The image of the predatory lion gives us a misleading impression of the natural world, that it is always "red with tooth and claw", as Tennyson wrote. But in fact, while a lion must eat, it rarely kills otherwise. The zebra and the antelope will graze around a sleeping lion, becoming wary of it only when it has begun to hunt. Stags may clash in a tournament for mates, but exist peacefully at other times. A bear may be aggressive in defending its cubs, but it does not seek to injure or kill, only to drive off intruders. Aggression among the non-human animals aims at securing space to live, hunting aims at food and tournaments aim at sex. But all these aims are also pursued without aggression – bird colonies share space with only minor squabbles, herbivores outnumber carnivores by orders of magnitude, and elaborate displays are a less violent form of competition for mates. Hobbes' idea that the state of nature is a "war of all against all" is a radical oversimplification.
Morality does not begin with humanity. There is, as Marc Berkoff has observed, a kind of "wild justice" among social mammals such as wolves and elephants, and traits such as fairness, trust and reciprocity predate humanity. These behaviours are beneficial, and the genes specifying the chemicals supporting them (such as oxytocin) have prospered. The gene-centric view shows how beneficial biological features such as these will tend to become more widespread; the popular name for this theory, "the selfish gene", can obscure the actual message from evolutionary history that advantages persist, and co-operation and symbiosis are huge advantages.
Part 8 of 23 in the Pentenary series.