Sunday, April 19, 2009

Weekend Musing: Mutual Support

A newspaper story last week explored the importance of mutual support in the human and animal worlds. Over the years, we have come to understand that animal species, and perhaps plant species, practice cooperation far more than competition. “Survival of the fittest” does not necessarily mean every animal for itself.

An article in the New York Times Science Times reported that “plenty of nonhuman animals practice the tither’s art.” For example, if a rhesus monkey discovers a source of high-quality food, it is expected to call out to its comrades, to share. Vampire bats sometimes regurgitate a portion of their meal, to feed other hungry bats. Several varieties of birds and fish give up part of their “wealth” to help the larger community.

Contributing to the larger community, voluntarily or through payment of taxes, became a universal practice among humans as well: “There’s not a human society in the world that doesn’t redistribute food to nonrelatives” – the article quotes Samuel Bowles, of the Santa Fe Institute. “Whether it’s through the state, or the chief, or a rural collective, or some other mechanism, food sharing of large nutritional packages is quite extensive and has been going on for at least 100,000 years of human history.”

These observations fulfill the predictions of a thinker far ahead of her times, Arabella Buckley, who wrote more than 100 years ago, that science would someday recognize: “that the "Struggle for Existence," which has taught [insects] the lesson of self-sacrifice to the community, [also teaches that the] devotion of mother to child, and friend to friend ... recognizes that mutual help and sympathy are among the most powerful weapons [of survival].”

As we strive to meet the challenges we face, let’s remember that mutual support, sharing, and collaboration lie deep within our genes. As well, they contribute to our collective ability to survive with all the other human inhabitants of this planet. Competition serves a function at one level of human existence; but cooperation provides a higher level function that we must not ignore.

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