Is Nature Darwinian? I’m not so sure.

Via Jim Tolstrup
on Jan 8, 2010
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Rescuing Nature – Part 1: How do we know when we’re being helpful?

ele-squirrelIs nature really “red in tooth and claw,” is it “survival of the fittest,” or are those just  phrases that are intended to excuse our own rude and selfish behavior?

This story begins, as many of my posts do, with me walking in my neighborhood. My friend came up along side me and rang her bicycle bell. What happened next was like witnessing a crime, it all happened so fast. A squirrel near us darted out into the street. A car almost hit the squirrel and it ran back towards us. Then it attempted to cross the street again and was hit by a car coming in the opposite direction. The squirrel managed to get to the opposite curb and pulled his small body up, hand over hand, like Bruce Willis in a Die Hard movie.

There on the soft grass beneath an elm tree, that was perhaps his home, the squirrel died. Because I admired the squirrel’s bravery and determination and because I am a romantic, I carried the squirrel’s body home with me in great solemnity and gave it a burial worthy of my Viking fore bearers. As my ancestors did, I laid food in the grave of the fallen warrior to sustain him on the journey to the halls of his bushy-tailed sires. A few weeks later I noticed that someone had dug the squirrel up and eaten all but the tail. It’s as if a fox had been watching over my shoulder saying “are you done playing with that? I hate to see a perfectly good squirrel going to waste.” But there I go being romantic again.

Ele-snake Last fall, I was walking (again) and I saw someone dumping something out on the grass. When I got closer I saw that it was a baby bull snake. The guy that was dumping it out said that he had found the snake in an irrigation box. He had told his wife that he wanted to keep it as a pet. I was able to guess at her response as I examined the tiny snake on frozen ground, too cold for this snake to be able to find a suitable place to hibernate. I warmed the snake in my hands as I carried it to the edge of the woods and found a rotting log there in a sunny spot. I dug through the rotting wood as the snake warmed in the sun. When I poked my finger at the snake it opened its mouth as if to bite. I figured it was warm enough to find its own way to a proper depth in the debris for hibernation. I wished the snake pleasant dreams and went on my way, pondering the question “When are we actually being helpful?” It seemed to have something to do with knowing how things actually work in nature.

ele-robinMy dog Tashi barks her head off when something is unusual or different. Once she barked for three hours over a butterfly in our backyard that had a deformed wing. So, I knew something was up when she stood facing a lilac shrub and barked incessantly. When I looked where she was looking I saw a robin with thread wrapped around her leg and hanging upside down. With the help of our neighbor, Tara, I was able to cut the the thread loose.

Was it necessary to free this bird in the larger scheme of things? Is intervening in nature the right thing to do? I don’t know but perhaps it was this bird’s gift to me to allow me the chance to see her take off again, free, her fragile bones all intact. For weeks afterward my wife, Kathy, noticed a robin that seemed to be looking in our window. “She’s coming back to say thank you” Kathy said.


Is it a mistake to anthropromorphize animals? Conservationists in Baja California have had some success in curbing the illegal killing and consumption of sea turtles by encouraging fisherman to name individual turtles, using their own daughter’s names. Movies of the 1950’s and 60’s, where birds or giant insects are trying to wipe out human beings are a lot like movies about American Indians of the same period, a case of the destroyer fearing the destroyed. During that time we started wiping out insects (and subsequently birds) with pesticides and urban sprawl—and that’s a much scarier movie.

Is there tenderness in nature? What do you think?

Are individuals within species, and species within ecosystems more cooperative than competitive? Before we dismiss the capacity of animals to feel and express complex emotions like compassion, check out this link to photos of a swallow displaying shock and grief at the fall of its mate.

Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, Colorado: “Restoring nature where we live, work and play.” Become a Fan of HPEC on Facebook, or visit our website for more information


About Jim Tolstrup

Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, Colorado: "Restoring nature where we live, work and play." Become a Fan of HPEC on Facebook, or visit our website for more information


5 Responses to “Is Nature Darwinian? I’m not so sure.”

  1. Inez de Munnik says:

    and then there's this video I watched, where you could see a crow who took care of a kitten, brought it to a house, where it became the house pet. After that the crow kept coming back to the house and the kitten. You could watch the crow teaching the kitten to pick worms from the ground (the kitten did a lousy job at it) and overall mothering the kitten. Unusual of course, but animals too sometimes go beyond there habitual tendicies (too express what looks like compassion).

  2. Liz says:

    What a thought provoking article; I particularly appreciated the notes about movies in the 50s/60s featuring threats to the human world, and the possible correlation between current practices regarding pesticides (and the portrayal of "Indians" in movies of the time and then-current Native American policy.) Fascinating…

    My father, a wildlife major in college and great lover of nature, has expressed disapproval regarding the anthropomorphizing of animals, particularly cartoons aimed at children. His major concern, though, is children learning and growing into adults who do not understand the necessary space one should respect between oneself and a bear, buffalo, indeed even a skunk. The perception that animals are "cute" or "harmless" can endanger not only the human, but the animal as well. However our household was never discouraged from showing care or empathy towards an animal, particularly if we understood our actions may not affect the end outcome. We cared for a den of rabbits whose mother was killed by a car, although eventually a fox or cat broke through the chicken wire box to their demise. This, and other experiences with wildlife- often up close and personal!- taught me much about the natural world, and I was fortunate to have my father's guidance in such situations.

    I absolutely think that tenderness can be found in nature, as the swallow photos, Inez's crow & kitten story, and others depict. Respect, too, is an important balance of the natural world.

  3. Lauryn Boston says:

    Your article poses such a fascinating question about the nature of compassion. I often think about how we humans sometimes equate nature with peacefulness, especially the ocean. And yet the ocean in its natural state is the most savage, dangerous environment on earth. I wonder how humans are truly meant to live upon the earth, and whether we possess some special capacity for love or compassion that sets us apart from the animal world when we can clearly see remarkable examples of interspecies relationships.

    Interesting, your recent experiences with witnessing death. Did you attend the Andrew Holecek talk on Death & The Art of Dying last year?

  4. Jim Tolstrup says:

    It is a poignant epilogue to this story about rescuing nature, that I met someone hiking yesterday who apparently had a heart attack and died shortly afterwards.

  5. […] is a sad and ironic epilogue to my previous post about rescuing wildlife that I met a man on the trail this weekend…who died shortly thereafter of an apparent heart […]