Our view of all the living things on the planet tends to be hierarchical. It’s difficult for us not to feel that we are privileged among species. We have accomplished brains, we believe we understand other living things better than they understand us, and we like to highlight the ways that we are unique and other beings are simpler or lower. But—in part I’m sure because it’s an election season—I’ve been mulling over a political metaphor that offers a flatter vision of life. It even comes with a bill of rights.
With a slight tilt of our imaginations we can look at the biological world as a Democracy of Living Things. You and I are citizens, and so are every crow, dandelion, rat, spider, and mushroom. What we all share are the challenges of birth, survival, and procreation in some form. These universal experiences put us on a common ground that may be narrow but is also profound and, I think, noble.
The population of this Democracy is beyond counting. There is no formal government. But it is reasonably democratic in that everyone participates in the organization of life around them and in the local struggle for power. Everyone competes and/or cooperates in his or her or its own way. And while only a very few members of our nation possess actual legal rights, we humans in our generous moments like to think that all living things enjoy an entitlement to the necessities of Life (survival), Liberty (the absence of threatening constraints) and the Pursuit of Happiness (thriving and reproducing).
The notion of a democracy of living things is a corrective lens. It offsets our human habit of viewing organisms as “higher” and “lower.” And it encourages us to see all living things as individuals no matter how small they are or how densely packed together they are in clumps, hives and herds. Imagine it: a Democracy of Living Things.