Ugly side of nature

I think one of our more insidious traits as humans is our tendency to anthropomorphize nature. Growing up in relative comfort, under the jurisdiction of laws and human rights, with abstract views on life and morality that are very foreign to this world (when compared to the rest of life on Earth), it’s easy to impress our human views upon nature and see things through our lens. And while it’s perfectly normal and natural to feel uncomfortable at the brutality nature has to offer, it shouldn’t taint your view of nature, because nature doesn’t give a damn about our human misconceptions.


Many of us here have asked the same question. Seeing all the compassionate and empathetic replies you’ve gotten shows another side of nature. We can choose to build rather than destroy. In Romans 8:22 The Apostle Paul made the same observation as you did “For we know the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.” I feel sad with you and I feel some comfort too.


I see parasitic wasps as a mercy. Too many caterpillars can devastate crops leading to starvation.


“nature” is a human concept that doesn’t really exist out there. A goose isn’t “nature”, it is just a goose. And a goose, like a lot of different animals, IS able to feel pain and to suffer horribly. It DOES care that it is being attacked by an eagle and half of its intestines are currently hanging out of its body. That is absolutely NOT a misconception, it does not constitute “anthropomorphizing”, or “judging nature”, it is a real, objective, biological fact.

To reply more broadly (not just to Nick): if there is ANYTHING objective in the universe, it is that pain and suffering are inherently and objectively bad. That is true by definition. Even though sometimes they can be a part of something that is overall good that outweighs them (such as feeling some pain/suffering as a means to obtain a larger reward later on, or to achieve a goal), the feelings themselves ARE indeed bad. There’s no judgment or subjectivity involved in acknowledging that. As such, I think it is missing the point to say that we shouldn’t “judge nature”, “anthropomorphize”, or “look at nature through our human lenses”. While the good may outweigh the bad (let’s say the eagle in the scenario above is a beautiful endangered keystone species on which an entire ecosystem depends, and the goose belongs to an invasive species that is destroying that ecosystem), that fact doesn’t make the bad disappear. The gosling being ripped apart alive by an eagle is still suffering horribly. I think it’s a little flippant* to ignore this fact and pretend that it’s all just a matter of interpretation, that there is no objectively ugly side of nature.

*that’s not exactly the word I’d like to use, it’s a bit too strong/negative, but I can’t think of a better word


Domestic dogs are not part of nature, so there should be a long tlk with those owners about how to walk with a dog.
All situation is not evin ugly, it’s the actual side of the life, you too kill thousands of creatures every day and don’t even notice it, to live an organism has to kill something or find something dead, as eucariots are not bacterias and can’t survive without it. And I’m glad that dead gooseling is what broght you those thoughts, there’re far more brutal things happening.


A glance to the question from the other side: how many ecosystems were erased, plant communities damaged, wildlife killed or drawn to starvation and died by creating crop fields? There is no correct answer to the good and the bad nature even from an anthropomorphic point of view.


Goslings have been getting ripped apart by eagles long before humans came around, long before even an inkling towards the concept of “ugliness” was a thing. I’m not denying that animals feel pain and suffer and would prefer not to experience those things, but if you’re going to frame pain and suffering as “objectively bad” then that opens the door to a whole landscape’s worth of implications that don’t need to be examined. Example: a gosling getting torn apart by an eagle obviously elicits more immediate feelings than an anteater pillaging an anthill. Both involve suffering and death; if you want to rally up the numbers and overall effect, the destruction of an ant colony is more impactful than a single dead gosling. But 99 out of 100 of us would squirm at a dismembered gosling and not even bat an eye at an anteater raiding an anthill. Why? Because we as humans have invested emotional energy into things we deem as “cute” or “innocent,” and we react more viscerally when those things are mangled, as most of the time the effects are visible and graphic. Yes, it’s ugly, but it’s also arbitrary, and we should take more care to ensure our standards are consistent across the board, as to not draw conflicting conceptions.


People who let their dog savage nature, are indeed the ugly side of nature.


I don’t think so. There are good reasons to believe that insects don’t experience pain/suffering… but that’s not really my point though.

There’s a difference between our perceptions of reality and reality itself. Whether humans recognize another organism’s feelings, or whether they care or not, is completely irrelevant. The act of suffering itself is an objectively bad experience for the organism itself, and that’s what really matters. The idea of objectivity doesn’t mean that everyone agrees on something, it just means that it is an external fact that can be examined and verified by outside observers. For example, let’s say a human is being tortured (they are awake and are able to feel). It is an objective biological fact that they are suffering and in pain. You can look at their behavior, their physiology, their brain state, and other external facts to verify this fact, so it is objective. In addition, pain is, by definition, a bad experience. The “badness” of pain is an inherent, inseparable characteristic of pain. If you say that something is in pain, then you are saying that they are experiencing something which they perceive as bad. Whether another person cares or not (if they’re a sadist psychopath, they might even enjoy it), whether the person suffering “deserves” it or not, or whether any good can come out of the experience is irrelevant. All of those things can ADD additional layers (of good or bad) to the whole situation, but they cannot take away the objective fact that the person being tortured is experiencing something bad.

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I think we both hold the same point of view on this whole debate, I understand and agree with everything you said in that post regarding objectivity. I, however, do not feel anything beyond shallow, visceral discomfort when I see brutality in nature, that I would normally reserve for my fellow man. I believe it’s important that we respect and appreciate nature, but also that we don’t hold it to the same standards that we do towards each other. Not lesser standards, just different standards. Unless, of course, that animal suffering is a direct result of human intervention.


Thank you for this excellent and concise summary of human misconception of nature. In my opinion, this misconception does much damage – more than we sometimes think. Human attraction to fluffy things, soulful eyes, smart feathers and flashy flowers makes it very difficult to persuade society that less endearing or even “ugly” things also require and are worthy protection and conservation status. For example, in Europe there is Bird Directive and birds are usually primary protection object in many countries. There are lots of initiatives for protecting orchids. But have you ever heard of official directives/global initiatives/mass public outcries for protection of fungi, lichens, mosses, reptiles, beetles, amphibians?


This is also all very correct. No sane person will enjoy view of killing one animal by another. But you cannot tell lynx, eagle, wolf or lion – please, do it in the least painful way. They just kill – for food, for education of the young ones or for eradication of the genes that are not theirs. And they do it the way they do it.


Good stewardship should encompass the whole of creation. However, most of us start with the “obvious” attractive things. I appreciated flowers first, but moss, lichens, ferns, and fungi were not far behind. I like fuzzy puppies, but also fuzzy bumblebees. Now I add numerous other critters including spiders to my favorites list. Those who care for birds and orchids will also be more likely to care for reptiles and lichens.


There’s a little difference, most people don’t care about wild beauty, they just look at it and have short-lasting feelings, but inside they don’t care much about it. And there’s a smaller group of those who appreciate it and then discovers more.


I think it’s an individual endeavor, and that the anguish results from a disconnect between the person’s thoughts as to how the world should work and how it actually does. For me, it wasn’t enough to just know there was a disconnect, and it wasn’t enough to read more about the science (although that helped). The disconnect was still there, and still too painful. I didn’t change any of my core beliefs or understanding of science. The anguish was relieved only by journaling about my mind’s insistence that there should not be a disconnect until it wasn’t so insistent any more. Not everyone’s solution, by any means, but it worked for me.


It is because you started to see nature more as it is. But you are in minority. General public starts and ends with beautiful flowers and fuzzy things. They will enjoy butterflies but will ruthlessly crush “disgusting worm” - larva of the same butterfly.


Not everyone appreciates caterpillars, but I’m thankful to be a part of those who do along with you and numerous others on iNat. :hugs:


Ugliness is objective; and often the alternative to what we perceive as ugly is just as ugly. For example, many people think of predation of white-tailed deer (by humans or other animals) as being “ugly”, but it isn’t nearly as ugly to me as losing our sugar maples, red trilliums, ovenbirds and a host of other wonderful beings to deer overpopulation. Hunting (by humans or otherwise) may not always be “pretty”, but it is necessary for the proper functioning of ecosystems everywhere. But that isn’t to say that I would accept the disruption of a native ecological community just because I don’t necessarily see it as ugly.

I think we are also extremely death phobic as a culture, and anything that reminds us of our own mortality we don’t tend to easily accept. Thus the person who sees a “cute” mammal harmed will think of it as horrible, while hardly flinching when an insect is harmed, and probably not at all when a plant is harmed. These are all sovereign beings who equally deserve the right to live as they are supposed to, even if their way of life doesn’t necessarily conform to our culture’s beliefs.

I would also add that death is only the end to a life, but not the end to life itself, life simply becomes more life. Though I love wood frogs and spotted salamanders, I don’t mind red-spotted newts eating some of their eggs, for I love the newts just as much - I wouldn’t want to live with it any other way.


Wow, this is a very prolific group. I’m so happy to find so many other like-minded naturalists who really think deeply about our role and place in the natural world. I have read all of these posts, at least twice. There is so much I could respond to but just can’t, practically.

I guess these conversations make me think this. If we try to educate ourselves via reading, observing, and looking within, about coming to terms with the hard facts of nature, and not just see only the pretty side to nature – is there a danger in reaching a conclusion that results in a contradiction between our natural response and what our mind tells us is true? In other words if I showed all of you the video I took of the gosling dying on the side of the pond, wouldn’t our immediate, natural response, unmediated by our more rational mind, be empathy? And is there a danger in explaining that away, rationalizing or repressing the legitimate human response. And if that is so, then don’t we need to reach an even higher understanding of what it means to be human? Are our instincts for compassion a mistake of nature, some kind of evolutionary wrong turn? I can understand that we don’t take seriously all feelings, even obviously silly emotions of excessive compassion. But I’m referring to the universal common experience of human beings. I’m reminded of what Dr Stephan Harding said in an interview I just watched on Gaia Theory & Deep Ecology. He told the story of what Descartes said to his pupils during a demonstration of an evisceration of a live dog. He said, ‘Gentleman, ignore the screams, they are merely the creakings of a machine.’ Harding comments, ‘What a travesty it is to deny your spontaneous feeling of sympathy for the dog.’ … I think I will stop here. Maybe I’m belaboring the point. But this discussion is so fascinating to me. It really helps me to hear all of these points of view.


Compassion is as much a gift to our species as intelligence. If one extend her/his compassion to both the prey and the predator, there is no need to choose between feeling sad for the dying and joy for the one who will live another day. And there is no excuse to be found in nature to justify killing or inflicting pain frivolously. I believe some philosophers made the wrong turn when they decided that animals and humans do not share the same essential nature as sentient beings, which created a pretty convenient ethical loophole justifying all kind of horrible actions.