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Collaboration in nature

posted by Patrick Tanguay   Feb 04, 2020

Darwin’s theory was of its time, born in “the heyday of classical liberalism, dominated by thinkers like Adam Smith, David Hume, and Thomas Malthus, who valorized an unregulated market.” And so, in itself and in multiple interpretations of the work through the years, was seen through a lens of competition. “Survival of the fittest” has become shorthand for his work and used time and again to “prove” the value of competition in evolution and in day to day human endeavours. But what if collaboration actually occupies a much more prevalent place?

Similarly, collectively owned spaces or institutions (like communal land trusts or co-ops) are often presumed short-lived or inefficient, doomed to suffer the “tragedy of the commons” as the innate self-interest of each member leads to an overuse of collective resources—a thesis that has been debunked again and again since its first articulation by Garrett Hardin in 1968. To put it simply, we have let Darwinism set the horizon of possibility for human behavior. Competition has become a supposed basic feature of all life, something immutable, universal, natural.

There have been numerous research projects in various fields trying to get us away from that focus on competition, notably biologist Lynn Margulis’s paper in 1967:

Rather than competition, it was collaboration, she argued, that constituted the origins of eukaryotic cells, which is to say, all complex life on planet Earth. Though her paper was rejected by as many as 10 journals before it was published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, Margulis’ endosymbiont theory for the origin of eukaryotic cells is now the scientific consensus.

Since then, again and again, microbial species have shown us collaboration and interdependence in multiple settings, including our own digestive tract.

The National Institutes of Health recently found that over 10,000 microbial species occupy what they call “the human ecosystem,” outnumbering human cells 10 to 1 and doing diverse kinds of work at almost every level of the body’s processes. Bacteria, for instance, may make as much as 95 percent of the serotonin in our bloodstreams, meaning you have a diverse symbiont community to thank for your pleasant mood.

We can also look at mycorrhizal fungi, which collaborates with trees and various other plants in ways we are just starting to understand, like shown in the work of ecologist Suzanne Simard.

These are just some examples of a resurgence of understanding for collaboration in nature, instead of relying on our human focus on competition.

Darwin’s legacy aside, though, one critical takeaway from all this is that we must learn to recognize the impulse to naturalize a given human behavior as a political maneuver. Competition is not natural, or at least not more so than collaboration.