early american natural history

Romanticism (and Beyond)


“Nature Red in Tooth and Claw”: Art, Literature & Survival of the Fittest


The now familiar phrase, “nature red in tooth and claw” comes from a long collection of poems gathered together and called “In Memorandum A.H.H. by Alfred Lord Tennyson, published in 1850. 1 This phrase came to be used in describing the competition of individuals in a species in Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, later dubbed “survival of the fittest.”


Excerpt from  In Memoriam A. H. H. LVI: 


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?


The creed which man trusts here is that love is the law of Creation, now in conflict with the law of Nature, who personified is shrieking against love, as she is “red in tooth and claw,” or bloodied from the pursuit of prey.  Tennyson’s poem predates the publication of Origin of Species by nine years at least, but it is, like Darwin’s writings, part of a larger literary context in which the turmoil of survival in nature becomes a focus.


The concept of nature as a vast competition brought into question the benevolence of Creation, a concept that continued to occupy literature through the twentieth century.  Emily Dickinson’s “A Bird Came Down the Walk” (1858-1886) exemplifies an American “Dark Romantic” or perhaps Early Modern response to this question, as do Robert Frost’s sonnet “Design” (1922) and James Dickey’s “The Heaven of Animals” (1962).


John Collier, Charles Darwin, 1883.

A Bird Came Down the Walk

Emily Dickinson


A Bird came down the Walk —
He did not know I saw —
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass —
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass —

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around —
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought —
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home —

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam —
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.


Robert Frost


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,

On a white heal-all, holding up a moth

Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth--

Assorted characters of death and blight

Mixed ready to begin the morning right,

Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth--

A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,

And dead wings carried like a paper kite.


What had that flower to do with being white,

The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?

What brought the kindred spider to that height,

Then steered the white moth thither in the night?

What but design of darkness to appall?--

If design govern in a thing so small.

The Heaven of Animals

James Dickey


Here they are. The soft eyes open.

If they have lived in a wood

It is a wood.

If they have lived on plains

It is grass rolling

Under their feet forever.


Having no souls, they have come,

Anyway, beyond their knowing.

Their instincts wholly bloom

And they rise.

The soft eyes open.


To match them, the landscape flowers,

Outdoing, desperately

Outdoing what is required:

The richest wood,

The deepest field.


For some of these,

It could not be the place

It is, without blood.

These hunt, as they have done,

But with claws and teeth grown perfect,


More deadly than they can believe.

They stalk more silently,

And crouch on the limbs of trees,

And their descent

Upon the bright backs of their prey


May take years

In a sovereign floating of joy.

And those that are hunted

Know this as their life,

Their reward: to walk


Under such trees in full knowledge

Of what is in glory above them,

And to feel no fear,

But acceptance, compliance.

Fulfilling themselves without pain


At the cycle’s center,

They tremble, they walk

Under the tree,

They fall, they are torn,

They rise, they walk again.

There is a clear refutation in these works against the all-encompassing harmony in nature seen in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1834 joyous celebration of the design in nature:


The snail is not more accurately adjusted to his shell than man to the globe he inhabits, that not only a perfect symmetry is discoverable in his limbs and senses between the head and the foot, between the hand and the eye, the head and the lungs,—but an equal symmetry and proportion is discoverable between him and the air, the mountains, the tides, the moon, and the sun. I am not impressed by solitary marks of designing wisdom; I am thrilled with delight by the choral harmony of the whole. Design! It is all design. It is all beauty. It is all astonishment. 2


Instead of a nature where man is at one with a vast benevolent design, man now becomes part of a constant struggle, subject to an environment unsympathetic to the creatures within it.


The work of American naturalists also began to reflect this competition, particularly the art of John James Audubon.  A brief comparison of his images of creatures in conflict with one another to those of his predecessor Mark Catesby reveals the degree to which dramatic and dynamic conflict increased.  In the image of the red-shouldered hawk and the American bobwhite, there is a fierce struggle for survival, as the bobwhites scatter, competing to be the ones who escape those sharp talons.  During his life, Audubon’s work moved further from the conventions of natural history illustration towards a greater drama and narrative. 3 This heightened drama was a hallmark of Romantic artistic movements (think  Delacroix’s dramatic compositions), but also of the way science began to envision the natural world.



Certainly, the celebration of the test of the self against the wilderness was a key part of the American psyche.  Audubon’s Ornithological Biography offered adventure stories from the frontier of America, and he presented himself as a figure out of that adventure to his prospective patrons in England and Scotland where most of his works were published. 4


Romantic writers who rejected a mechanistic view of the world (as working according to immutable laws of physics or mathematics) were in some cases fascinated by the ideas of mutation and transformation in natural history that led up to and resulted from Darwin’s ideas.  If species evolved, then could they devolve? (See Jefferson and the Mastodons for pre-Darwinian notions of this).  If competition was the order of the day, were the strongest and most successful the picture of the future?


Jack London, as a Naturalist writer, reveals themes of survival of the fittest and the fierce competition occurring in nature in his most famous novel Call of the Wild.  Here also are the themes of both evolving and devolving as the main characters, the dog Buck, moves from a civilized domesticated existence to one of fierce competition in the Alaskan wilderness.  Like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there is a fascination with what the capacity for change in a species means for humans: what will they evolve into given the influence of society or its lack?   Should the strong be championed?  What of the meek? All of these have been compelling, if deeply troubling questions for poetry and society through and past the Romantics.


The story of Darwin’s legacy for social and artistic movements is often told through the unfortunate theory of social Darwinism in the Gilded Age.  In the 1880s, theorists as William Graham in his What Social Classes Owe to Each Other used the concept of natural selection to justify the notion that those who were financially successful were in essence fit humans, leaving the lazy or substandard to their poorer fates.  This, Graham argued, was the natural way of things, a weeding out of the unfit, and social welfare programs would only interfere with the natural order. 5  Thankfully, the refutation of such theories coexisted in the reform movements of the time.  One notable example in the works of artist-reformers such as Jacob Riis in his 1890 publication How the Other Half Lives, revealing the depths of human poverty in which Gilded Age society and social Darwinist ideology could result.


Often, it has been this darker side of survival of the fittest which has captivated the American artistic mind.  Walton Ford’s The Island portrays the theme of continual competition, of red tooth and claw, in a contemporary setting of scarcity.  The painting depicts a writhing mass of thylacines, the Tasmanian wolf or tiger, a marsupial which became extinct in the early 20th century. 6  Their futile struggle (as they consume all their food source and then each other) speaks not only to a harshness in the natural world but also to a contemporary concern over human abilities to out-compete all other species on the planet.

Walton Ford, The Island, 2009, Crystal Bridges Collection.

Yet there is a optimistic side to evolution.  In the later twentieth century, scientists have begun to ask whether altruistic behaviors as well as competitive ones can be part of natural selection.  Might there be behaviors that benefit other individuals of a species which are naturally selected?  Biological Altruism is the study of behaviors which seem altruistic (i.e. actions that benefit others, don’t benefit the individual, and may even put him or her at a disadvantage) among non-humans.  Much of the discussion of biological altruism is through the lens of evolutionary advantage, whether through kin selection (the aiding of loosely related or closely related genes) or through a species-wide or cross species level of assistance.


Insects are frequently studied for their altruism in the service of their communal unit (in the case of bees or ants for instance).  However, one of the classic examples is the vampire bat (see Maryland Department of Biology Study).  Vampire bats share blood with other bats, in hopes of a return favor in the future, a kind of tit-for-tat behavior called reciprocal altruism.


This creature, so very associated with parasitism, with the single-minded predator embodied by the folklore of the vampire, is yet quite generous, almost philanthropic, towards its distant kin. This type of altruism often also labeled kin selection and is practiced by many species such as birds whose own offspring give up raising a clutch in order to help parents with a new set of siblings.  8  While there is a selfish element, genetically speaking, to this type of altruism, whether reciprocal or kin based, it reveals natural selection may affect populations by producing more than the popular notion of frenzied, ruthless competition.


For further reading, check out the excellent exhibition web catalog from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Endless Forms Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts.




1. “Alfred, Lord Tennyson,” Poetry Foundation, accessed June 28, 2014. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/alfred-tennyson.

2. George Montiero,  “On ‘Design,’” Modern American Poetry, accessed June 28, 2014. http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/frost/design.htm .

3. Ann Shelby Blum,  Picturing Nature American Nineteenth Century Zoological Illustration, (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1993), 92.

4. Ibid, 113.

5. John MackcFarager , et al., Out of Many, 6th AP ed, (New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2011), 655.

6. Calvin Tomkins,  “Man and Beast, the Narrative Art of Walton Ford,” New Yorker, January 6, 2009, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/01/26/090126fa_fact_tomkins?currentPage=all .

7. “Biological Altruism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,  last updated July 21, 2013, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism-biological/ .

8. David Brown, “Birds’ Cooperative Breeding Sheds Light on Altruism,” Washington Post, August 17, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/16/AR2007081602257.html .




Arkansas Frameworks

Strand: Reading

Standard 10: Variety of Text

Students shall read, examine, and respond to a wide range of texts for a variety of purposes: Poetry



This site  was created through a fellowship from the William Reese Company

and completed through the  Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Library