05 July 2013

Life is Symbiotic

Economists, politicians and some philosophers believe that human beings (and or genes) are selfish. That self-interest and competition are the ultimate driving forces of evolution and human behaviour. This idea is sometimes called "enlightened self-interest". The theory really comes into it's own in Victorian Britain where the dog eat dog view of the world fitted well with Britain's global imperialism. When you are bent on world domination it is as well to believe that it is ordained by God; that it is the natural order that some individuals naturally dominate others to the point of enslavement. I think it originates with the Christian idea of the Great Chain of Being, but clearly gets subverted. However this theory of self interest and competition is still at the centre of Western society and morals. 

This view of the world and of humanity tends to be portrayed as the only viable alternative. It is built into the fabric of nature itself; nature red in tooth and claw. But it is not the only view. In this essay I'm going to outline an alternative view of humanity. One that accepts that competition plays a role in our evolution and our lives, but sees it as secondary. What is primary to life itself is cooperation, symbiosis, community. 

We human beings exist in communities. But we are all individually communities as well. Our bodies are a community with two types of members: complex, tightly bound cells, and a mixture of simple, loosely bound cells. Complex or eukaryote cells have existed for some 2 billion years. The complexity of eukaryote cells has only recently been explained as a symbiotic conglomeration of simpler, prokaryote, cells. This idea was first proposed in the 19th century but was given scientific credence by Lynn Margulis. Her 1967 paper The Origin of Mitosing Eukaryotic Cells (under the name Lynn Sagan) is a landmark in the theory of evolution. Margulis's paper was repeated rejected by academic journals and dismissed by the establishment once published, but the theory, also known as endosymbiosis, is now found in every introductory text on biology. Margulis showed that mitochondria were once free living bacteria and that the eukaryote cell is a complex symbiotic entity with mitochondria and the body of the cell retaining part of their identity, but also merging to become a single self-replicating unit. Indeed mitochondria look like bacteria in many ways, have their own (bacteria like) DNA, and have different metabolic pathways to the rest of the cell. It is mitochondria that give our cells the ability to metabolise oxygen. Before mitochondria oxygen was a powerful poison to cells. This ability of bacteria to develop new metabolic pathways is one of their most important features. Margulis later proposed that some other features of eukaryote cells, such as flagella and possible the spindles that control mitosis, came from symbiotic bacteria. The Eukaryote cells that make up all plants and animals resulted from a series of symbiotic relationships that became permanent. Later Margulis worked with James Lovelock to help him with the biological side of his Gaia Theory. 

Part of the complexity of our body is the way that the cells divide functions. Despite all having the same DNA all mature human cells are specialists, forming organs and sub-organs that make our organism. Everything from brain, muscle and liver to skin, bone and blood. This comes about because of the way genes in our cells interact. Each gene works together with other genes to create an environment in which they go forward together. This image of communities working together is found at every level in nature, whether overtly as in our cells and the organs they make up, or more covertly in the checks and balances of an ecosystem. We can view predation, for example, in terms of a war with ever changing strategies by species bent on domination; or we can see it as part of an elaborate network of feedback loops (the cybernetic view); or we could see it as a dance in in which all the participants work together to perpetuate life. The thing about metaphors is that they are not set in concrete, but which metaphors we chose to use to conceptualise a complex idea does affect the associations and entailments we perceive in it.

The other member of our collective are the loosely bound bacteria and protozoa that inhabit our bodies. Recent estimates suggest that for every human cell there are 10 bacterial cells in our bodies (Scientific American June 2012). These mainly live in our gut, and many of them are now known to be more or less essential to well-being. Without intestinal bacteria for example it is thought we would have to ingest 30% more food to get the same number of usable calories. But other bacteria have been linked to the proper functioning of our immune systems; to vitamin B12 synthesis; to blood pressure maintenance and so on.

Bacteria are not entirely simple. Their individual structure is much more simple than a eukaryote cell, but bacteria live in colonies which work together to make survival more certain. And each colony always has several different strains of bacteria which exploit different metabolic pathways and are able to "cooperate" in  order to thrive. And important point about the bacteria in our bodies is that where we have about 25,000 genes, they collectively have about 3 million. The protozoa in our gut are typically single-celled  eukaryote organisms which do not form colonies. Of course we have some organisms which are parasitic or pathogenic, but the majority are benign or positively helpful. 

Thus when we view our bodies as "individual" we are distorting the truth. Our bodies are colonies of cells cooperating in a variety of ways to sustain life. The interactions are incredibly complex and details of them could fill whole books. And it's not just us. All life is like this. And very often it is the communal nature of life that gives it adaptability. Not only are bacteria quick to adapt because they reproduce quickly, but any bacteria can share genetic material with any other (at least in theory) so they all have a much greater pool of genes on which to draw. Almost as soon as we develop a means of poisoning them, bacteria find a way of neutralising and/or metabolising that poison. Where new species emerge it is very likely that some symbiont has provided a way of exploiting a new ecological niche by providing a new metabolic pathway. The mutation of genes by contract really only produces variations on a theme, not innovation on a large scale. Thus the idea that evolution is driven by "selfish genes" is a joke. Indeed for any gene to be expressed requires a protein made by another gene to "read" and transcribe it into RNA that can be used by the cell to make more protein. If we are going to anthropomorphise genes then we ought to be saying that genes are selfless, cooperative and generous.

That said the individual is not the smallest viable unit of humanity. We are sexually dimorphic and thus require male and female in order to reproduce. But even two is not the smallest number, because inbreeding would most likely lead to genetic problems. No one is quite sure what the smallest viable gene pool is, but hunter-gather humans tend to form troops of about 50-150. And even then they often select mates from neighbouring tribes. The migration out of Africa that populated the rest of the world was said to be about 10,000 individuals. And we don't live in groups simply because it improves our gene pool, we are a social species. Our social groups have structure and dynamics. The individual cannot survive without help from the community. We are adapted to do child rearing, food gathering, hunting, and all the basic survival behaviours together. It is also true that some are leaders and some are followers, i.e. we are hierarchical like other social primates. And as our societies have grown ever larger we have imposed structures to make governance manageable. The point here is not to evaluate this, but just to note it. Clearly the modern intellectual trend is to reject hierarchy, though I see biology continually asserting itself.

The individual is not vitally important in humanity. As a species we do best in groups, and we are evolved to facilitate this. Thus we are equipped with empathy to better understand the emotional states of our fellows and respond appropriately (especially to avoid destructive conflict). One of the benefits of a large brain is that it allows us to keep track of a fairly large number of relationships: knowing where people are in our hierarchy, our relationship to them, and their relationships to the others in the group. Keeping track of 50 people and the nuances of who is obligated to whom, who is in what kind of relationship with whom, and what role each person plays in the community is quite a complex task. Social rules are often unwritten and  extremely complex (as any immigrant can tell you). 

As fine as it is to feel free, to assert out individuality and our rights, in general we cannot survive alone and isolated. So the idea that everyone is acting on their own self-interest is more Victorian nonsense. We are evolved for community and for working together to achieve common goals.  A few rogue humans do not act like this and it is not sensible that they form the basis of the model of humanity. Empathy allows us to have complex interactions based on a shared sense of values and purpose. Selfishness only subverts the values of the community, both the explicit values of most human communities and the implicit values of a social primate. Most societies tolerate a little individualism (since innovation can be useful) but actually punish overt selfishness. I think this is implicit also in what I've written about morality and surveillance. The whole point of surveillance is to gain access to people's private thoughts and actions to make sure they are conforming to group norms. Since this is more or less ubiquitous we can say that selfishness is universally seen as a vice.  That some people find ways to be selfish and acquisitive does not change the general description of human beings. 

The reasons that modern societies are increasingly focussed on the individual at the expense of society are rather complex. But it's clearly a recent phenomenon and a rather aberrant one. Individualism still does not make sense in many traditional societies. In any case the point of this essay has been to argue against the prevalent idea that selfishness is the driver of evolution and human behaviour. If anything this idea is pernicious and divisive, and needs to be re-examined at every level. At every level cooperation, symbiosis, and community are the most important factors in sustaining life. And at every level individualism is like cancer - rogue units multiplying at the expense of the whole. We certainly need to look again at how we treat selfish people who have enriched themselves to the detriment of whole nations and even the globe. The causes of the present economic crisis for example can be found in individual and collective greed. As a society we removed sanctions against overtly greedy and selfish behaviour, and adopted a policy of tolerance and even reward for those who managed to exploit the system to enrich themselves. We enshrined selfishness in our laws because we were momentarily bewildered by the arguments of smooth talking bastards. If ever there was an argument against selfishness and individualism it is the present economic situation in the UK, Europe and America.

More than ever what we need is a little enlightened other-interest. 

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