Competition and Cooperation
When I was in elementary school, we were taught that nature, while beautiful, was a savage, unforgiving place, where “only the fittest survive.” It was all about competition, pitting everything against everything else. It’s simply not true. To begin with, it wasn’t Darwin who coined that expression, but philosopher Herbert Spencer. Darwin said it wasn’t the strongest or even most intelligent who survive, but those who can best adapt to change. His ideas on natural selection were perverted into Social Darwinism, the application of those ideas to social, political, and economic issues. It justified the Calvinist notion that the rich are the best of us, for getting to the top, as well as centuries of colonialism and imperialism.
If we look at a single act out of context, like a cheetah bringing down an antelope, it looks pretty violent, and can serve to reinforce the idea of nature as “red in tooth and claw.” But taken in context as a tiny event in a vast ecosystem, it is a small cog in a big wheel. Everything is lunch for someone else, and one creature’s waste is another’s banquet. Of course there’s competition in nature. Species compete for living space, food, and sunlight. Males compete to be the alpha, and get all the girls. I see that as the alpha male working not for himself, but for all his kin. Again, when you step back and look at the whole scene, the perspective changes. More and more, we’re finding that cooperation, like collectivism in humans, appears to be the order of the day, because it works to everyone’s advantage.
Some years ago there was a study of red deer in England. Groups were observed as they wandered back and forth. When did they decide to head for the watering hole? Was it when the alpha male made the move? No, it was when 51% of them were headed in that direction. Very democratic, isn’t it? And if there was a predator in the area, the number went up to around 67%, what we call a supermajority. The same behavior has been seen in schools of fish and flocks of birds.
Some species of coral, when too much seaweed has built up on them, emit a chemical signal that attracts particular species of fish who love to dine on seaweed. Plants do the same when under attack by insects or disease, and their kin in the area pick it up and respond with their own chemical defenses. Is the first plant doing it for his fellows, or have the others just evolved to use it to their advantage? I’m not sure it matters. Last year on NPR’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge” was a program, “Thinking like a Plant.” There was a segment about how mycorhyzal fungi underground connect all the other plants together. It’s not only animals that have kin recognition, apparently. Old trees, called mother trees or hub trees, feed nutrients to younger trees using this communications network. The Indians called the grandmother trees. When a tree gets old, it will pass on carbon and phosphorous to other trees. Here, I won’t be needing these anymore.
An ant by itself isn’t very smart, but the aggregate hive mind is intelligent, organized, and efficient. The same comparison can be seen with a single cell to the body as a whole. When we look at what we call the web of life, there’s a definite utilitarian principle at work. There’s a short film called “Wolves Change Rivers,” about how the introduction of wolves in a certain area changed the entire local microsystem over time, from the type of plants growing near the streams to habit changes in other fauna. You can find it on the internet, it’s only about twenty minutes long, but gives an idea of how life is interconnected.
In 1965 a British scientist, James Lovelock, was working for NASA, a project using spectroscopic data to measure the atmospheres of Venus and Mars. He couldn’t help thinking about our own atmosphere, and how it’s been able to maintain a suitable habitat for so many organisms, given all the climatic changes of the last 300 million years. He had a sudden insight; that somehow the sum total of living organisms serves to regulate changes in the environment on a planetary scale. It was as if the planet itself were a living organism. It became known as the Gaia (or Gaea) hypothesis, after the Greek Earth deity.
Early humans figured out pretty quickly that there’s safety in numbers, and formed close familial and social bonds. Proto-libertarian types who hunted alone didn’t last long, usually becoming dinner for saber-toothed tigers. Tribalism, or herd mentality, is still very much with us today. We see it in college with English majors or jocks, and in society as political parties and religious affiliations. Once we were part of the natural world. Ancient societies lived in harmony with and had respect for their environment. Just because we’ve taken ourselves out of that loop doesn’t negate its reality. When did we decide to be apart from the natural world, rather than a part of it? Does it go back to Adam and Eve and the Fall, when we got our butts booted out of the Garden of Eden? An interesting theory over the last few decades is that developing agriculture was our big mistake. Returning to Genesis, we read that Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain was a tiller of the ground. God found Abel’s offering acceptable, while he frowned on Cain’s agricultural experiments. That’s intriguing, don’t you think? Others say it was the invention of language that has led to our undoing, and again we’re reminded of the Bible Tower of Babel and the confusion of tongues.
Still others blame the introduction of writing, and if I had to choose, I could make a good argument for it. Before that, we were at the center of a sphere of what we could see, hear, or smell. Once we had writing, we excluded everything around us to focus on what was straight ahead. The logical conclusion of this perspective we see every day, people lost in their hand held devices, oblivious to the environment around them. Everything in nature cooperates with everything else, except us. We think we’re better than all that stuff.
Whatever it is, we would do well to “get back to the garden,” as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sang, before someone begins fracking it. Meanwhile, we had better hope that Gaia isn’t all around us, watching. She might perceive us as some kind of cancer, a parasitic form on all other life, and shuffle us off to Buffalo.
When you tug on a single thing in nature, you find that it’s connected to everything else.
— John Muir