The Democracy of Living Things

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.

living things (weed-science-classes.wikispaces.com)

(weed-science-classes.wikispaces.com)

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: the Democracy of Life.

 

Walking Up the Ramp

Life is a ramp. We—all things alive—are walking along ramps that slope upwards at various angles, angles that change during our lifetimes. The climb may be easy or arduous. The ramp begins at birth and ends at death.

delange.org

delange.org

The angle of the ramp depends on the difficulties we are faced with, both from our circumstances in life and our inner struggles. For humans, it is not an index of how unhappy we feel. Instead it represents the total of the obstacles, limitations, frustrations, stresses, discomforts, opposition, tedium, and loneliness that a person faces. It is a snapshot of the “uphill” nature of a person’s daily living.

My own ramp has sloped up only slightly most of my life. As a white, upper-middle class, male, educated American, I have not struggled very much, except at those times when, as for all of us, personal problems raise the ramp, often drastically, for a while. Otherwise, the long-term angle of the ramp rises progressively if one is female, poor, a persecuted minority, uneducated, chronically ill, imprisoned, a refugee, or a victim of violence. It generally rises less for those with resilient personalities and more for those with depression.

Animals and plants too are on ramps. Lack of food or water, disease, injury, tilt their ramps upward.

Can the ramp ever slope downward? Not in this metaphor. The ramp is always sloped up at least slightly because living is never completely free of limitations and difficulties of some kind. Darwin and the Buddha were right: life is struggle.

When our ramps tilt upward and the walk is tiring, we think about how to make our lives easier or better, and we may or may not actually take the steps to do so. If we do take them, we sometimes find that the steps were mistakes—bad decisions about jobs or relationships, for example—although they were the best we could do at the time, and that our ramp has not changed much or that we have inadvertently raised it. We may or may not try again.

We can easily, through meanness or indifference, raise the ramps of others, making their lives harder.

But we can lower the ramps of others too, always slightly, sometimes a great deal. And by some strange mechanism, lowering other ramps always lowers our own as well.

Darwin’s Dark Vision: “Ten Thousand Sharp Wedges”

Darwin has gotten to me. The third chapter of On the Origin of Species has changed how I look at nature. The name of the chapter sounds quaint at first: The Struggle for Existence. But it is an apt name for a dark, violent vision.

For Darwin, the central reason that life is a struggle is the numbers. Seeds, larvae, eggs, babies—most living things reproduce in big numbers, every year. We modern humans with our small families and our one or two pets don’t think of reproduction on that scale.

But, as Darwin writes, we should not forget that in truth “every single organic being around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers; that each lives by a struggle at some period of its life; that heavy destruction inevitably falls either on the young or the old…Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little, and the number of the species will almost instantaneously increase to any amount.”

And then this astonishing simile: “The face of Nature may be compared to a yielding surface, with ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force.”

purple loosestrife

The invasive purple loosestrife. Each plant produces one million seeds each year, every year. (fenton.patch.com)

We don’t notice the intensity of this competition in part because plant life takes place in slow motion. Darwin studied what lived and what died; he counted the seedlings in a patch of his yard and saw that most did not survive the struggle against competing weeds and insects. “We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey; we do not always bear in mind, that though food may be now superabundant, it is not so at all seasons of each recurring year.”

gulls

Whether an animal is sustaining itself or is destroying other life is a matter of point of view.  (telegraph.co.uk)

Although he uses the word “competition” to point to one obstruction or another, Darwin doesn’t find that word sweeping enough. And indeed today, for us, the term usually refers to what goes on between two individuals or teams or companies and the like. Struggle, however, points to competition in all directions at once—to the competition between a living thing and others of its own species, competition with other species, struggle against disease, against climate. It is the intensity of this struggle between the numbers of one’s offspring pitched against the strength of the adversaries that makes natural selection so effective. Any advantage, no matter how small, is big.

At the chapter’s end, the vision of the struggle slides over to “war”—along with a dubious consolation. “When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.”

roadside plants

Along a roadside, the slow-motion war goes on. (nps.gov)

Where I live, the plants and insects look vigorous and healthy as always, but I see them differently now. In the small overgrown zones between suburban backyards and along roads, I used to see beauty, vitality, and tranquility. That is what we are expected to see in nature, after all. But now I look first at what plants are the greatest in number; they are, at the moment, the winners. They are the best adapted, putting other plants out of business in slow motion, and producing the most variations that might make their offspring even fitter.

Humans are similarly primed for struggle and competition of all kinds. Even here in suburbia, we are all alert to shortages or price increases in food and fuel, to drought and flood, to violence and car crashes, to drugs and diseases, to potential enemies in the neighborhood and in the world–“incessant blows” on the “sharp wedges” that are driven in on the “yielding surface” of our lives.