Killed By A Jellyfish by Robert Gorham Davis (November 1996)

Iam writing a memoir, which requires revisiting my past, and recalling my feelings about the notion of God. In the course of writing it, I sought out the source of a phrase that always seemed to me beautifully apt when applied to the murderous struggle among predators in the food chain. What this has to do with God we can look to Creationists to answer, and in particular to The Remarkable Birth of Planet Earth, published in 1972 and written by the prime mover of Creationism, Henry M. Morris. Morris, a devoted opponent of Darwinism, insists that during the week of creation, just a few thousand years ago, God created each natural kind, just as it is now. All God had to do was say “Let there be a ring-tailed octopus,” and there was.

To find the source of my quotation I turned to a volume of Tennyson which had followed me through all our moves since I acquired it, according to my signature in the front, giving the date as Feb. 1930. I was then a graduate student at Harvard. I have not consulted it for over 50 years.

The phrase in question is “Nature red in tooth and claw,” quoted from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” a poem written in profound grief at the early death of a close friend, Arthur Hallam, whom he had first known at Trinity College Cambridge. The poem deals with life’s tragedies which, from the very nature of things, are inescapable.

It all starts with the food chain, though we don’t think of the deaths of animals we eat as tragic. Ultimately, as we know, everything living depends on energy from the sun. Unless we keep replenishing this energy supply we die. As part of the process of evolution a rough-and-ready mode of distributing it has been arrived at. It involves killing other creatures to get nourishment from them.

Sunlight is transformed by leafy vegetation and grains, and thus made available to herbivores, to all the different creatures who are equipped to eat it, such as cattle, deer and beavers. Herbivores are not necessarily hoofed — they include anything that gets its nourishment from plant life. Herbivores in turn are eaten by carnivores, who take from them at one or several removes the stored sunlight the herbivores derive from hay and leaves of trees and other greenery. Carnivores cannot avoid living by killing. They are made that way. Others can choose, as humans do. Most humans choose to eat meat and fish, as well as vegetables.

Predators preying on herbivores are “nature red in tooth and claw,” a phrase I found so striking. It concentrates on the instruments the carnivores are born with — the teeth of sharks and claws of hawks, for instance — who use them to seize and kill other creatures. In the course of killing, red blood will flow. Though red blood is identified with life, too great a loss of it will cause death. In any case, it plays quite a role in Judaic and Christian religion. After ritual killing, Judaic priests, following the instructions in the books of Moses, splash blood on the altar.

Carnivores have a lust to kill. Dogs and cats, on which householders lavish love, are quite merciless in hunting squirrels and mice. In fact, they think it great sport, as human hunters do when shooting deer or partridge.

The herbivores — among them many kinds of hoofed animals grown by humans for food — naturally do not want to be eaten, and when not in captivity take refuge in flight or combat. The latter is seldom successful because they are not equipped for it by “nature,” though many have horns. These are used primarily for contesting with their own kind in rivalry over a mate. This obviously plays a role in natural selection. Rams and bulls are combative, and their success in combat brings them descendants that inherit their qualities.

Here is the whole stanza from Tennyson:

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 —

(Ravine means the act of seizing something as prey)

It was not my creed — that God’s creativity was governed by love — and at this point not Tennyson’s. Such a notion, basically false or hypocritical, colors the choice of the good shepherd imagery so common in Christianity. The pastor of the congregation is the shepherd and the congregation, his “flock.” But does the pastor cooperate in the killing of any of his lambs as real life shepherds do? No indeed.

Living as my wife and I do, in a city apartment equipped with electrical dishwasher and clothes-washer, I am hardly in a position to judge the practices of shepherds in Biblical times, but I assume that if they were not paid straight wages for their herding, they benefitted, if they owned the sheep: by shearing them for wool and selling the wool, by selling them for food as lamb or mutton, or by eating them themselves. In any case if they did not engage in any of these pursuits they themselves would die of hunger. In all these transactions trading rather than cash would be likely.

Even as a boy in Sunday School I found some absurdities in the 23rd Psalm, popular though it was, the idea, for instance, of the Lord’s bustling about to set a table for a sheep “in the presence of its enemies” and the idea that a sheep will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The Passover lamb, certainly does not dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

In Christian ritual Christ is both the eater and the eaten. In a book called The Eating of the Gods, Jan Kott paraphrases O.B Hardison as saying “In the Mass, prefigurations of Christ’s sacrifice are recalled — most clearly the sacrifices of Isaac, the only son of Abraham, and of the lamb in Exodus.” “In the liturgy of Good Friday,” Hardison declares, “Christ emerges as the supreme instance of the Divine Victim, the ‘lamb’ led to the slaughter of the original Passover.” Kott also refers to St. John Chrysostom, died 407 C.E., as saying that in the Eucharist, Christ drinks his own blood.

When God takes on the guise of a human being, he is ready to be carnivorous in the ordinary human fashion. On his way to investigate Sodom and Gomorrah, to see if they are as wicked as they are alleged to be, God drops in, with two companion angels, on Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre.

Awed by his visitors, Abraham orders his servant to kill and cook a calf, “tender and good,” for God’s eating. And what of all the animal sacrifices ordered in the Pentateuch? Here God does not eat the victims. They are burned totally in the original holocaust, and the skins only given to the officiating priests for garments.

Or consider God’s role in the deaths of the first-born in Egypt. God personally “smote” and killed all the first-born of Egypt, from the first-born of the Pharaoh on his throne to the first-born of the “maid-servant who was behind the mill” and “the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon.” This specificity emphasizes the character of God’s action, since neither of the last two could have had any responsibility for the treatment of the Jews. Their first-born are killed simply because they are Egyptians, to show God’s favor to the Jews.

At the top of the page of my volume of Tennyson on which “Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw” appears, I had solemnly written in capital letters: “Man Is Nobler Without A God.” Or at least without a God of explicit cruelty, whom Christianity and the Bible insist on describing as a deity whose creativity is governed by love as the final law.

Tennyson mentioned teeth and claws, but there are inborn instruments for killing far more ingenious and deadly than these. Recently a reader asked the Boston Globe to decide between these two; a television program which declared that blue-ringed octopus is “the most toxic marine animal in the world” and the National Geographic which said “box jellyfish are the most toxic.” How many of us have ever given thought to the blue-ringed octopus or box jellyfish as representing degrees of venomousness? According to the Creationists, a good God created both of them. Was his effort well spent? What motivated him?

After consulting the Guinness Book of Records, The Globe thought it pretty much a tie, which was the most venomous. “Both the blue-ringed octopus,” it said, “(which contains a neurotoxic venom) and the box jellyfish can kill in a matter of minutes. The box jellyfish can suddenly release a collagenous stinging thread, which turns inside out, sometimes exposing lateral barbs. Some of the threads are hollow and contain a cardiotoxic venom. Possibly the deadliest of all is the sea snake Hydrophis belcheri.”

This latter well-equipped creature “releases a venom which is 100 times as poisonous as that of the Australian cobra snake.” All these deadly beings are to be found off the coast of Australia, except the Australian cobra, presumably a land animal. “To be found” if you are unlucky enough to encounter them there. Who would want to be killed by a jellyfish, even a box jellyfish?

Henry M. Morris will have nothing to do with Darwinism or neo-Darwinism except to argue against them. At the end of the introduction to the book which established him as a leading Creationist, he writes:

“The evidence clearly shows creation to be a more reasonable alternative than evolution. That being the case, the reader should soberly consider the consequences in the light of eternity if he should continue to reject (or, which is even worse, neglect) his Creator and Redeemer in deference to the unproved philosophy of evolution.” Believe in evolution and you are isolated from God through all eternity. Presumably this prospect of hell is enough to scare off many teen-age students of biology and their school committee members.

It is said that there is no necessary conflict between science and religion. Between Biblical fundamentalism or inerrancy and neo-Darwinianism, almost universally accepted by scientists, there certainly is. The account of creation in the Bible is full of error and ignorance. An omniscient God would certainly know more. Why should he deceive? And if he is the originator of all species, governed by the law of Love, why should he make them with such gratuitous and ingenious cruelty, so built that they can get nourishment only by attacking, tearing apart and consuming their fellow creatures? Better no god than this one.

Robert Gorham Davis, a major literary critic for many years and author of the groundbreaking essay, “Logic and Logical Fallacies,” has taught at Harvard, Smith College, and foreign universities, retiring as Professor Emeritus of English Literature from Columbia University.

Freedom From Religion Foundation