Nature is beautiful, but it’s really a lovely deathscape: the struggle for existence is everywhere, and only the trees die of old age.
I am pre-publishing this sequence of essays here and in social media to elicit comments and other feedback. They will form the framework for my next book, Darwin, Dada, Dalí, Duke, & Devadevàya.
My family and 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.
For an ecological explanation of sexual dimorphism, click here.
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.
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.
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.
‘Dead Bird’ courtesy of Katja Just.