A while back I was on a discussion list and people were talking about biological symbiosis as a metaphor for people communicating and collaborating. As a former biologist, I felt a responsibility to respond, so I wrote a sort of quick guide to sociality in the non-human world. Several people later thanked me for the essay, so I thought I might as well post it here, in case it's helpful to anyone else.
There are quite a few
biological terms that describe points along the spectrum from
cooperation to shared identity.
Within the same species:
- Kin selection describes how organisms "altruistically" help other
individuals that are related to them genetically.
(I place "altruistically" in quotes because benefiting your genetic makeup is not what we usually think of when we think of altruism.)
- Group selection describes how larger social groups help each other and
compete with other groups for survival. This one is controversial as
some think it exists (E. O. Wilson is a famous proponent) and some think
it's a fiction. (I think it sounds plausible, but that doesn't mean it's
- Reciprocal altruism is another mechanism that can cause organisms to
help each other, in a tit-for-tat way. Game theory has lots of useful
names to describe how organisms and other entities interact.
- The term "culture" is used to describe the social passing on
(teaching) of knowledge (such as how to make a stick into a
termite-catching tool) in some non-human species. Whether this use of
the term is legitimate has been under debate for a long time.
- Eusociality, or a regulated social order, exists in some insects (like
bees and ants), crustaceans (some shrimp) and mammals (the naked mole
rat is the famous example). In eusocial species, "queens" usually
control the social order (using pheromones), with individuals being born
into defined "castes" that define their choices. The colony acts in some
ways as an individual, but only partly due to self-organization (since
pheromonal control is not self-organization but organization).
- A colonial organism (or collective organism or superorganism) consists
of individual organisms that sometimes self-organize to take on the
roles of specialized "organ" cells and sometimes don't. Examples are
slime molds and some kinds of sponges. Whether these things are many
organisms or one depends on when and how you ask the question.
- A modular organism is one whose components have specific functions,
but whose total form is essentially a Lego-like composition of modules.
Plants are modular organisms. It is hard to say whether a modular
organism is an organism or a very highly regulated colony.
- A clonal colony is an association among genetically identical
organisms (clones) that, while seeming to be separate, are actually
connected. (Think spider plants.) The most famous example of a clonal
colony is Pando, a giant colony of quaking aspen in Utah that covers
over 100 acres. Though Pando looks like a forest, it is actually one
In the places where the taxonomical kingdoms meet (plants, animals,
fungi, bacteria, other tiny things) there are many cases of species
where it is unclear which of these mechanisms are going on. Reading
about them makes your whole sense of what is individual and what is
collective lose its coherence.
- Guilds are associations among species that forage together. The
species in guilds are not related, but seek similar (though not
identical) food sources that are found in the same places. Guilds tend
to protect each other to a minimal extent. For example, animals in
guilds usually heed alarm calls of other species in the guild.
- Mobs are temporary groups that can form among species that face
predation together. You might see several species of small birds joining
up to mob (attack) a hawk flying overhead. These associations are
opportunistic and shifting.
- Mutualism is a relationship between species that depend on each other.
A perfect example of mutualism is the relationship of people with their
gut bacteria. Neither of us could survive without the other.
- Parasitism is the long-standing reliance of one species on another, to
the detriment of the species being relied on - though never detrimental
enough to kill the species (or individual), because then the arrangement
would cease to be useful to the parasite.
- Commensalism is a relationship between species where they help each
other, but so indirectly that you have to look closely to notice it.
Usually such indirect help passes through the environment. When a beaver
builds a dam, many species such as fish, frogs, and the water fowl that
eat fish and frogs gain critical habitats through the self-interested
actions of the beaver, which is largely unaffected by their use of the
- Symbiosis is the long-standing reliance of two or more species on each
other, such as the relationship between clownfish and anemones. These
connections are not temporary or opportunistic or even cognitive, but
develop evolutionarily, over long periods of time.
Species can pass back and forth over the boundaries between mutualism,
commensalism, parasitism, and symbiosis over evolutionary time, as the
costs and benefits to each species can vary. Some
relationships among species are hard to classify and can depend on other
factors such as the environment in which both species find themselves.
Is that bird picking lice on a wildebeest's back helping or hurting? How
about when it pecks a little harder and starts to drink the wildebeest's
blood? How about when the lice become more dangerous to the wildebeest?
It gets tricky.
- Coevolution is a situation where species affect each other's genetic
evolution. Coevolution can involve any of the interactions between
species mentioned here (and probably more I've forgotten to list). For
example, many flower shapes and colors evolved in such a way that their
pollinators could find them more easily. Mimcry is another interaction
that often comes up in coevolution.
As to whether any of these terms work as metaphors for people doing
positive things together: they all do, and they all don't. My advice for
anyone who wants to use a metaphor from science to describe human social
endeavors is: read enough about the term to understand its full
implications. Explore its internal arguments. I've seen so many people "go shopping" in science for
metaphors that will prove their point, then ignore what the word
actually means in order to shoehorn it into whatever meaning they want
it to have. As one example, people often use "coevolution" to mean
cooperation. That's a mistake, because coevolution can go horribly wrong
and often does.
My personal preference is to avoid metaphors that turn people into
non-people, because those metaphors always tend to be, well, dehumanizing. As I see
it, there are already lots of useful terms that describe people
interacting with each other in positive ways. After all, we've been doing
it for a while.
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