Gould’s “Nonmoral Nature” and the anthropomorphizing of animals.


I wrote this for school:

Gould’s “Nonmoral Nature” and the anthropomorphizing of animals.

In Stephen Jay Gould’s article “Nonmoral Nature,” he discusses the religious interpretation of animals in nature and suggests a scientific rather than anthropomorphic (applying human traits to nonhuman things) approach to the study and interpretation of nature. He presents the reader with the case of the ichneumon wasp in significant detail to illustrate that nature cannot be simply viewed in anthropomorphic terms or on the terms of good and evil. Gould’s use of a variety of modes of development along with both formal and middle dictation provide a convincing argument to the scholarly minded adult concerning nature’s lack of morals or ethics guiding it, and the ways people inappropriately anthropomorphize animals in nature.

Gould utilizes classification/division as a main method in organizing his article by starting off with the general topic of animals in nature not being able to be categorized as good or evil. He then continues on with his specific example of the ichneumon, later progressing to discuss natural selection in relation to his topic as well. In his conclusion, he later returns to his broader topic of nonmoral nature as a whole and concludes “Since ichneumons are a detail, and since natural selection is a law regulating details, the answer to the ancient dilemma of why such cruelty (in our terms) exists in nature can only be that there isn’t any answer – and that the framing of the question ‘in our terms’ is thoroughly inappropriate in a natural world neither made for us nor ruled by us. It just plain happens.” (Gould 609). In utilizing the classification/division method, Gould has embraced a common and oftentimes very effective method of rhetoric attributed to Aristotle in which the writer tells the reader what they are going to say, says what they need to say, and ten reiterates what was said to the reader by telling them what they have told them.

Gould also provides a significant extended definition of nonmoral nature by using the example of the ichneumons and how their larvae will feed upon a host from within. By utilizing this gruesome image found in nature, Gould points out that “nothing evokes greater disgust in most of us than slow destruction of a host by an internal parasite – slow ingestion, bit by bit, from the inside” (Gould 601). By employing this extended definition throughout the majority of his piece, not only does Gould keep the theme of the article focused throughout his piece, but it also affords the reader a stronger understanding of his point of nature having no morals or ethics guiding it.

Gould continues to delve further into the case of anthropomorphizing the ichneumon by comparing and contrasting how people may anthropomorphize the ethical motivations of the ichneumon. At one point he discusses how brutal the feeding habits of their larvae are and, in a sense, forces the reader to consider the ichneumon a vanquisher over its host. Later, he turns the tables to have the reader consider the “ruthless efficiency of the parasites, [which] leads to the opposite conclusion – grudging admiration for the victors” (Gould 603). In doing this he is not only comparing and contrasting the methods used to anthropomorphize the ichneumon, but also is providing the reader with an unbiased and fuller viewpoint of the ichneumon as well.

By using a combination of formal and middle dictation, Gould does not belittle or oversimplify the science within his article, yet keeps it in the grasp of his target audience of the scholarly minded adult. He also does not shy away from utilizing scientific terms that may be unfamiliar to the reader and fall under formal dictation, but rather, he goes on to define them in middle dictation as they come up. When Gould introduces his primary example, “The ichneumon fly, which provoked such concern among natural theologians, was a composite creature representing the habits of an enormous tribe. The Ichneumonidea are a group of wasps, not flies that include more species than all of the vertibrates combined (wasps, with ants and bees, constitute the order Hymenoptera; flies, with their two wings – wasps have four – form the order Diptera)” (Gould 601), he is not belittling the sciences behind the topics at hand by ignoring appropriate terms. He is also educating the reader by defining them so that they may not be ‘left behind.’ His dictation also embraces the most common affinity (being a thirst for learning) of his target audience which is the scholarly-minded adult.

Gould’s use of language in itself is also utilized as a significant tool in his argument; in his article he states that “In using inappropriate anthropocentric language in this romp through the natural history of ichneumons, I have tried to emphasize just why these wasps became a preeminent challenge to natural theology” (Gould 605). By using “inappropriate anthropomorphic language”, Gould is in fact helping to illustrate what anthropomorphic language actually is and why its use is in fact “inappropriate.”

Being a student myself, I fall into his target audience as I am also a scholarly-minded adult. I found the ideas of nonmoral nature to be very reflective of my personal views on how animals in nature are and should be viewed; therefore, I was also very receptive to what he had to say. Being in agreement, I also found his essay to be easier to read than some other works that I have seen in the past that argue the opposite. In conclusion, I found Gould’s use of various different modes of development and dictations to provide a very convincing argument to the scholarly minded adult concerning the ideas that nature has no morals or ethics guiding it, and the ways that people inappropriately anthropomorphize animals in nature.

Works Cited

Gould, Stephen Jay. “Nonmoral Nature.” Jacobus, Lee A. A World of Ideas Essential Readings for College Writers 7th Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2006. 597-611.


About KD Williams

Kára Agnarsdóttir (aka Kirstina D. Williams) hails from Seattle, WA. She is very passionate about a number of topics including archaeology, costuming, spinning, nålbinding, knitting, crochet, travel, history, and photography. She has been a member of the Glamfolk since 2002 and is currently in school working towards bachelor's degrees in both Scandinavian Studies and Anthropology.

4 responses »

  1. Thanks… I am working on a research paper now… I am not happy with my topic choices as the topic is either The separation of church and state, feminism, or economics… I am thinking of doing feminism with a twist in defense of the family…

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