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Cecil the lion: should we care?


Wikimedia Commons Cecil-the-lion

Many people expressed anger over Cecil the lion’s death in signs that appeared in public places and personal abuse directed at the hunter.

In July, a lion was killed. On its own, this would hardly be newsworthy (given that thousands of lions die every year in Africa from natural causes), but for the simple fact that this lion had become quite well-known by the public in recent years. People living all over the world now know about Cecil the lion. His untimely death has made headline news all over the internet. People who would hardly be able to find Zimbabwe on a map are now outraged by the fact that a lion was killed there.

The animal rights organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have already issued a statement expressing their desire to see Walter Palmer, the American dentist who killed the lion, “extradited, charged and preferably hanged”.1 Their petition against lion hunting has currently garnered more than 120,000 signatures.2 Whether or not this is commendable depends upon what we believe about our origins. If we accept the biblical mandate to look after our environment and care for the animals entrusted to our dominion (Genesis 1:28), then any efforts to mitigate against animal cruelty makes sense. God cares about animals, therefore so should we (Matthew 6:26).3

But if humanity owes its existence, along with the lions, to millions of years’ worth of brutal bloodshed in the struggle to survive and pass on our genes, any antipathy against animal cruelty seems a little naïve and counterproductive. After all, if natural selection got us here in the first place, one more dead lion is hardly a tragedy. According to evolutionary opinion, lions appeared on the scene about 700,000 years ago.4 This means that at least 10 billion lions would have died before Cecil did.5 And I would hazard a guess that most lions, like Cecil, have not died peacefully in the wild. If the evolutionary story is true, we actually have very little basis to care.

In fact, looking at this from the perspective of all the other animals which have been killed and would be killed by Cecil, it’s hard to see why we should lament rather than rejoice that Cecil finally got his just desserts. What grounds does evolution give us to choose between being a lion-lover instead of an antelope-lover? And why is it commendable to film, for entertainment, animals torturing and killing each other, but wicked and cruel for human “animals” to do the same? A male lion can kill all the lion cubs of another pride, and no petitions are put out for justice to be served, yet when a human kills a lion, culpable of mass animalicide, in the late stages of its retirement, the international community cries ‘foul’.

If nature is intrinsically “red in tooth and claw”,6 what grounds do we have to protest any bloodshed or cruelty in the world? Within the evolutionary model, death and cruelty are not only necessary for natural selection, but according to Charles Darwin himself, these evils should be seen as “most beautiful and most wonderful”.7 Thus Charles Darwin wrote in Origin of Species:

“It may be difficult, but we ought to admire the savage instinctive hatred of the queen-bee, which urges her instantly to destroy the young queens, her daughters as soon as born, or to perish herself in the combat… maternal love or maternal hatred… is all the same to the inexorable principle of natural selection.”7 (emphasis mine)

So evolution fails to explain why caring for animals is morally superior to torturing them. While most people recognise that something is indeed wrong with gratuitous animal cruelty, the critical question is: can their worldview make any sense of it? Even Darwin could not live by his creed. To cite a few examples:

  1. He regretted how he once cruelly beat a puppy as a boy8
  2. When fishing, he could not bring himself to place living worms upon the hook—instead he killed them with salt water first8
  3. He once rescued a spider from a wasp which was slowly stinging it to death9
  4. On another occasion, Darwin found a wasp which had been caught in a spider’s web. He wrote, “Pitying the wasp, after allowing it to struggle for more than an hour, I killed it and put it back into the web”9
  5. J. M. Herbert, a Cambridge friend of Darwin, reported an encounter Darwin had with a dying bird which had been recently shot: “it had made and left such a painful impression on his mind, that he could not reconcile it to his conscience to continue to derive pleasure from a sport which inflicted such cruel suffering”10
  6. Darwin joined the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and was known for the active stance he took against cock-fighting and badger-baiting. He also pressed charges against a farmer who let his animals starve to death.11

So the fact that the mistreatment of one lion has led to a worldwide outcry testifies to the fact that, deep down, we all know that this world is broken and fallen, and not the way it ought to be—just as God told us in Genesis 3. But if we deny biblical creation, we lose any grounds to care about the killing of another lion in Africa.

Published: 15 September 2015

References and notes

  1. PETA, PETA Statement: Zimbabwe’s beloved lion Cecil gunned down by American dentist/hunter, available at peta.org, 2015. Return to text.
  2. PETA, Take action for Cecil the Lion!, available at peta.org, 2015. Return to text.
  3. Superficially this might seem to provide a case for vegetarianism, but God allowed us to kill and eat animals which, in a fallen world, would die anyway (Genesis 9:3). Nevertheless, as faithful stewards of creation, the fact that we can eat animals does not mean we can be cruel to them (Proverbs 12:10). Return to text.
  4. Wikipedia, Lion, available at wikipedia.org, 2015. Return to text.
  5. Based on data from Ref. 4. The lion population in Africa was estimated between 100,000 and 400,000 in the early 1990s. A male lion will seldom live longer than 10 to 14 years in the wild. Thus a lower-limit of the total number of lions which have walked the planet can be approximated by (700,000/14) x 200,000 = 10,000,000,000. Return to text.
  6. Tennyson, A.L., In Memoriam A. H. H., Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, p. 62, 1895. Return to text.
  7. Darwin, C.R., On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 1st edition, John Murray, London, p. 490, 1859. Return to text.
  8. Darwin, C.R., The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882. With the original omissions restored, edited by Nora Barlow, Collin, London, p. 27, 1958. Return to text.
  9. Darwin, C.R., Journal of researches, 2nd Edition, John Murray, London, p. 36, 1845. Return to text.
  10. Darwin, C.R., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, vol. 1., edited by Francis Darwin, John Murray, London, p. 167, 1887. Return to text.
  11. Herbert, D., Charles Darwin’s Religious Views: from creationist to evolutionist, Joshua Press, Ontario, p. 118, 2009. Return to text.

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