Symbiosis: Friends with benefits

In the build up to the US Presidential Election, we need to be asking ourselves some pertinent questions: what is it that we are really seeking in this world? As Obama and Romney go head to head, we should be reflecting on the bigger picture – what is the future we want to see? In Australia, as Gillard and Abbott persistently argue in a seemingly never-ending adversarial fashion, we should ask, to construct our future, how can we create a better global humanity?

Is the current paradigm of bigger is better; we need more; competition in business, in education, in our relationships actually serving us?

“What would happen if we lost all sense of materialism?...Would it purely be good or would there be unforeseen negative consequences?...Let’s purge! Let’s splurge on freedom from materialism!” (Petra, Clarity in Time)

But competition is a natural state of affairs, I hear you say. It’s in nature, it’s all around us! Yet so too is symbiosis.

Symbiotic relationships in nature are interdependent relationships. Symbiosis has become recognized as an important selective force behind evolution. “Evolution is strongly based on cooperation, interaction and mutual dependence amongst organisms.” “Life did not take over the globe by combat but by networking.” (Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, 1986.)

There is, however, more than one type of symbiotic relationship. Let’s take the old rhino happily drinking down by the river. Why is he feeling so amiable? Because the small bird, an ox-pecker, sitting on his back, is peacefully co-existing in a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with him. As the ox-pecker cleans the scourge from the rhino’s back, it is getting fed whilst the rhino in return is getting a quality grade car wash. Or what about an Egyptian plover picking the teeth of a Nile crocodile? As ‘friends with benefits,’ it doesn’t get gutsier than this!

This leads us to our second form of symbiosis. What is it that the ox-pecker is removing from the rhino’s skin? Parasites.

Parasites need no introduction. The blood-suckers, the intestinal tape-worms. Or perhaps they do. For unfortunately, as human beings, in a more metaphorical sense if I may, we are the blood-suckers of the earth.

A third type of symbiotic relationship is the commensal relationship, where one of the pair benefits from the relationship whilst the other is neither significantly helped nor harmed; the spider spinning its web across the twigs of a host plant.

Time to think: Which one of these relationships, mutualistic, parasitic or commensal exists more prevalently in your relationships? In your community?

Time to ask our politicians: Which symbiotic relationship do you think humans have with the planet? Which one would you like them to have?