On Beneficial Association and Symbiosis.
There is a common, pro-capitalist distortion of what occurs in nature and society. A presumption exists that it is natural for elites to dominate and for the strong to rule the weak. However, not all human societies have been based upon hierarchical and parasitic class divisions. Yet since classed-based socio-economic systems now exist, they are often used to suggest that they must be ‘natural’.
Yet, nature does not create hierarchies nor rulers, just diversity. Indeed, in the natural world there are far more examples of classless beneficial associations (life-forms collaborating), classless symbiosis, (life-forms combining) and endosymbiosis (life-forms living within other life-forms) than there are of parasitism (life-forms detrimental to others).
Apart from rare mass extinctions, the prolific variety of life-forms existing and evolving over millions, perhaps billions of years, testifies to the fact that the planets eco-systems have been overwhelmingly beneficial to the initiation, maintenance and evolution of life.
Indeed, we now know that the smallest life-forms we can see, such as bacteria, lichens and fungi, etc., over millennia, have beneficially evolved both separately and together.
Moreover, with the invention of the microscope, it was revealed that there are living, sexually reproducing, co-operative plants and animals, previously invisible to the naked eye.
Originally, the relationships these microscopic living things (eukaryotic cells etc) had in the structure and functioning of all life of the planet remained something of a mystery. Early ideas were no more than imaginative constructions presented as biological fact.
Premature presumptions of knowledge occurred because, for decades, most biologists and naturalists were elite males imbued with patriarchal arrogance, class prejudice and a habit of dualistic thinking.
Even studying things they could see, most traditional ‘experts’ on the natural world merely confirmed their own male (often religiously based) prejudices. Some still do. This habit of only gathering favourable evidence is known as Confirmation Bias and is still a widespread habit passed down through the process of schooling.
Schooling is the inculcation of ideas, skills and attitudes which the elite wish the non-elite to have. The schooled are fed one-sided ideas by those in power ‘above’ them. They are then ‘examined‘ to ensure they will remember and never forget. In contrast, education, like good science, invites questioning, contrasting, de-construction and identifying contradictions.
When societies and nature are considered using unbiased methods, evidence is found that contradicts traditional understandings. For example; that women’s brains are not inferior to men’s; that the colour of a person’s skin does not determine how intelligent or relevant they are; and that nature is not entirely dominated by a fierce struggle for survival.
Once scientifically studied, numerous animals, birds, fish and insects are in fact found to co-operate with each other to their mutual benefit and only a minority of animals routinely kill.
Birds, fish and crabs, for example, clean parasites off larger fish, crocodiles, hippopotamus and lizards. Different species of animals graze together and alert each other to danger. Even bacterial organisms have been discovered beneficially associating. Furthermore, modern electron scanning microscopes reveal that the cells inside all living things, are made up of endo-symbiotic life-forms.
Such modern technology reveals that the microscopic life-forms which inhabit our bodies, such as mitochondria, plastids, cilia, gut flora etc., are (or contain) modified symbionts, whose ancestors once lived independently. Consequently, modern bacterial forms still share similar characteristics to those in our own internal cell structures.
Although we think of ourselves as a discrete species we are in effect an ensemble of millions of different living and co-operating cellular life-forms. As one evolutionary biologist, wrote;
“All organisms large enough for us to see are composed of once-independent microbes, teamed up to become larger wholes. As they merged, many lost what we in retrospect recognize as their former individuality” (Lyn Margulis. ‘The Symbiotic Planet’.)
By abandoning Victorian patriarchal bias in ethnology, it also becomes obvious that for millions of years human groups existed as hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, animal herders and coastal fishers, all of which were insufficiently productive to support an elite.
Early human productive activity was therefore undertaken by (and for) the entire community – men, women and children. Moreover, food and necessary non-food products, were shared out among the community according to need, not to satisfy the greed of an upper class elite.
Outside of favourable agricultural locations, and for many thousands of years, most human groups, therefore remained, classless symbiotic communities. Most of them being matrifocal (female-centred) and matrilineal (parentage by female line).
However, those original patterns of shared benefits were overthrown when ‘civilisations’ were invented. Henceforth, armed elites forced slaves and agricultural workers to feed, clothe and serve them.
Yet, despite divisions and distortions, (maintained by the present war-torn, capitalist, system), humane and beneficial sensibilities still survive. Most of us still prefer fairness in relationships. The fact that under capitalism, this social preference for social symbiosis is not always upheld and people frequently feel ‘ripped off’ does not invalidate it’s evolutionary essence and continued desirability.
People can only feel ripped off, cheated, exploited or victimised as workers and consumers, because there is an underlying expectation that this should not be happening.
Therefore, the present stranglehold of the capitalist system upon humanity has not entirely choked to death the symbiotic essence of our species. Furthermore, co-operation and beneficial association frequently burst through the capitalist inspired norms of selfishness, competition, exploitation, prejudice and indifference – and not just among friends and families.
Latent forms of human symbiosis frequently emerge when people rush to support victims of floods, building collapses, fires, train derailments, famines, accidents and terrorist atrocities.
Disasters which bring out the best in humanity are actually revealing our underlying natural symbiotic essence. And of course, the current pattern of elite, profit-seeking form of capitalist production, is not the only way humanity can exist. Indeed, it needs rejecting – before its too late!
Examples of Disaster-Humanism indicate that symbiotic forms of sustainable production (and reproduction) are still in our species DNA and only need further activation.
Roy Ratcliffe (November 2019)