Latest News:   

  • Tell a Friend: Email | Share

Struggle for Existence

In On the Origin of Species, Darwin claimed that there was a continual ’struggle for existence’ in nature, in which only the fittest would survive. This theory came partly from his reading of Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus and his followers believed that the earth could never support the numbers of human beings and other creatures that were born. For Darwin, the inevitability of a struggle for survival was the key to evolution by ‘natural selection’. Any individual plants and animals that happened to vary in an advantageous way would be more likely to triumph over their competitors. Only the survivors would produce offspring, which might diversify and develop further, to fill any available ecological niche. New species very gradually came into being, while many old species became extinct.

Sir Samuel Luke Fildes (1844-1927)
Sir Samuel Luke Fildes (1844-1927)
Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (detail), 1874
Joseph Wolf (1820–1899)
Joseph Wolf (1820–1899)
A Row in the Jungle (detail), 1863
Joseph Wolf (1820–1899)
Joseph Wolf (1820–1899)
Ptarmigan in Winter (detail), 1873

What Darwin called ‘the war of nature’ took many forms. Predators were constantly on the watch for prey. But animals also had to compete with their own kind for food and territory, or (in the case of males) for possession of females. In addition they had to contend with the conditions of life itself, for example, extremes of cold or bleak terrain.

Many of these ideas fell on fertile artistic ground. Battles between animals had been a common theme in art since the ancient world. But in the nineteenth century they came to symbolise the cutthroat competition in human society, as well as the tragedies arising from the hostility of nature. Darwin himself knew the images of fierce birds of prey in John James Audubon’s Birds of America and Sir Edwin Landseer’s paintings of fighting stags. In turn, his theories gradually transformed the way artists pictured animal life ‘in the wild’. Joseph Wolf, Bruno Liljefors, and Abbott Thayer in particular tried to express the complex interaction of all living things and animals’ strategies for survival, including camouflage, speed, and the constant battle of wits.

Robert Havell (1793–1878) Sir Edwin Landseer layout blank image
Robert Havell (1793–1878) after John James Audubon (1785–1851)
‘Red-tailed Hawk’ detail from Vol. 1 of The Birds of America, 1827
Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–1873)
Detail of Morning, c. 1853

previous | next