All You Need Is Love

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.

Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair,

Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer

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.[1]

This poem by Lord Tennyson – the origin of the phrase ‘red in tooth and claw’ – expresses a concern that has troubled thinkers from many disciplines. Is nature not cruel, or at least indifferent? And if so, what does this mean for humans as both natural creatures and moral beings with a relation to God?

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This question has had several responses. Some, like the Manichees against whom Augustine wrote, have held that we are not really natural or physical beings at all. We are spiritual creatures, not made of matter but simply confined in it. The opposite response – that we are not really moral beings – is present in some forms of social Darwinism, which suggest that morality or religion is simply a ‘veneer’, a comforting lie we tell ourselves to hide the fact that, whether we act nicely or not, we are ultimately motivated simply by our own advantage[2]. Finally, many theologians and philosophers have argued that the natural world is not cruel or indifferent, but in fact good (or at least, as good as it gets). This idea is probably most obviously expressed in Leibniz’s view – roundly mocked by Voltaire – that we are living in the ‘best of all possible worlds’.

The question is far too large be solved here. But I think it is possible to take a step in the right direction by looking at one way, at least, in which our natural and moral natures seem to cohere.

One of the notable aspects about humans is how well we get along together. On the whole, we wait our turn, tolerate crowded spaces, coordinate, and plan together to an extent that would be remarkable in other species.[3] Some of this cooperation goes right back to our origins; in fact, without it, it is likely that we would not exist at all.

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Take one example: the birthing process for humans is difficult, much more so than for our primate relatives.[4] We have large heads relative to the size of the pelvic opening, which makes giving birth prolonged, painful, and complex. In fact, it is so difficult that anthropologists believe that this process could not have come about ‘outside a social context in which women had physical as well as emotional assistance during birth.’[5] Possible reasons for this conjunction of large head and narrow pelvis include the ideas that pelvis shape allows us to be bipedal or that it allows a body shape that helps us survive in hot climates; and the brain:body size ratio that seems to enable our distinctive intelligence may also require large heads. It appears to be the case that the features that result in difficult birth are foundational parts of our nature; without them we would not be human. But we could not have evolved these features outside a context of mutual care; so, we can say that mutual care is also essential to being human.

This need for support continues beyond birth, as the demands of the slow growth process that produces our cognitive abilities are high. Couple this with the potential for more births while the child is still highly dependent, and mothers may well struggle go it alone. So, we turn to kin; older siblings, fathers, and grandparents all contribute care as ‘alloparents’, allowing humans the luxury of an extended childhood in which our brains can develop. Again, so crucial is the care of others that without them ‘there never would have been a human species.’[6]

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I think that one natural way to describe this kind of care is love. And the idea that love is essential to human nature has plenty of theological parallels. The centrality of love – both of God and our neighbor – is present in Augustine’s claim that ‘Love is my weight’, carrying him to the natural place for a human.[7] It is present in Aquinas’ view that charity is the master virtue, on which all our other virtues depend.[8] And it appears again in Luther’s view that ‘from faith flow love and joy in the Lord, and from love a joyful, willing and free mind that serves one’s neighbor willingly.’[9] These parallels are not exact; but I think that they are enough to show that thinking of humans as both natural and moral beings need not always suggest that we are creatures pulled in two directions by a God and Nature at strife. Tennyson knew, too, that there was more to the story than ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’. Much later, at the end of the poem, we hear this:

My love involves the love before;
My love is vaster passion now;
Tho' mix'd with God and Nature thou,
I seem to love thee more and more.


[1]Excerpts from LV and LVI, In Memoriam A.H.H., Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

[2] Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, ed. Stephen Macedo and Josiah Ober (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[3] Donald M. Broom, The Evolution of Morality and Religion (Cambridge: CUP, 2003), p. 62.

[4] Karen R. Rosenberg, ‘The Evolution of Modern Human Childbirth’, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 35.S15 (1992), 89–124.

[5] Karen R. Rosenberg, ‘How We Give Birth Contributes to the Rich Social Fabric that Underlies Human Society’, in James M. Calcagno and Agustín Fuentes, ‘What Makes Us Human? Answers from Evolutionary Anthropology’, Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 21.5 (2012), 182–94.

[6] Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).

[7] Augustine, Confessions, trans. H. Chadwick, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), xiii.9.

[8] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Notre Dame: Christian Classics, 1948), 2a2ae 23.

[9] Martin Luther, ‘The Freedom of a Christian’, in Luther’s Works: Volume 31, Career of the Reformer, ed. by Harold J. Grimm, trans. by W. A Lambert and Harold J. Grimm (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), xxxi.