.

The Struggle for Existence

As we putter around in our loveliness, we almost never see any of this, of course.  Predators strike quickly and stealthily.  Diseased, famished or injured animals are driven away to isolated, lonely deaths.  Parents have little time to search for, or worry over, the loss of careless or unlucky offspring.  And the corpses that might serve as testament of an animal’s passing do not last long.  There are too many starving organisms, from bacteria to to bugs to buzzards, to leave even rotten meat uneaten. All are locked in a struggle for existence.

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Biology, psychiatry, and civilization.
Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths:
From Alexander to Hitler to the Corporation.

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Here is the central point that we need to keep in mind when looking at nature:  for every organism we can see, on average it will leave just two breeding offspring over its lifetime.  Oak trees produce tens of thousands of acorns, every year, for centuries.  Fruit flies lay perhaps 500 eggs in a six-week lifespan.  The common toad secrets away 3,000 spawn annually, in a 10 year effort.  And the rare songbird that manages to live 5 years, might produce 20 chicks in her career.

It doesn’t matter.  On average, they all raise just two offspring to parenthood.  If the local environment improves to support more living things, then that number will briefly increase, then stabilize at two offspring again.  If the environment decays from drought, freeze, overbrowsing – or often, from human pollutants or encroachment – the numbers will drop for a year or so, and then return to a steady state of two offspring.

It’s inescapable. It’s the struggle for existence.

Mother Nature

Peaceful, bountiful nature is an illusion.  It is romantic fiction, in the original meaning of ‘romantic.’  Nature is a grinding struggle for existence, a dismal theatre of suffering and slaughter.  No matter how much loveliness is visible, just beneath the surface is a deathscape, where very few survive; and except for perhaps a few trees, none of them dies quietly of old age.

Religion teaches us that God is a loving father.  Perhaps He is, but Mother Nature is a remorseless bitch.

This insight will become important for upcoming posts, and for understanding humanity.  Because until just the last few decades, humanity equally suffered and died in the deathscape.

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  1. Vaughan

    Well thanks for those depressing thoughts! I had to laugh at the contrasts between charm and beauty and death and destruction but I will admit it did get me to thinking. But I think I am going to focus on nature’s charms, at least until July and August when I will be joining you in screaming “Nature’s a bitch!” and we’re all going to fry!

    • Bookscrounger

      I knew this would be a depressing chapter, but it was important for future posts.

      No, we certainly can’t function looking at the realities, we need to focus on the romance. This is all depressing, and depression drags us down.

      I suspect that all of the animals are quite content going about their lives in constant danger. It’s all they know, and they’re adapted to it. So they don’t suffer. And we shouldn’t either.

      But right now, people around the world are playing with fire. We are drawn to despots and demagogues. I have some ideas about why that is so (you have read some of them), and ideas about what we need to do to stop before it’s too late.

      Because the deathscape is around every corner…

  2. Eddie Cazayoux

    C’est la vie! Sure all that goes on, but why focus on the dark side. The other side is more wonderful to experience. Or are we sticking our heads in the sand? The intricacies of nature are miraculous. Without man, nature will go on forever – as long as the sun continues to shine. It will adapt. We seem to be having a harder time adapting to nature. We are consistently removing ourselves from the natural environment – TV, A/C and the automobile have done the most. People used to sit on their porch. I still use mine and I thank God for the experience. Happy to have you back Joe.

    • Bookscrounger

      I agree. The ugliness is depressing, and human progress is marvelous.

      We live in a precarious time. I fear we do not remember, do not even know, what is just under the surface. Right now demagogues are rising around the world. I need to start with these things to get to a point that we can understand our peril.

      Hang with me. I hope to pull this all together before I finish. But I must make the warning, we will cover more ugliness before we finish…

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