And God saw all that he had made, and found it very good. - Gen 1:31.
The whole of nature, as we know, groans in a common travail all the while, - Rom 8:22.
Some time ago, I was given a book entitled Dark Nature by Lyall Watson, author of Supernature. An evolutionist with no apparent belief in God, he is nevertheless honest in his attempts to grapple with a problem that has troubled thinking men from earliest times, the fact that physical evil is built into the natural world as much as good is.
With moral evil - sin - there is no great mystery, at least not as to its origin. Men are endowed by God with a free will and must use it to submit to His will and make Him the purpose of their existence. Some do and some don't. Those who don't sin and by their sin introduce a host of disorders with all the ensuing troubles and misery that have dogged humanity since Adam. Original sin and personal sins have men as their cause, not God.
It is with the physical universe that the difficulty arises.
"I began this exploration of evil with the comment that things in nature have a glorious and unsettling tendency to be beautiful'. They do, and they are truly glorious, but now I must explain the unsettling part.
I find the beauty sometimes disturbing because, as a biologist, I know that nature is basically relentless and unfeeling, with little in it to match the sympathy of a child who stops and takes the time to turn a beetle back over on its feet. It's a jungle out there, a war very often of all against all, in which ten per cent of all known species are parasites, whose job it is to harass, weaken and disfigure the others. Part of what, writer Annie Dillard calls life histories 'in some hellish hagiography'. She is right, such things are not well enough known. The romantic; carefully censored world of televised nature conceals the brutal truth, which is that most of the creatures on this planet live in constant and justified fear of the rest, or pay their way as slowly dying pasts to unthinkable lodgers" -Dark Nature p 229.
Among members of the same species, Lyall Watson gives many examples of behaviour that can only be qualified as evil: "Amongst mallard ducks, aggravated sexual assault, is such a normal part of reproductive behaviour that an unguarded female may be gang-raped so persistently that she drowns. Man-eating male blue sharks seem to be unable to mate until they have made injurious attacks on their own females. Rape is an established pattern of behaviour in many insects, frogs and turtles; and can even be homosexual in some parasitic worms. Homosexual behaviour generally is rampant in the salamander, and very common in a wide variety of other vertebrates, for some of whom it may even be the practice of choice.
"Cannibalism has now been recorded in just about every animal that isn't strictly vegetarian. Female spiders do it routinely as a way of giving their young a nutritious start in life, and male wasps on the make are courting death by approaching a female who is already mated. On in every twelve ground squirrels in a colony is killed and eaten by its own male kin; while female squirrels seem to be content with just killing, but not eating, all young in the nests of their competitors. Male fish entrusted with guarding the family eggs may, if they are hungry enough, simply eat them; and anyone who has kept an aquarium knows how important it can be to separate young fish from their parents before similar temptation prevails? Large Canadian perch called 'walleye', because of a sinister opaque look they cast even over members of their own species, have been found with smaller walleyes in their stomachs, which in turn had eaten still smaller ones, and so on for four unrepentant generations of cannibal within cannibals." - p 231.
How did nature get to be like this?
Lyall Watson attempts to explain it all as a consequence of natural, genetic selfishness by which an individual seeks its own good at the expense of others, co-operating in the welfare of others only if that is of benefit to itself. In the context of the Faith, however, that is simply to restate the problem, not resolve it.
Six times in the account of the Creation it is stated that God found what He had made to be good. Goodness was the dominant trait, the underlying characteristic that ran through every part of the physical universe as it came from God's hands. And the whole, once it was finished, was pronounced: by God to be "very good", in other words, an abundance, a created model of the goodness that is found in God Himself. "Furthermore, the entire universe, with all its parts, is ordained towards God as its end; inasmuch as it imitates, as it were, and shows forth the Divine goodness, to the glory of God" - St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I Q 65, Art 2.
What does it mean for a thing to be good?
A creature is good in its being if it possesses everything that is proper to its nature, i.e. if it is physically well-formed, healthy, fit, and lacking in defects. It is good in its behaviour if it contributes to the well-being of other creatures and to the common good in general. Creatures that are good reflect the goodness in God, where the Father, who possesses all of the divine Nature, communicates to His Son whilst losing nothing of it Himself, just as Father and Son communicate it to the Holy Ghost, yet remain entirely God themselves.
Evil, by contrast, consists, from the point of view of being, of a lack of personal well-being, be it by a physical defect, by illness, or some similar handicap. Evil in behaviour consists in harming the well-being of others in the pursuit of one's own good. It is possible that the harm inflicted on others contributes to the common good, however the point is that the good thus obtained is reached through what are, objectively-speaking, evil means. Keep in mind that I am talking about physical evil. No morally evil act ever contributes to the common good, whatever Machiavelli might say.
With this in mind, it is possible to conceive of what a thoroughly good universe should be like. In it, creatures should lack in nothing that their natures require. That does not mean that they should be immortal, since all material creatures are limited and defectible, meant to wear out and die. However, for as long as they are alive, one would not expect them to suffer any harm to their bodily well-being, and death should not be a painful and traumatic experience for them, since pain and trauma arise from personal good being violently contradicted.
In the way they behave, one would expect them to be only beneficial to each other, and in a way which does not harm the requirements of their own natures. The balance of nature in this unflawed universe would lie in the various creatures bringing good to each other without any harm to themselves.
This is, of course, all very theoretical and open to contradiction, but I find one curious verse in Genesis that seems to confirm that the world was indeed like this in the beginning. "Here are all the herbs, God told them, that seed on earth, and all the trees, that carry in them the seeds of their own life, to be your food; food for all the beasts on the earth, all that flies in the air, all that creeps along the ground; here all that lives shall find its nourishment." - Gen 1:29:
This verse is in a passage of the Scriptures that is taken very literally by the Church, namely the account of the creation of Adam and Eve and their being given mastery of the animal world The implication then is that animals did not eat animals for food, nor even plants, but merely the fruit of plants (which, incidentally, would benefit the plants by depositing their seeds, with little piles of fertiliser, in places they would be likely to grow).
How then did lions, and snakes, and sharks, and the various deadly forms of bacteria and viruses, and the other 3 million species that harm and kill others to live, cope? There is no authoritative answer to this question, but one answer that will not do is that the lion simply ate grass until God allowed him to eat goats. Lions are designed to live on red meat, and the moment they were created, that is what they had to eat to survive. One answer I can suggest without being able to prove it is that the harmful species were not created until the Fall of Adam, at which point the whole natural order underwent a radical change.
"And to Adam he said, thou hast listened to thy wife's counsel, and hast eaten the fruit I forbade thee to, eat; and now, through thy act, the ground is under a curse. All the days of thy life thou shalt win food from it with toil; thorns and thistles it shall yield tree, this ground from which thou dost win thy food." - Gen 3:17,18.
These verses are generally interpreted as a revolt of the natural order against man who had revolted against God. If one postulates that the physical world became a place where creatures harm as well as benefit each, other, and in which man is a creature was vulnerable as the rest, then one can understand well the notion of the world revolting against man. Adam and his descendants had to live in a land that was dangerous, that only imperfectly met his needs and that was no longer, in the full sense of the word, his home.
There are two things that can be noticed about the altered world. First, the physical evil in it is an image of the moral evil introduced by man. The egotism of men, which is deliberate and sinful, finds a close resemblance in the natural (and of course sinless) egotism of animals. Men are jealous, so are animals; men struggle for power, so do animals; men take advantage of their fellows, so do animals, and so on. It is the 'fearful symmetry' of Blake.
Secondly, despite the harm that now occurs to individuals, the common good is still preserved. The balance of nature is maintained with a great deal of trouble and misery, but it is maintained The evil is directed to good, and even the most seemingly destructive species are ultimately of benefit to the whole.