William T. Cavanaugh
"Creation's Final Law"
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
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
In Memoriam A.H.H. (1850)
Tennyson's famous words about nature reflected a growing Christian unease in the middle of the 19th century about the idea that God's love and nature's violence were irreconcilable:
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
Though written almost a decade before Charles Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859, Tennyson's poem responded to the idea that nature operated autonomously without God's intervention, an idea already promoted by Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1844. After Darwin, Tennyson's phrase "red in tooth and claw" was used frequently to describe the new evolutionary view of nature, in which humans were of course included. The phrase became associated with social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer, who coined the expression "survival of the fittest," and it continues to be used today by popularizers of evolutionary science like Richard Dawkins. "I think 'nature red in tooth and claw' sums up our modern understanding of natural selection admirably," Dawkins writes in The Selfish Gene. "We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes."
How is a Christian to respond to the apparent contradiction between a loving, purposeful God and a cruel, random nature? One way is to deny that such a grim account of nature is accurate. Dawkins' idea of innate selfishness has been challenged by studies that show the evolutionary disadvantages of aggressive competition and the advantages of cooperation. Such findings have helped some evolutionary anthropologists to push back ...