Growing up in Western civilization, I was indoctrinated into Darwin’s survival of the fittest worldview. “Eat or be eaten” and “It’s a jungle out there.” We are taught that this is just how life is. This bloody tooth and claw perspective drives how we run our businesses. The view is so pervasive in our cultural heritage that we don’t stop to think about it any more than the fish stops to consider the water.
But I had a unlikely moment that made me stop and consider it.
I was repotting houseplants – philodendrons, which are jungle plants, when the idea struck me to stick multiple plants in the same pot. They had been healthy enough, growing, but one probably wouldn’t use the word thriving.
It went against all conventional logic. Two plants in the same pot, a closed system with limited resources. Following the logic of competition the stronger should’ve killed the other off. Instead both plants began to thrive. Both grew more abundantly than they had in separate pots.
As I thought about it, it made perfect sense. The jungle is a crazy jumble of plants growing next to, under, over, on – name a preposition – jungle plants are growing and thriving that way.
Yes, it is a jungle out there. And until very recently we’ve been making the nearly fatal mistake of following only one of the laws of he jungle – competition. But nature requires balance. For every force there is an equal and opposite force. Yes, competition is a fundamental law of the jungle. But it is not the only law. Its counterweight is collaboration and cooperation.
For quite sometime when I shared my theory that competition wasn’t the only law of the responded, “Yeah, but that’s not how it works in the real world.”
Now I’m seeing more and more discussion about cooperation as a viable model for business and society. I’m no longer a lone “Pollyanna” voice arguing that collaboration and cooperation could be a viable capitalist theory. And doesn’t mean you’re some crazy hippy in a commune.
A very thorough and insightful book on the idea of competition vs. cooperation is Spontaneous Evolution by Bruce Lipton and Steve Bhaerman. They explore the social and political forces that lead to our obsession with competition. And provide a very inspiring argument for tempering that focus with the spirit of cooperation and collaboration.
Scientific American featured a story titled, “The Evolution of Cooperation” as the cover story in the May 2012 issue. The article reveals there is much more collaboration and cooperation built into the natural world than we previously thought.
Studies of bat colonies reveal that individuals who see each other or engage with each other regularly tend to help each other out. (duh) In this case, bats who had gotten their fill of food regurgitated and shared with those who hand not had luck hunting. The bats who had received the assistance remembered and returned the favor at a later date. According to the old school law of the jungle the well fed bats should have let the other go hungry and eliminate their competition. The law of cooperation and collaboration ensures the survival of the colony.
Scientific studies with computer simulators of large communities demonstrate there are cycles of competition and cooperation. We’ve been on a pretty long cycle of intense competition.
I’m not suggesting eliminating competition from our capitalist system. Competition is essential for innovation, growth, and pruning weak components to keep the whole system strong. What I am suggesting is taking off the competition blinders and realizing it is not the only way. In an age where some economic organizations view their own customers in a predatory way it is not sustainable.
Integrating collaboration and cooperation is also essential for innovation, accelerates growth and strengthens the community as a whole. Just like my plants, which I finally had to send to a new home when they became to gargantuan for my apartment.
Photo (modified) – flickr