Cooperation, not Competition

A common belief about ecosystems and interactions between species within those systems is that they follow a natural instinct to compete, subscribing to the “survival of the fittest” element of Charles Darwin’s Theory of the Origin of Species.

In this, survival and success depends on being strong, aggressive and ruthless. Species out-compete each other for resources and thus the next generation of that species is born ‘bigger stronger faster harder’. But actually, Darwin never even uttered the words “survival of the fittest”. It was the English philosopher Herbert Spencer who coined the phrase and extended it to apply to fields of sociology and ethics. The Victorian Industrial elite used this philosophy to promote their socio-political views (Holmgren, 2011) and today it has been a concept popular in the world of work, harnessed to justify the individualistic behaviours of those in positions likely to ‘climb the career ladder’ at the expense of others.

However, what Spencer intended by this phrase has very much been misinterpreted. Survival was meant to mean an organism’s ability to reproduce, and fittest did not necessarily mean to be able dominate other organisms, but referred to an organism’s adaptability to its environment. So what we have is, rather than a competition based on strength and individualism, it is a situation in which, those who are most likely to pass on their genes and therefore endure their species’ existence are those who are most able to adapt to their environment.

If we look at how species around the world adapt to their environment, this generally consists of a range of techniques, ranging from camouflage, to mimicry, to group cooperation and food sharing.

Therefore, rather than this ruthless world in which everything struggles and competes with each other, the best survival strategy may be a lot more about cooperation. In fact, the ‘fittest’ may actually be the most loving and selfless. This is something that Bruce H. Lipton argues in his book ‘The Biology of Belief’; “One important part of the new credo is turning away from the Darwinian notion of the “survival of the fittest” and adopting a new credo, the survival of the most loving.” This was also proved by Kropotkin, who provided a host of examples of co-operative and symbiotic relationships in nature and human history (Holmgren, 2011)

From this new credo, we can look at ecosystems as a network of organisms with mutually beneficial, or ‘symbiotic’, relationships. Even within species, such as ants, cooperation is key to survival. So it goes without saying that this is going to be fundamental for the survival of the human species, cooperating with one another and with other organisms in our environment in a way that benefits all.

Holmgren. D (2011) Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Holmgren Design Services. Australia


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