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What is the hidden unity within the diversity of life?

November 23, 2016

For many years now our Western understanding of ecology (nature’s patterns of relationships) has been founded on the core principles of competition and separation. But now thankfully there is a much broader discussion forum with worldviews emerging that could be of interest not only to ecologists but also to business. Let’s take a look at how our understanding of ecology has evolved over the last century or more.

In 1857 Charles Darwin’s seminal work set the scene for defining the unit of ecological evolution as the organism separate from and in a competitive struggle with its environment.

Hands Holding a Seedling and Soil

In 1902, the Russian evolutionary theorist Peter Kropotkin felt that aspects of Darwin’s work had been mis-represented by powerful elites wishing to embrace societal governance mechanisms rooted in competition. Through his extensive studies, Kropotkin found that in both animal and human societies cooperation and mutual aid yielded prosperous outcomes far more than competitive behaviour. In 1916, the biologist Frederic Clements further explored the role of cooperation, mutualism and community within biotic life at an ecosystem level. Yet it was the work of the American biologist Henry Gleason and his focus on competition at the organismic level that gained wider acceptance in the early 20th century. More recently, Neo-Darwinism has de-emphasised certain aspects of Darwin’s findings and emphasised others along with Gleason’s work, namely the innate competitive nature of all organisms along with the selfish tendencies of genes that command these organisms. The prevalent ecological mind-set of the West has become essentially competition-based. Nature is all about dog-eat-dog competition, everyone knows that, or have we been misleading ourselves?

The discrete definition of the organism separate from its environment is what Gregory Bateson viewed as the basic flaw which corrupts the thinking that flows from it, as for him the inter-play of the organism with its environment is paramount to its health, viability and evolution.  He viewed comparing one species against another in a struggle for survival as insane. He likened our Western worldview of survival through competition as ‘an ecology of bad ideas’ which breeds parasitic humans, purely self-centred and destructive of their host.

leonardo 2

All the time new findings bring fresh perspectives to how we view the evolution of life. Far from the genome being a rigid set of building blocks and innately selfish we realise it is a fluid system of dynamic localities that evolve by interplaying with its environment. We recognise that evolution is essentially co-creative, fluid and variably connective. Rather than organisms struggling for survival they thrive through dynamic relationship.

‘Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.’ Lynn Margulis

Biologist Lynn Margulis has extensively studied cell behaviour and contends that symbiosis is a major driving force behind evolution and that cooperation, interaction and mutual dependence among life forms are what allow for the global expression of life we see around us. Far from life being driven by an innate competitive struggle it cooperates to form richer environments for life to further evolve. ‘Facilitation ecology’ is an emerging area of focus where ecologists are studying how facilitation happens between species at an ecosystem level. Traditionally we assumed that species would become more competitive as environmental conditions became tougher, but from recent studies in this field, it seems the opposite is closer to the truth, with species becoming more cooperative in stressful times.

It is worth noting that only one out of every ten cells within our bodies is actually human. Our bodies are a good example of the extensiveness of interplay, inclusivity and partnering that goes on throughout the biotic world. Without the help of the ‘friendly’ bacteria within our bodies we would utterly fail at life. It is also worth noting that in times of strife, like the hurricane-induced flooding in New York for instance, we humans transcend perceived boundaries of separation and seek to cooperate and help each other where possible.

Forester Suzanne Simard has been exploring the soils beneath our feet and found extensive mutuality amongst bacteria, fungi and plants. Trees within forests share nutrients with other trees aided by mycelium networks of fungi underground.  Young trees trying to grow in areas of the forest that are deficient in certain nutrients and lacking enough sunlight, can be provided the nutrients they need from other trees (of completely different species), ensuring the overall ecosystem benefits.

nature trees in trees

The evolution and sustainability of biodiversity depends both on processes of individuation and integration in continual dynamic interplay: there is no binary opposition of one against the other. Life did not originate through enmity like our prevalent Neo-Darwinian paradigm assumes, but through this co-creative interplay that enables life to diversify by forming partnerships in correspondence with differing capabilities and availability of resources. There are a great variety of relationships, patterns and dynamics that inter-play into life’s rich tapestry and continual evolution.

At this point a very clear distinction needs to be made between the abstract concepts of competition and co-operation, which are predicated on an assumption of independence of content from context, and the arguably more natural concept of co-creation, which includes both individuation/dissociation and integration/association processes, and recognises that these arise fundamentally from the needfulness, NOT the ‘selfishness’ or ‘altruism’ of life forms.

Quite simply, any form of life needs to be able to gather in, retain, explore for and redistribute supplies of energy from its neighbourhood. It cannot choose to be independent from its neighbourhood, no matter how much it might desire (in the case of ‘civilised, rational’ human beings) to be so. Nothing in nature is separate from its environment, everything has a variable boundary which serves to interface inner world with outer. This dynamic interfacing is fundamental to natural sustainability. Likewise nothing is in competition with its environment; everything is in a state of dynamic co-creativity with its environment.

‘The whole philosophy of Hell rests on a recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specifically, that one self is not another self….it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. ‘To be’ means ‘to be in competition’. C. S. Lewis

Our current economic paradigm is founded upon the principles of competition, separation and scarcity. Yet this is not how life truly is. Excessive competition destroys diversity and innovation – a lesson it seems that many politicians, company executives and economists have yet to learn.  It’s about time we started to wake up to the inherent grammar running throughout life on Earth – the unity within our diversity is our ability to work with NOT against each other in all aspects of life: business and beyond.

To explore ‘the new paradigm’ further, join the Face Book community here and for more on the Future Fit Leadership Academy visit and for Giles Hutchins’ personal website

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2016 3:56 pm

    Giles, Thank you. This wisdom is certainly not near mainstream yet. Take as the most recent evidence the Donald Trump win of the US Presidency. I know, Hillary Clinton is also no exemplar of eco-sustainability and the ethos of mutuality. But her values move in the direction of our vision. Your readers are part of a cultural momentum that is modeling a new way of being and doing in the world. Bless you for your leadership. Love, Roy Reynolds

  2. Author permalink
    November 25, 2016 2:15 pm

    Thank Gilles, I really like reading your inspiring articles!

    All the best Jürgen


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