Ugly side of nature

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.



I’m referring to the universal common experience of human beings.

This reminds me of a Steven Pinker quote: “It’s natural to think that living things must be the handiwork of a designer. But it was also natural to think that the sun went around the earth. Overcoming naive impressions to figure out how things really work is one of humanity’s highest callings.”

I don’t think there is a “universal common experience” to anything, we just like to use phrases like that to pat ourselves on the back and pretend like everyone is a benevolent angel deep inside (somehow, the “humane” thing to do, or the “human response” is never bad). People love to think that the primordial state is “good” and bad things are a “corruption” of that good. However, the fact is that there are almost 8 billion people in the world, and many billions more have existed before. All of those people are individuals who have very different tendencies and “natural responses”. I think an underlying/implicit assumption in your question is that there must be something particularly true and good about “the human response”, because it is an universal thing that everyone experiences. However, I don’t think either of those things is true- human responses are not universal, and even if they were that doesn’t mean that they are true or desirable. Lots of horrible aspects of humanity are “universal” to the same degree that compassion is.

Anyway, sure- there is risk in anything we do. Careless, biased, or uninformed use of reason can certainly lead people to massively wrong and therefore disastrous conclusions. However, the MUCH bigger danger is in ignoring “what our mind tells us is true” and instead following our “natural responses”. History is littered with the consequences of people following their “natural responses”, and I would argue that it is FAR darker and horrifying than when people follow their minds. This is partly because one of the beautiful things about reason (among many others) is that it allows people from all different backgrounds, from anywhere in the world, to independently come to the same conclusion if they are competent enough and have the same information.

Are our instincts for compassion a mistake of nature, some kind of evolutionary wrong turn?

As always, with everything, it’s complicated. I probably don’t need to say why they can be good, but they can absolutely be bad as well. One such example has been brought up before- we instinctively value the furry cuddly things with big eyes and floppy ears, while we ignore or actively fear/hate the less charismatic things. Other examples abound, and entire books have been written about these kinds of things. Just think of how people feel compassion/empathy towards someone in their in-group vs. how they feel about someone in their out-group. Or think about how people instinctively feel about “abstract” concepts (such as a child starving in North Korea) vs. how they feel about more concrete concepts (such as a child starving in the house next door). Another example is with numbers. As Stalin supposedly said, " A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.". We could go on and on… but the point is that people’s “compassion instincts” are frequently horribly mistaken, and they have often lead to unspeakable levels of injustice and tragedy. It is paramount to fight those instincts as much as we possibly can in those cases.

To tie these two points together, one of the big trends throughout history has been what Peter Singer called the “expanding circle of empathy”: by “default” human societies have a very narrow scope of empathy towards other beings- they only really empathize with or value their immediate family members, or the members of their clan/tribe. That was the “natural human response” for a very long time. In many societies- it is/was not uncommon for people to think that people from outside of their own clan aren’t even humans, demonstrating the emotional detachment that they feel towards them. As societies became more complex and started to progress in different ways, that circle began to progressively expand to include more and more groups of people- less related individuals, members of different socioeconomic classes, members of other races/ethnicities, members of other countries, minorities (such as LGBT individuals, disabled people, the poor), etc. and even other species. All of this was driven by the mind, not by any inherent change in “our natural response”.


Butterflies? We have a reserve specially for the Brenton Blue.

but that sound of a chainsaw ripping thru a tree, when someone tackles a new garden.
Must tidy away the trees first.


I think recognizing the poignancy of those moments when life struggles and ebbs is part of being human and perhaps even being alive (no way of knowing how other sentient creatures respond to death). In these times of COVID19, many of us are feeling the loss of life more keenly.

Perhaps one part of this feeling is the understanding of how all life is connected. Science tells us it’s energy flows and cycles. Indigenous ways of knowing talks about relations and beings-other-than-human that take care of us so we in turn take care of them. I like the metaphor of two eyed seeing for a fuller explanation of how we are connected to something other than ourselves individually and why the death of a gosling or a tree calls for a noticing and reflection.

Hope all are staying well and safe.


Yes. Butterflies. Beautiful, charismatic butterflies. Exactly what I was talking about. Protection for charismatic things.


From a parasitologist (M.S. and Ph. D.): parasitism is a beautiful example of evolution, if your behavior kills your host, you’ll die too. How can one claim to love nature and not embrace its S.O.P.? Canada geese are an overwhelming annoying spp. trying to conquer the habitats of others and preying on the kindliness of some humans. If they hadn’t usurped the guy’s faux pond, maybe a native duck would have had a chance.
Everything needs to eat-- few can synthesize needed food biomolecules like carbs, proteins and oils. So we eat something else. Anthropomorphism, how primitive.
In my tended woodlot, the nesting pair of redtailed hawks would have done the trick.