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From the War of Nature

11 April 2014 – 7 September 2014
Free Entry

Boxing hares, burrowing parasites, baby birds and prowling wolves are just some of the characters appearing in this story of predation, competition, co-operation and collaboration. The exhibition reveals that living things resolve conflict in many, often unexpected, ways and aims to challenge the perception that war is an inevitable outcome of conflict. From the War of Nature coincides with the nationwide commemoration of the start of World War I. The title comes from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. Drawing upon more recent scientific discoveries about the relationships between living things, the exhibition explores the place of war in nature, and the idea of a ‘struggle for existence’.

The idea of a ‘war of nature’ developed in Europe from the 18th century onwards. Visions of a harmonious, perfect balance were replaced by a vision of nature with animals and plants constantly struggling for life against the environment and against one another. This ‘struggle for existence’ was most famously used by Charles Darwin to help to explain why animals and plants evolve over time by natural selection.

In the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, we re-examine the idea of the ‘war of nature’. We explore the background to the idea and how it has been modified over time. We explore how conflict between individual animals and plants also gives rise to collaboration, co-operation and co-dependency. We also ask what it means to say whether or not war is somehow ‘natural’ and what that means for people today and in the future.

Many species are threatened with extinction, as a consequence of changes to their habitats and because of over-use, often caused by people. While this is very alarming, there is some hope. If people can make space for nature in their lives, by supporting conservation and by being careful how they use resources, people can work together with nature to help maintain a safe and diverse natural world.

Evolutionary biology has found that there is no single way to view living things. They can be selfish and selfless at the same time. The old view of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ can be seen to misrepresent the wonderful diversity and complexity of nature. Just as it is in nature, humans have found many different ways to negotiate conflict, including collaborating, finding compromises and win¬-win situations. Far from being inevitable, war is only one possible outcome of conflict.

From the War of Nature

© Paul Cliff

Peacock Pheasant (detail), Courtesy of  Manchester Museum © Paul Cliff