What do people mean, in a more philosophical sense, when we refer to predatory animals or apex predators as "strong" and to prey animals as "weak"? For instance, deer and elk can easily break the ribs of an attacking wolf, and deer and elk aren't necessarily easy to kill, but people think of wolves as strong while deer and elk are weaker. I'm not a science student, but I know enough science to know that apex predators are much more vulnerable than commonly thought and that it's more of a food web than a food chain. But wolves and lions are majestic and mighty while deer and rabbits are weak, easy prey. Can you help me to unpack the implied philosophies involved? Other than the Great Chain of Being, unless that's really what I'm looking for. I'm not looking toward the life sciences. Are there philosophical theories or schools of thought which consider strength and weakness in a sense that might be applicable to a predator/prey dynamic?

I am not familiar with any philosophical theory that uses the terms "weak" and "strong" in reference to predator/prey relations as such, and I doubt very much that such a framing is helpful to the development either of a sound ecological framework or to an adequate environmental ethics.

The only time I have come across philosophical discourses about "strength" and "weakness" in nonhuman species is in the context of either (a) Nietzsche's critique of Christian morality (as a "slave morality"), or (b) fascist ideology (Mussolini, Hitler, and their propagandists). In both instances, categories of the "strong" and the "weak" were used either directly or indirectly to justify social domination, i.e. the supremacy of certain "superior" types of humans over other, "inferior" types. Nietzsche, thus, viewed "will to power" as a natural and healthy drive in all life forms, and correspondingly argued that the strong, "noble type" of human being, the one who created his/her own values, was superior to "weak" types who were too timid or repressed to establish themselves in the world or to embrace their fates. Nietzsche also drew repeatedly on metaphors from the natural world--including stereotypes about nonhuman animal behavior and ontology--to justify his schema. (See, for example, his discussion of "lambs" vs. "eagles" in "On the Genealogy of Morals.")

The "classical" fascists, meanwhile, justified national conquest, war, and racial policies (including genocide) by implicit and sometimes explicit reference to "strong" and "weak" animals or species--with the terms "strong" and "weak" corresponding to fascist conceptions of superiority and inferiority, hence to totalitarian notions of political right. Similar usages can be found today in racist and neo-fascist depictions of non-white peoples or groups, and even in US military nomenclature, as in the case of the "Predator" drone made by General Atomics, in which American military-technological might is symbolically rendered "predatorial" in the sense both that drones are designed to "prey" upon much weaker (indeed, defenseless) opponents, and in the sense that overwhelming US military strength corresponds to moral, and not merely military, superiority in the "war on terror."

You are therefore right to emphasize a "food web" rather than a "food chain," and not merely for sound scientific reasons! As you note, the notion of a "food chain" indeed calls to mind the Great Chain of Being, which, apart from being metaphysically bogus, for millennia provided a neat ideological prop for various forms of social hierarchy and oppression, including slavery and genocide.

To conclude, then: the notion that some beings are "strong" while others "weak" only seems intelligible in the context of highly specific situations and relations among individuals, not at the level of entire species. And talk about "strong" vs. "weak" natural types is, anyway, a politically fraught enterprise.

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