Sorry, The Lion King’s ‘Circle of Life’ Doesn’t Exist in the Natural World

Little Simba trails behind his father, Mufasa.
Image: Disney

The Lion King offers a number of lessons around innocence, deception, and love. However, one of my favorite takeaways from the movie—both the original and the remake—is the so-called Circle of Life. We all know the term, made famous by the classic song by the same title.

In the movie, Mufasa, the king of the savannah, teaches his young prince, Simba, about the Circle of Life. Mufasa tells Simba: “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.”

And Mufasa is right—to a point. There is a delicate balance in the natural world. Heres the thing: That balance is constantly changing, said John Kricher, a biology professor at Wheaton College who has written about the “balance of nature” being a myth. Kricher has never seen The Lion King, but he knows it’s not based in science. It’s a movie, after all. The way he sees it, there is no single balance of nature.

“The ‘balance of nature’ is kind of like Santa Claus in Christmas,” Kricher told Earther. “It’s a fanciful lovely little story.”

The natural world has been in various levels of fluctuation since time immemorial. Moments of balance have been interrupted—whether it’s an asteroid driving dinosaurs to extinction or dramatic climate change hundreds of million years ago killing nearly all species on Earth. Some of this stuff is inevitable. It’s, in fact, normal and natural, some may argue.

Laurence Frank, a research associate at the University of California at Berkeley who’s studied lions for more than 20 years and hyenas for another 20, agrees with Kricher. He’s never seen the film, but he doesn’t exactly buy the Circle of Life message it sends.

“There is no balance of nature,” Frank told Earther. “There is a constantly shifting relationship between thousands and thousands of species and environmental variables, but there is no single balance or a way it should be.”

However, the change we’re seeing on Earth these days feels a bit different than the historical dance of balance and disruption the planet has experienced. This time, disruption is a direct result of human actions (not the hyenas, which The Lion King paints as villains). People have always taken resources from the planet. “That’s as it should be,” Kricher said.

However, now we’ve gotten to the point of destabilizing entire ecosystems.

“It’s sort of a metaphor where, I guess, the hyenas are supposed to be us destroying the ecosystem, and maybe the lion has the wisdom to tell hyenas not to do that,” said Kricher, joking afterward that hyenas are scavengers, so they don’t necessarily go out to hunt.

Still, while Kricher doesn’t believe that this balance of nature, or Circle of Life, actually exists in the way people tend to romanticize it, he does recognize that the concept has a place in conversations around ethics and conservation. If you’re trying to figure out what people ought to do with nature or how to sustain it enough for future generations to see lions or hyenas in the wild, then that notion does matter. However, much of ecological or biological science looks at what is, not what should be. And, well, the Circle of Life ain’t it.

That doesn’t mean humans shouldn’t take Mufasa’s call to heart, though. That doesn’t mean we should follow in the steps of Scar, Mufasa’s envious evil brother, whose reckless greed in The Lion King converted the lush savannah into a barren wasteland. In the era of climate change and mass extinction, people should learn to respect the natural world. We take and take with little thought; as a result, resources are running out and entire species are dying.

Perhaps Mufasa’s wisdom is worth digesting. A fictional speaking lion has got more sense than most of us real-live people.


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