Life is a master class in cooperativeness


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Competition, beyond doubt, is a fact of life. But, says Colin Tudge, the essence of life is cooperation 

It almost goes without saying that individuals gain from living in societies, and that all creatures depend to a greater or lesser extent on others of their own kind. Children need their parents. Vultures scavenge more effectively in groups – many pairs of eyes are better than one. Lions are more likely to gain and keep control of a pride when they operate in twos or threes – often brothers. Fish and birds shoal partly for safety – safety in numbers. 

Very relevant here is the concept that Richard Dawkins described in The Selfish Gene; the idea — to put the matter anthropomorphically and teleologically — that genes “seek” to perpetuate their own kind, and seek therefore to influence the creatures of which they are a part to behave in ways that will help the gene to multiply and survive from generation to generation. Genes that do promote behaviour that enables their possessor to survive and multiply are indeed likely to multiply and to be perpetuated long term, while genes that lead to less helpful behaviour fall by the wayside. 

In truth, however, “The Selfish Gene” is a very bad title. Doubtless it helped to sell a lot of copies, but it gives entirely the wrong impression, which I believe has done enormous harm. Thus it suggests that living creatures are possessed of genes that cause or at least encourage them to behave selfishly – but in practice the opposite may be the case. Thus animals (and other organisms) may behave extremely unselfishly – apparently “altruistically” — in order to protect their offspring or siblings, who contain the same genes that they do. Provided the surviving relatives contain more copies of the relevant gene than the self-sacrificing protector does, that’s a net gain. The Oxford evolutionary biologist W D (Bill) Hamilton called this “inclusive fitness”. And (just to round off the point) Dawkins could just as accurately (or inaccurately) have called his book “The Unselfish Gene”. In reality of course genes are neither selfish nor unselfish.  They just are, and they do what they do, and nature decides what works and what doesn’t. That’s “natural selection”. 

The point here, though, is that in their day-to-day lives most creatures benefit in some way or other from some measure of cooperation with others of the same species whether or not they are close relatives. This indeed is the evolutionary reason why so many animals live in societies, despite the obvious difficulties of social life. They need each other. Indeed, some animals are so social that they simply cannot survive, and certainly cannot live out their natural span, unless they live in societies. Such creatures are said to be eusocial – where “eu” means “good” or “proper”. Ants, honeybees, and termites are very conspicuously eusocial. So too, somewhat less obviously, are human beings. This is one of the lessons of Daniel Defoe’s immortal novel Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe would not have survived for more than a few weeks without the aid of all the artefacts he rescued from the shipwreck – artefacts made by other people. And he needed Man Friday. It’s very hard to be a hermit. The hermits we know about were all to some extent social – otherwise we wouldn’t know about them. 

By the same token, the more that naturalists and scientists explore the natural world the more it seems that the most universally effective survival strategy is not to biff one’s neighbours and fellow creatures but to cooperate — both with others of one’s own kind and, often, with other species.  

Most obviously, for reproduction of the sexual kind, as practiced by almost all of the most complex organisms, some measure of cooperation between the sexes is essential. Those sessile creatures like barnacles and corals that simply shed their eggs or sperm into the surrounding sea, or grasses and oak trees that trust their pollen to the winds, must at least coordinate their efforts, and that is cooperation of a kind. Reproduction in most animals requires copulation, actual contact, which is risky (what’s the difference between a potential mate and a potential meal?) —  and it can in practice be very competitive. Many male mammals – lions, deer, elephant seals – are seriously wounded and sometimes killed in their fights for the right to mate; or else, like many a stag, are so exhausted that they are never the same again, and eke out what’s left of their lives in virtual solitude until they fall foul of some predator, or simply starve. Male marsupial “mice” of the genus Antechinus go on a once-in-a-lifetime mating spree and then die en masse. The mating ponds of toads are mayhem, and many a Mallard duck has been drowned by swarms of over-eager drakes eager to have their way with her all at once. 

Even here, though, we find cooperation. In many animals the males form “leks” – gangs that collectively attract females so as to create the right mood.  Ruffs are a famous example. Female flamingoes are very reluctant to mate unless aroused by gangs of males. Some go even further: the somewhat melancholic grey whales, mercilessly harassed by orcas and sharks on their never-ending migrations find it very hard to copulate unless the males are helped into position by a couple of friends. In their attempts to attract a mate, male Long-Tailed Manakin birds of Costa Rica are assisted in their courtship dance by a junior partner; the would-be suitor and his assistant leap over each other to show their athletic prowess. Only the senior partner gets to mate and it’s hard to see what’s in it for the junior, though he may get his turn some other time.  The subordinate role might reasonably be seen as an apprenticeship. Indeed, it now seems that even gametes are not as competitive as they seem. Successful sperms need others to help them penetrate the egg and eggs that fail to achieve fruition, which most of them do, may help to nourish the successful candidates. 

Flowers of the kind that rely on animals to bear their pollen to appropriate recipients must coordinate their reproductive efforts with their own kind and also cooperate actively with others of quite different kind:  beetles, bees, flies, moths, butterflies, hummingbirds, fruit bats, kinkajous, even lemurs. Indeed, as Darwin pointed out, flowers and their animal pollinators have co-evolved, each adapting to the other. This is the form of symbiosis known as mutualism, writ large. As I describe in The Secret Life of Trees (2005) the intricate relationship between the world’s 750 or so species of figs and the roughly 750 species of fig-wasps that pollinate them, is truly wondrous. Genetic studies suggest that all the modern species of figs and wasps and all the many variants on their interdependence evolved only once, from a single ancestor, who lived in the Cretaceous, around 90 million years ago, in the climactic Age of the dinosaurs. 

Many other creatures cooperate with others of quite different kinds not merely as mediators of sex but for their day-to-day existence. Thus corals rely very heavily on single-celled algae that reside among their cells. The corals benefit from the products of the algal photosynthesis while the algae enjoy prime lodging in the sunlight, plus essential nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus supplied by the corals as they munch out on passing plankton. The partnership is broken if the sea becomes too warm and the corals become distressed – whereupon they expel their resident algae; whereupon they become “bleached” and unless order is quickly restored, they die. With global warming this is happening more and more. The sentiment that Robert Burns expressed in “To a mouse” seems appropriate:  

“I’m truly sorry man’s dominion/ Has broken nature’s social union …Thy poor, earth-born companion/ An’ fellow-mortal!”

Fungi and plants may sometimes be at odds. Many fungi, after all, all too obviously cause diseases in plants: mildew, rusts, smuts, and all the rest. The fungus-like Phytophthora causes potato blight. Yet much more significant in the global ecology and indeed in the history of life on Earth has been and is the collaboration of plants and fungi. Both plants and fungi first arose as single-celled organisms in water and it seems very likely that plants could never have ventured on to land at all unless fungi had prepared the ground. Today, the ubiquitous lichens are partnerships of fungi with algae, and/or cyanobacteria. In some conditions the lichen is more fungus than alga, and in others the algae predominate. But, as with algae and corals,  each depends on the other. 

Even more significantly, most plants are kept in their finest fettle by their mycorrhizae — fungal hyphae, often of several or many different species, that  emanate from within or around their roots, and reach into the surrounding soil. The mycorrhizae draw in water and nutrients far more efficiently than the unaccompanied roots could do – and extract extra nutrients that the plant cannot. Notably, the hyphae exude enzymes that release phosphate from the mineral components of the soil. Only a minority of plants manage without mycorrhizae, including many of the kind we call “weeds”, such as dock. These generally are fast-growing opportunists that flourish for a time on disturbed soil that’s rich in nutrients, but in usual circumstances they are ousted before long by the mycorrhizal types that are slower to get established, but persist for longer, once the fungi get going. (These non-mycorrhizal weeds may flourish long-term on farms because the endless cultivations and trampling make it hard for mycorrhizal fungi to get established.) 

Most forest trees depend absolutely on their mycorrhizae. In an established forest the hyphae extend from tree to tree – trees which in a tropical forest may be of many different species. Thus what looks like an assemblage of individual trees is in truth a consortium; all the individuals linked by what in effect is one vast mycelium that conveys water and nutrients from tree to tree – and also carries messages in the form of pheromones; shared hormones. So it is that a tree that’s been cut down, reduced to a stump, may continue to live and exude sap, even though it has no leaves of its own and cannot photosynthesize, supported by nutrients created by the rest of the forest and carried to it by its mycorrhizae. So much for “nature red in tooth and claw”.

Yet the cooperativeness does not end there. Many plants harbour bacteria in their roots that convert atmospheric nitrogen into soluble ions that the plant can use to build proteins and nucleic acids. The principal nitrogen “fixers” though by no means the only ones are the legumes, of the family that used to be called Leguminosae but is now called Fabaceae. One way and another the nitrogen fixers are leaky, and their excess nitrogenous ions feed other plants, and nourish the microbes that create the spongy soil structure that provides the essential balance of water and air. Trees of the family Fabaceae are a common and vital presence in tropical forest. (In the light of all this it isn’t clear to me how hydroponics works at all – the plants grown in solutions of nutrients without accompanying fungi and bacteria. I’d be pleased if anyone could throw light.) 

It may be too that in the natural world some of the insects and fungi and other predators and parasites that do such visible damage to trees in commercial plantations and forests actually benefit their hosts under wild conditions. So it is that trees when they grow too large may be unable to feed themselves or get enough water. The demand for nutrient and for water is related to the volume of the leaves, but the supply is limited  by the capacity of the xylem and phloem which bring the necessary succour to the canopy, and this is a linear dimension, related to the circumference of the trunk. So by reducing the volume of the canopy year by year the apparent pests may save the tree from nutritional distress or desiccation and so prolong its life – giving it many more years in which to set seed and multiply. In short, under natural conditions, the “pests” may act as nature’s tree surgeons, and the relation of host and parasite may again be mutualistic. 

Aphids are major pests, as every arable farmer and horticulturalist knows. They can be particularly conspicuous on lime trees, Tilia, also known as linden trees. They feed on the sap in the leaves and exude honeydew, which in turn feeds unsightly and damaging sooty black fungi, and hastens leaf drop. It seems to be all bad – or at least is good only for ants that feed on the honeydew and ladybirds and wasps and so on that eat the aphids. Yet unless the infestations get really out of hand, it may again be that the trees benefit in the long term from the pruning, however rough and ready. In addition, as I outline in The Secret Life of Trees, the former Oxford zoologist Prof Martin Speight has suggested that the honeydew that fall to the ground may help to feed soil micro-organisms, some of which are nitrogen-fixing and so help to nourish the tree. Some of this remains speculative, no doubt. But it all makes perfect sense and again, it’s a far cry from the traditional kill-or-be-killed so-called “law of the jungle”. 

Yet the cooperativeness runs even deeper. Thus it seems that the first organisms on Earth to practice photosynthesis were not the plants but were cyanobacteria (formerly known as “blue-green algae”), and in the late 19th century the Russian botanist Constantin Mereschkowsky pointed out that the chloroplasts of the single-celled algae known as diatoms are remarkably similar to cyanobacteria.  Then in a paper in 1905 he suggested that the ancestors of plants in general may first have acquired their ability to photosynthesize by ingesting cyanobacteria, which then took up residence in the hypothetical ancestor and evolved into chloroplasts – a process known as endosymbiosis.  One of the biologists who took Mereschkowsky’s idea seriously was Lynn Margulis who in 1967, in a paper entitled “On the Origin of Mitosing Cells” suggested that mitochondria too, and flagellae (and cilia) “can all be considered to have derived from free-living cells, and the eukaryotic cell is the result of the evolution of ancient symbioses”.  (She published this paper under the name of Lynn Sagan since she was at the time married to Carl Sagan.) Thus the eukaryotic cell, the unit of what traditional biologists called “higher” organisms, including mushrooms and oak trees and us, is a coalition of simpler organisms of several very different kinds. In multicellular organisms like us and oak trees the individual cells sacrifice their autonomy, and live their lives as specialist components of giant collectives – unless, as sometimes happens, they abandon their commitment to the whole and become cancerous. 

Deeper still and deeper – for in the late 1970s the American biologist Carl Woese suggested that living organisms on Earth first arose as two separate “domains”, the Bacteria and the Archaea; and further suggested that the third domain, the Eukaryota, the domain of plants and animals and the rest, first arose as a fusion of the two. This idea is now widely accepted. In short, the eukaryotes as a whole are a master-class in cooperativeness

Yet even that is not the last word. For it has been accepted since the early 20th century that Earthly life in general may be seen as a dialogue of nucleic acids and proteins. The mid-20th century “dogma” as identified by Francis Crick was that “DNA makes RNA makes protein”. But it is now clear (as indeed it was in Crick’s day) that DNA is formed with the help of proteins, in the form of enzymes. And the function of the DNA, once formed, is profoundly influenced by “epigenetic factors” in the cell, including a whole range of the proteins for which the DNA itself provided the code. Emphatically it is not the case, as has often been implied and is commonly understood, that the DNA in the form of genes is some kind of dictator, telling the rest of the cell and hence the whole organism what to do, and immune to outside interferences. The information flows both ways. The DNA is in constant dialogue with its surroundings – surroundings which crucially include proteins which the DNA has made (with the help of gangs of RNAs). 

Yet nucleic acids are strings of nucleotides, and proteins are strings of amino acids, and nucleotides and amino acids must have originated separately in the very early days of the Earth; or indeed they may well have originated in outer space and been ferried to Earth by meteors. Either way, somewhere along the line, the two classes of molecule came together and, presumably over millions of years, co-evolved into the  wondrous, intricate choreography that now is the basis of all life on Earth. If it all seems miraculous, that is because it surely is. 

Whatever the details, the realization emerges that although competition may undeniably be a fact of life, the essence of life is cooperativeness.   

How does all this square with what we know of whole ecosystems? David Attenborough is wont to tell us as he begins his reports from some tropical idyll that beneath the surface tranquillity life is an all-against-all no holds barred struggle. Typically we are shown a lizard catching a fly – and then, a few seconds later, the lizard is snapped up by a snake. Well, conflict and the threat of violent death are ever present of course. But so too is cooperativeness – and overall, cooperativeness prevails. If it were not so, there would be no ecosystems in the first place. A flourishing ecosystem is not homogeneously harmonious, but neither is it a wall-to-wall battlefield. A flourishing biosphere I suggest is like a Beethoven symphony: shot through with discords but wonderfully integrated nonetheless. 

And again, the more we look, the more we see that every class of creature, including the ones that seem simply to be spivs or hangers on, irredeemably destructive, contribute to the whole. 

We’re all in it together 

So it was that when I first embarked on ecology in the mid 20th century we were confronted from the outset with the “trophic pyramid”. At the bottom were the “primary producers”, consisting mainly of “autotrophic” (self-feeding) plants and cyanobacteria that derive their energy from the sun by photosynthesis. In the long history of the Earth the photosynthesisers were preceded by various “chemoautotrophs” — microbes that derived their energy from various chemical reactions in their surroundings — but at least for the past 3.5 billion years or so the photosynthesisers have set the tone of most ecosystems on Earth (though not quite all). Then, above the autotrophs, are several layers of “heterotrophs” who need their food ready made; which basically means herbivores and detritus feeders. Then comes a tier of lesser carnivores like squids and salmon, and omnivores like pigs. At the apex of the pyramid were and are the top predators – wolves, big cats, whales, eagles and so on. Yet no-one is unequivocally at the top. As Henry IV world-wearily commented (in Part II):  

“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”. 

Thus big cats like leopards may be seen off by bigger cats like lions, who in turn, at least when they are young or very old, are at risk from hyaenas.  Humans evolved as modest omnivores but by virtue of our cunning and our ability to share ideas we have emerged as the top predator of all – although we of course like all creatures are harassed and sometimes killed en masse by a multitude of pests and parasites.  

It has always been recognized, however, that the trophic pyramid is not the whole story. The flow of nutrient from primary producer to the top predators is not one way. Ecosystems as a whole are cyclic. All creatures die, including the ones at the top, and when they do the minerals and organic molecules locked up in their flesh are re-cycled by a miscellaneous host of scavengers and detritus feeders from vultures and crabs to bacteria. In truth a huge range of animals feed on carrion if given the chance including a wide range of rodents, and lions who were commonly thought to be above that sort of thing, and dogs and foxes of course. Even elephants may get in on the act. Indian elephants have been known to dig up graves to supplement their otherwise low-grade diet. Nothing is wasted. (Cremation always seems to me like a terrible waste of nutrient.) 

But the trophic pyramid is a fact nonetheless, with the nutrients flowing from the bottom to the top. It seems to follow from that that what lives at the top must depend on what producers are present. Thus in a typical wild ecosystem the nature and abundance of the big herbivores – deer, antelopes, cattle, horses, elephants – is traditionally assumed to depend on what plants are growing; and whether the top predators are lions and/or wolves and/or grizzly bears, or foxes and gulls, depends on what herbivores happen to be present, for the predators to feed on.  The overall picture as commonly understood is that the primary and secondary producers are all givers, and the predators at the top are simply takers. This is what I learnt at school some decades ago and, I believe, is still widely taught. 

But recent and continuing studies show that all is not quite so simple. Thus in the late 1960s the American zoologist Robert Paine introduced the idea of the “keystone species”: particular species that in effect set the tone of the entire ecosystem of which they are a part. Especially important it seems, are the top predators – which traditionally were thought simply to be a drain on the rest; killjoys.  So it was assumed that if the top predators were removed, those below must benefit – not only become more abundant but also more diverse. But Paine put this to the test. In early experiments he removed starfish from rock pools – starfish being unlikely top predators in that small world – expecting the rest, mainly molluscs and crustaceans, to flourish and diversify. Instead, in a short while, he found the pools were almost barren, occupied primarily or exclusively by anemones and red seaweeds of the encrusting kind. 

The way this works is demonstrated very clearly in the forests of kelp (brown seaweeds) off the coast of California. They are preyed upon by herbivores in the form of sea-urchins, and the sea-urchins in turn are consumed in large numbers by sea otters. So long as all three are present, the ecosystem flourishes. But if the sea otters disappear, as they are prone to do under the pressures of modern life, the sea-urchins run riot and the once rich forests of kelp are decimated. The end result is a sadly diminished, uneasy and unstable sea-scape that hardly deserves to be called an ecosystem at all. 

The most striking and best-known example is of wolves in Yellowstone, North America’s oldest national park, which crosses the borders of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. When it was established in 1872 it was decided with misplaced Puritan zeal that while the bison, deer, and bighorn sheep must be protected, the wolves should not. So the wolves were shot and by 1926 they were all gone.  Many ecologists were uneasy with this, and in the 1940s began to campaign for their reintroduction – which finally came about in 1995. The 19th and early 20th century ecologists assumed that with the wolves gone the big herbivores and indeed all species would be far better off – a weight lifted from their multifarious shoulders. But again, that’s not how things turned out. For example, when the wolves were gone the deer grazed and browsed the vegetation right to the banks of the rivers. Indeed they favoured the river banks, where the vegetation was abundant and various, and water was on hand. But with the vegetation depleted the banks became unstable and washed away and so the streams were muddied. When the wolves came back they lay in wait for the deer at the water’s edge – and so the deer stayed away. So the vegetation was restored and the rivers ran clear again. To be sure, wild ecosystems these days need to be managed because they are so reduced in size and humanity puts so many new pressures on them. But we cannot manage what we do not properly understand and in truth, though the modern science of ecology becomes more wondrous by the month, understanding can never be complete. Conservation requires humility (and on the whole, the governments and commercial companies that make the big decisions don’t do humility).  

Starfish, sea otters, wolves and whales are all top predators in their respective niches – but they are also, said Robert Paine, keystone species: species that set the tone of the whole ecosystem. Keystone species don’t have to be top predators – bison and elephants are tone-setters too. So too are whales – or would be, if our own depredations had not reduced their numbers so drastically. Of course whales are top predators too – particularly orcas, killer whales, which are wont even to prey on other whales. But whales are also among the world’s great re-cyclers.  During their often long lives they traverse the world in search of food and so each whale becomes a huge depository of nutrient, up to 100 tonnes apiece; and when they die and sink to the bottom each corpse becomes an ecosystem in its own right, supporting fish, crustaceans, molluscs – and a host of microorganisms of all kinds, which in turn are food for much more. Whales are keystone species in life – and also post mortem. Now that whale numbers are so depleted we can never gauge the extent of their contribution to ocean life. What we have now is the aftermath. The great lesson from all this I suggest is that appearances can be deceptive. Nature cannot be second-guessed. We can’t simply assume that ecosystems work the way we think they should. In wildlife conservation the road to hell really is paved with good intentions. 

A second great lesson is that all classes of creature contribute to the richness of the whole – including the top predators but also including the host of microbes which traditionally are seen as merely hangers-on and/or as pests and parasites. Thus: 

They also serve 

So it was that when I as at school in the mid 20th century we were told that the bacteria that lived in our guts were at best “commensals” – in effect lodgers. But they were always inclined to misbehave, and then to cause disease, which could be fatal. Nowadays, in sharp contrast, the colon is no longer perceived as a mere conduit but as an active player both in digestion and in absorption, and its ever-changing cargo of microbes are known to be essential contributors. Our relationship to them, and theirs to us, is one of symbiosis of the positive, mutualistic kind. In the mid and even the late 20th century (and even now in some quarters) the science of nutrition was primarily conceived as an exercize in organic chemistry. Now, at least in avant garde circles, it is seen as an exercize in ecology. 

More generally — viruses are still widely conceived as nature’s spivs and gangsters. They are, after all, absolute, “obligate” parasites, entirely dependent for their survival on the metabolism of other, more complete creatures, intent only on multiplication, and causing havoc among their benefactors along the way. Smallpox was once the scourge of humankind. Measles is still a major killer in unvaccinated, malnourished children. In richer countries, before the Salk vaccine came along parents lived in fear of polio. Covid in all its variants showed us that our battle with viruses is far from over, and probably never can be. ‘Flu is still a major  killer. Viruses hugely affect wild animals too. They are serious players in all the world’s ecosystems, most obviously with apparently negative effects. Thus grey squirrels from North America have largely ousted the native red squirrels from Britain partly because they carry the virus of squirrelpox, which the greys tolerate and the reds do not.  Similarly, grey seals carry the virus of phocine distemper, which kills the harbor seals. And as Jared Diamond relates in Guns. Germs, and Steel, various imperialists including Hernan Cortes among the Aztecs, Francisco Pizarro among the Incas, and the British here there and everywhere, succeeded as well as they did partly or largely because they carried virus diseases like smallpox and flu which among people who have not grown up with them are devastating. Pathogenic bacteria such as that of cholera have the same effect of course. 

But the upside is far more significant. For one thing, viruses provide a natural check on bacteria, which also can run riot if given the chance among all other classes organism. Much more to the point, though, is that viruses carry genes between organisms – even organisms that are quite unrelated; even from bacteria into eukaryotes, including plants, fungi, and animals, and between different groups of eukaryotes. It’s like sex, of a kind, of a particularly promiscuous kind. So it isn’t just genetic mutation that augments the pool of genes available to any particular lineage of creatures. Probably, most of the genes introduced by viruses are harmful but some are not. Overall, the course of evolution would surely have run very differently, and much more slowly, had it not been for the virus-mediated “horizontal transmission” of genes between organisms, including very different organisms. We, human beings, like all creatures, owe the magnificence of our evolved selves largely to the industry of viruses, throughout the long history of life on Earth. The Ukrainian-American biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975 famously remarked that 

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” 

Since evolution is about survival and reproduction, and survival above all requires adaptation to the prevailing conditions and to other creatures of the same or other species; and since all creatures to some extent influence those around them and the environment at large; we might argue that all evolution is co-evolution, up to a point. More, might reasonably add – 

“ … and nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of ecology”

All these reflections add weight to what to me is one of the greatest scientific insights of the 20th century. 


The closer we look at wild nature, the more we appreciate the brilliance of James Lovelock’s concept of Gaia. For Lovelock argued that the Earth as a whole – with considerable help from the rest of the solar system – acts like an organism. He wasn’t the first person to make such an observation but he turned what had generally been a somewhat whimsical aside into a respectable scientific hypothesis. Specifically, he showed how the global ecology is shot through with feedback mechanisms, both negative and positive, the net effect of which is to maintain conditions on Earth that are far less extreme and far more constant than in the universe at large. So whereas the coldest recorded temperature on Earth was a once-and-for all -89.2 C (at 11,000 feet in Vostok, Antarctica), the temperature of most of the universe when not directly in the firing line of a star is close to absolute zero, at around -270 kelvin. And while few places on Earth ever heat much beyond 50 degrees C, the temperature of the moon in sunshine rises to around 120 degrees, well above the boiling point of water. The rotation of the Earth and the fact that we are in the Goldilocks zone saves us from the most extreme extremes and makes life possible – but then it’s up to living things to provide the finishing touches, including an atmosphere of the kind that insulates, and does not simply heat us up like a greenhouse, as is the case on Venus. Thus life maintains the physical environment of the Earth within the limits that enable life to flourish. In other words, the Earth as a whole achieves a state of homeostasis; and homeostasis is virtually a diagnostic feature of life. Ergo the Earth as a whole behaves like a living organism in its own right.  To the old Greeks Gaia was no mere Greek goddess. She was personification of the Earth. 


As outlined in part 1 of this series, the idea that life is one long “struggle” – a punch-up indeed from gametogenesis to the compost heap – is applied to life in general; notably it is taken to justify the prevailing “neoliberal” economy, the all-against all, devil-take-the-hindmost competition for maximum profit and market share within the “de-regulated” global market, which has helped to drive and to lead the world to the brink of collapse. Of course, simplistically to suggest that what is perceived to be “natural” is therefore good is very bad moral philosophy, but economics these days is largely equated with neoliberalism and neoliberals aren’t trained to be moral philosophers, but just to make money, apparently in the astonishingly crude belief that by doing that we will somehow solve all the world’s problems  – social, ecological, spiritual. 

Anyway: in part 3 I want to ask how different the world might be if Darwin and his successors had stressed the cooperative side of nature – of which he was very well aware, and drew attention to! – rather than the Tennysonian “red in tooth and claw”. 


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