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 –

“In Memoriam” (1842) is one of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s greatest poems. Anyone for Tennyson?

Through poetry he found the truth and spake it.

Tennyson was Britain’s finest Poet Laureate and she shone in the Victorian Age as one of the brightest lighted minds in history.

Tennyson’s observation is a warning to us all: Nature is brutal.

Nature lives in blood and thrives via biting and scraping. To deny the animal instinct for survival is to lose the natural lesson of our innate desire to move up in the world.

We climb the proverbial mountain with our teeth and with our claws and if anyone stands in our way, red shall be shed. Evolutionary thinker and author Charles Darwin’s fine text, The Descent of Man (1871), salutesCharles Darwin and builds upon Tennyson’s warning about nature:

The lower animals, on the other hand, must have their bodily structure modified in order to survive under greatly changed conditions.They must be rendered stronger, or acquire more effective teeth or claws, in order to defend themselves from new enemies; or they must be reduced in size so as to escape detection and danger.

When they migrate into a colder climate they must become clothed with thicker fur, or have their constitutions altered. If they fail to be thus modified, they will cease to exist.

We temper tooth and claw with language. Words civilize us. We call up grammar instead of clenched jaw; we use sentences to convince instead of the mighty paw. However, when it comes down to making certain our lives and our passions perpetuate unfettered, we allow our language to quickly dissolve into animal, and the beast of our nature returns to defend its right to exist.

Tennyson and Darwin each teach us the cruelty of being: Like nature, we are created to kill. Survival is a selfish act, and to prolong our species and to propagate our culture — and to even salvage our failed language — we will lower our intellect and subvert our ability to reason to the level of nature to reveal red tooth and claw.

“Survival of the fittest” is too tame an idea today. Today, only “Survival of the vicious” begins to describe the ongoing bloodthirst the world over to dominate all rivals in favor of a narrow self-interest that yearns no bounds.

34 Comments

  1. This post makes me think of something I heard someone say recently.
    Much of the problems in the Middle East could be solved if a western-style justice system was able to be established.
    Instead of using bombs and guns, people in the West use lawyers who craft words that fight battles. We complain about silly and frivolous lawsuits, but without this important safety value that depressurizes society, we’d probably be fighting in the streets.

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  2. That’s an interesting analysis, Chris!
    Legalese –- a language unto itself — could bring peace to the Middle East!
    Language and vocabulary can go a long way to preserving the self and defying the tooth and claw — as long as all animal desires and needs are met.
    I think that is the challenge of civilization: Provide for basic needs, keep the avenues of hope and sustenance open and free and provide upward mobility for all who seek that path.
    When those passions are cut off by public policy or unfair laws or by other battles, people pick up guns and knives and the Rule of the Street becomes the natural war response for survival.

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  3. Hi David,
    Very true.
    When passions are cut off and people feel that society has failed them, then they resort to the Rule of the Street.
    An example can be found in my paper’s front page today:

    A 15-year-old boy sitting with friends on a porch was gunned down and killed in broad daylight Saturday.
    Shedrick Worthey Jr., known as Sed to his family and friends, was sitting with three friends in the 2200 block of Fillmore Street, in Gary’s Delaney Housing Development, when he was shot in the head and killed shortly after 3:30 p.m.
    Hazel Johnson said she saw what happened. She said she was standing down the street from Worthey, barbecuing in front of her daughter’s house, when three males riding in a Lincoln, wearing military-style bulletproof vests, appeared and began firing.
    Two of the males in the car were sons of the man who fired the fatal shots, Johnson said. …
    A next-door neighbor, who asked not to be named, said the shooter “came up the street like he was Rambo” and “shot at the kids, like he was crazy.”

    People die when others aren’t able to use language to resolve their conflicts.

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  4. Hi Chris —
    Yes, there is definitely a language of the street that owes its syntax to guns and its memes to bullets. We try to rise above that guttural grammar for a loftier goal of trying to get along with each other so we can move upward from our current station. Too few of us have that opportunity to rise without power and money backing us.
    Someone once said ethics are a big hammer we use against each other to keep each other in line — I suppose an ethical violation and a slap on the wrist, or community ostracism, in reprimand is better than a slug of hot lead violating its casing.

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  5. Chris —
    What you prefer is called in the street “White Man’s Justice” where you win with words and not with physical action. There is a terrible urban core meme of a joke that “the only place a Jew can beat you up is in court.” Words and statutes are viewed as wicked and convenient to the intellectual illuminati but unreal and unreachable in the world of the street.
    The courts are routinely seen as the weak way out where you don’t rely on your bodily strength to see you through; you use a collusion of other selfish like minds to punish those who are stronger than you — and that unnatural evolution causes kinks and bindings in the fair upward climb upon the mountain because it offers those who are connected to skip over the boulders and stones to touch the top.
    Violence will always be the base from which each negotiation unfurls because that is the basest human requiem for negotiation. “You might win in court, but I can always beat in your face after” is a quite real and implied threat in any negotiation that includes a third arbitrating party.
    I think there is a natural pulling to those who are tall and muscular and stereotypically attractive because they are seen as examples of evolutionary success with an added aesthetic that is rare and unmatched. Those sorts of people do not need to negotiate or invoke laws or even raise their fists for they survive on their superior intellect and their beauty becomes their physical prowess.
    The only way to avoid violence in negotiation is to understand it is always an option and then make it the less attractive choice in preservation of the selfish interest of those who may seek to invoke its darlings.

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  6. Chris —
    Yes, in many ways the laws of the street — and by extension, the laws of incarceration — demand loyalty and adherence to the threat and execution of violence because that is what you will face if you break the code of behavior.
    If you don’t have ready access to advanced legislation of emotions and thoughts and feelings beyond the self you end up using violence as the major currency of exchange and intimidation.

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  7. It’s interesting that there is an evolutionary process at work in many of these examples.
    On the mean streets of the urban core, the people who are resorting to violence are often the people who are “left behind” because of poverty, lack of education, weak work skills or a combination of those factors.
    The same thing is true of anyone who takes a “code of silence.” Who’d want to work at a job where comrades could turn into victimizers in a second? Not too many people, I’d assume.
    The people who have the brains “evolve” beyond their animalistic natures, but don’t always grow beyond their base desires..
    The morally corrupt who have intelligence don’t have to use their fists or guns to make more of a profit at less risk. In many ways, resorting to animalistic tactics is harmful to their criminal enterprises because it draws unwanted attention.
    One such scheme that used words, rather than bullets to rob and steal was uncovered recently:

    In the scheme, which is believed to cost European governments billions of dollars a year, traders first export and reimport goods using front companies to dodge “value added” sales taxes. They then sell the goods and siphon off the sales tax payments into secret accounts instead of giving them to the government.

    In another case, China’s 16th richest man was arrested for a scheme where $400 million was taken from a pension fund.
    When evolution progresses, strong muscles and fearsome claws can be supplanted by expensive and stylish ink pens wielded by men and women with high intellects.

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  8. Chris —
    Yes, there are all sorts of violence that pound the body – some press the skin, some the emotional core and others pound the mind. It all hearkens back to the street — to the code of violence — to the evolutionary means to press one’s self interest above those of the community.

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  9. It is an interesting take to say that language or “words civilize us” yet passion can drive us back to an animalistic state. I’m not sure I would state that human behavior is any better than animal.
    Language though a wonderful tool of communication, can be used both for good and for ill. With words one can share ideas, teach, expand ones mind, yet at the same time the ideas we share can determine whether or not it is for the benefit of society.
    Does not hate speech promote more violence than is seen in the animal kingdom? Do not speeches and letters been used throughout history to declare war? What animals are known to starve themselves because of language?

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  10. A S —
    Animals don’t have a language so the fact that we invented language demonstrates, to me anyway, a human need to rise above animal instinct to communicate with each other beyond the realm of mere survival and the resonance of violence.
    I don’t find words or their use violent in same the frame we’ve set for the discussion today — the people wielding words may become violent and move away from their words to inflict violence but it needs to be a physical action to do the kind of damage we’re examining from an evolutionary angle.

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  11. But is it not language that allows us to communicate in such a way that war and the building of weapons of large scale destruction is possible?
    I don’t necessarily believe that animals do not have lanuage. It has been shown by entomologists that bees can tell where pollen is when a scout bee comes back to the hive and does a little dance for the colony. I will not pressume they are less civilized than I because I do not understand the language perhaps they even have a written language that can appears on the walls of their elaborate hives.
    How do we know that animals do not enter into negotiations in order to keep the peace?
    I don’t believe people have “evolved” passed animal instincts. I believe we merely obey the socially acceptable precepts taught to us.

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  12. A S —
    Sure language allows us to place orders for nuclear weapons but that just takes us back to the old schoolyard taunt of sticks and stones breaking bones while words will never hurt . You can certainly obtain nuclear weapons without using any language at all.
    Language, as we have defined it — and the users of the words are those that give them definition — includes syntax and grammar and meaning and there are rules for structure in order to communicate clarity. Languages can then be studied and learned and communicated by non-native speakers.
    Sure bees may have their own way of communicating but I don’t consider that a language in the context of today’s discussion.
    Animals may well negotiate but they don’t use a language in the context of today’s discussion.

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  13. Perhaps I am failing to comprehend your use of language and definition thereof even as stated above.
    I don’t see how nuclear weapons could have been built without language. Mathematical computations, laws of physics, etc. were all put down in some sort of language learned and elaborated on before nuclear weapons were built and had they not been built how would they be ordered?
    It has already been evaluated by entomologists to show syntax and meaning and they are studying it in order to replicate it to communicate. It is plausible that it is far more complex than we realize.
    Can survival ever not be purely selfish? If a parent sacrifices their life for survival life of their adopted children one could argue that they are not prolonging their genetic line but one could also argue that they are perhaps prolonging the life of their values.
    But suppose reasoning or negotiating with an attacker doesn’t work. Is there a time when physical action would be deemed necessary or is self defense so crudely abase that it necessary to allow oneself and ones family and perhaps even ones people to be trampled to be considered civilized?

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  14. A S —
    Right. Words are words. Violence is physical. I don’t accept your argument that words — as words and not words that lead to actions — inflict physical violence.
    I’m not convinced that bees dancing is a language any more than people dancing is a language. There are those who will argue dancing is language, but that doesn’t make it true. There isn’t much agreement on animals using language:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_language
    I don’t find any of the arguments that animals use language as we use language very convincing.
    I also don’t believe Rap is music or a song — just so you know where I’m coming from — the more we open existing definitions to mean many things instead of a specific something, the less meaning the definitions we have convey something understandable. Specificity is necessary to make for clear and continued communication.
    Survival of the fittest — as framed in the article today — is always necessarily selfish in order to survive and to keep the species alive even if other species must suffer and die off in the process. Cooperation between competitors for survival is not how that sort of evolution evolves.
    Evolutionists would argue it would never be in the best interest of the species seeking survival to cooperate or sacrifice because it lessens the selfish interest to continue onward.
    When the Titanic was sinking there are reports the captain said to his crew, “Be British boys, be British!” Evolutionists would argue that order to be mannerly and to die with dignity by going down with the ship does nothing to provide for the pressing on of the survival of the species and those that follow that sort of directive to give up and to give in to the tests of life deserve their death because they did not fight with red tooth and claw to claim it.

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  15. Dave —
    No, I do not believe animals are aware of their deaths. Suffering, yes — death, no — because to understand death you must have a comprehension of what it means to be alive. Animals do not have that sort of cogent, cognitive thinking process we have. Animals can sense danger and feel suffering but they cannot anticipate death or even fear it. They simply expire.

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