Morality in Nature Stephen J. Gould

Self-serving attribution is just one of the many flaws that characterize human beings. To denounce another individual for personal gain is a quite common practice, so much that its become second nature. Although this ‘gain’ is more psychological than it is physical, it serves as a form of justification for the harsh predicaments a human is involved with on a daily basis. The natural tendencies of humans are too diverse to fully comprehend. The majority of them, however, are deemed as morally good.

The inherent nature of other creatures, however, such as that of the ichneumon wasp, has caused humans to doubt whether their behavior is acceptable or not. The lack of altruism, the abundance of details often too horrifying to contemplate, and the perverse attitude present in their [the ichneumon] natural tendencies have made humans desperate to try and reveal some sort of good in these animals.

Stephen Jay Gould, a famous historian of science, develops a more intense explanation as to why humanity behaves in such a way.

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He does this by providing various accounts from different theologians and then debriefing the accounts further to reveal certain things about human nature. In his essay, “Nonmoral Nature” (1982), Gould argues that nature exists as a nonmoral force, yet humans feel it necessary to include their own morals when contemplating the natural world because of their desire to vindicate their society’s conflicts. Gould begins to defrief his argument about morality in nature by acknowledging that natural theology plays a huge role in the desperate fleet to justify nature’s cruel components.

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William Buckland, one of the most famous natural theologians, is used throughout the first paragraphs of Gould’s essay as a pawn.

The relationship between predator and prey that Gould is quick to shut down demonstrates that humans can and will go to vast extremities when it comes to applying human morals to nature. While Buckland is praised momentarily for his effort, Gould pays him little mind after the first three paragraphs of his piece. Clearly, religion is not the main focus of his [Gould] essay. Humans might tend to use this concept as their own pawn, but it does very little to justify their implements of moral principles in the natural world. After all, as Gould makes quite clear with his patronizing tone towards Buckland, religion is not what humans feel the most drawn to when it comes to contemplating Mother Earth– its how nature fits into their own framework of rights and wrongs.

The search for a benevolent God in a place where it does not belong masks the frequent humanization of nature it entails. In paragraph six, for example, Gould writes: “Since a dead and decaying caterpillar will do the wasp larvae no good, it eats in a pattern that cannot help but recall, in our inappropriate anthropocentric interpretation, the ancient English penalty for treason –drawing and quartering, with its explicit object of extracting as much torment as possible by keeping the victim alive and sentient.” Here, Gould explicitly states that the interpretation of nature by humans is inappropriate because of the absurd ideas it tries and fails to apply. This comparison between an old, human form of torture and the natural tendencies of a ichneumon larvae expands the notion that to go against the moral, inherent nature of humans is unacceptable, under any circumstances, to humanity. The idea of inherent cruelty from the ichneumon larvae condemns humans to a dreadful position– if creatures can be born with a lack of ethical principles, then humans can be too.

Gould presents this idea through his reference to ‘drawing and quartering’. The ichneumon might have dark ways of doing things, but human is no better. They are not acting on their inherent nature, and if they were, that would mean that they are inherently cruel, as they’ve suggested with the wasps. This is why humanity is so interested in justifying the behavior of creatures such as the ichneumon– if they apply human morals and dissect these behaviors with things like religion, humans can vindicate their society’s conflicts. In order to propel his claim further, Gould ends with an account from Charles Darwin, who was also used as a pawn of moral defense. Gould’s set up of the ‘they say, I say’ emphasizes the fact that nature works outside of the framework of human morals and principles. Instead, the natural world responds in the matter of natural selection. This proves Gould’s argument about both nature and humans. Both coexist but cannot be used as a means of justification for either group. Their inherent nature, as difficult as it may be, cannot be manipulated.

Despite the fact that Earth’s creatures act in accordance with their inherent nature, Humans feel the need to justify their actions just as they’ve did with their own. However, humanity has shown little to no interest in altering their [sometimes] malevolent behavior. Should humans attempt to tame it, or is it inherent in every aspect? Is this attitude, however, therefore acceptable? There are some more of pressing issues related to humanity’s connection with nature. Gould, however, goes quite into debt about the majority of these issues using the complex structure of his essay.

Cite this page

Morality in Nature Stephen J. Gould. (2021, Dec 26). Retrieved from

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