Mother Earth Monday – Cooperation vs Competition

Survival of the fittest has long been put forward to us as a competition. Each organism shoves against the next and whatever is most successful wins the race. Struggle and toil against one another until there is a winner. We are told this is nature. To struggle and whoever doesn’t die off gets to pass their genes. While I can’t deny there is an aspect of nature that is indeed competitive, the vast majority of it seems to be a blend of niche exploitation and cooperation

Wolves, though they seem to be direly against their prey, are actively improving the prey species and in fact any number of systems that improve the health of that prey. Grazing patterns change in ways that improve the diversity of forage. Rivers shift as erosion is stopped and the entire system is improved.

Grand forests have any number of plants that should be in competition with one another, but a symbiotic relationship forms between those plants and the mycorrhiza under the ground. They all become linked in ways that allow each to gain from the presence of the others. They work together. One plant does a job until it is no longer needed and others move in to do a job of their own, constantly improving the fertility of the system even as they take something away for themselves. Even in death, they return vital nutrition down through the mycorrhiza and their dead bodies stack up further fertility into the forest around them.

In many horticultural and hunter/gatherer societies we see this same symbiosis playing out. Nothing is taken without something being returned. Inuits would find soft spots in the tundra where a ‘mouse town’ existed. They would dig out the spot and take thousands of pounds of root crops. In exchange, they would leave behind dried fish. Both the mice and the humans benefit because each offers the other something it couldn’t have gotten on its own that is of higher value to it than what was taken.

Even in some of the worst cultures for exploitation and taking without returning, there have been examples of cooperation as a basic aspect of survival. I am thinking of the colonial period of course, where they were really keen on trampling anyone else in the pursuit of their own interests. Before refrigeration, offal from slaughtered animals would exceed what a single family could possibly eat before it went bad. While the culture might not have looked kindly on outsiders, those within a community understood the need for working together. In exchange for helping with the slaughter, other families would share in the bounty of offal. When those neighbors were doing the same, you freely helped them knowing that it was only through cooperation that you would survive and of course you got further offal of your own while your own supply had been exhausted.

History and nature are both rife with examples of this, but because we have focused so much on the idea of competition being the way of nature, we have been at the mercy of that way of thinking. If you see nature only as a competition, it seems entirely natural for the rest of your world view to follow. Unfortunately, this is the way of a virus. Invade, take and leave again before the system collapses. Even then, the truly deadly virus’ seem to generally be products of an imbalance rather than originating in a stable balanced system.

Before you dismiss this idea that altruism and cooperation are more fundamental to nature than competition, remember that the very fact that you are multi-cellular in nature speaks volumes. No individual cell of your body can function on its own. Each has learned to harmonize with those around it so that all benefit from that cooperation. More often than not, cooperation will win the survival game far more readily than full competition. For my own part, I find it interesting to reassess what we think we know about different plants and animals from that perspective. Suddenly that thorny bush that only one animal can eat safely looks more like a friendly relationship than an ongoing battle. Many times, it turns out that the trimming offered by said animal ends up improving the overall health of the plant in question. Did those thorns really develop to stop the animal, or just the other animals who might not have been so minor in their grazing habits? Maybe it was offering an exclusive meal to a partner who ensured it was a stronger plant.

Just some food for thought.

What are your thoughts?

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