3.5 billion years ago life began to emerge on Earth. A single, lonely cell, our common ancestor, began to diverge into unique species. At first only about a handful of fragile life forms existed, barely distinguishable from each other. Fast forward a few million years, and an incredible diversity of life emerged, enough to provide material for countless hours of David Attenborough documentaries. Many of the natural world’s wonders remain undiscovered even today, at an age when we arrogantly think that we have seen it all and catalogued it all in our documentaries, encyclopedias, museums and genetic banks. We have been cultivating the false perception that we understand Earth’s infinite diversity and complexity simply by merely recording, cataloguing and capturing everything in pixels, bytes and megabytes. But we have little understanding of what an ecosystem is and how it came into existence. Examining the individual parts does very little in helping us understand how the sum functions.
This is because as species diversified further, they began to form increasingly complex relationships with each other – and here is where the beautiful paradox emerged: the more they evolved away from each other, becoming birds, fish, terrestrial mammals and insects, the more they became one, forming intricate relationships, vital to each other’s survival. They all became one organism, even as they split into more and more individual, differentiated species.
Our traditional representation of a phylogenetic tree of branches that lead to nowhere misses out on this important concept. It fails to capture the interrelationship of species both within the physical environment they inhabit, as well as at the genetic level, where we know for a fact about lateral transfer of genes across distant branches of the tree, something which until recently was thought impossible. The branches do not always end up nowhere. They sometimes reconnect to the roots of the genetic tree, and they can also link to each other, in strange and unexpected ways that we are only just beginning to understand. Aside from simply having a common ancestor, there is more unity in Earth’s family tree than we had initially envisaged. All species are “different and same” at the same time, and undoubtedly connected and dependent on each other for their survival. In our obsession to focus on the differences between species as we catalogue them, we have literally missed the forest for the trees. The key to understanding the ecosystem is not studying the individual species, but the relationships between them.
The “sum” of all species is therefore not just a sum of the branches on the genetic tree, but all the interconnections between the branches as well. This web of connections appears to be an organism all to itself, in fact, the most important of them all, and this is the one organism on Earth we have yet to understand. It is the entirety of our ecosystem, an organism that has been living, breathing and evolving longer than any individual organism on the planet. It can appear chaotic on the surface, but is at the same time incredibly simple and balanced in its operating principles. When studying either the ecosystem or the climate system, we tend to focus on conflict, either between species or between the weather elements. This is because we are focusing on the individual species rather than their relationships. We try to explain our observations of the ecosystem based on the principle of interspecies competition and conflict, rather than the overarching harmony that presides over it all. We are on a mission to understand “who is on top”: the lion or the zebra, as we can only understand how the ecosystem operates through a series of power struggles. We view the biological world as a series of conflicts, as opposed to harmonious balances.
Although species are indeed often engaged in brutal conflict as they antagonize each other, consume each other, or compete for the same habitat, they are all at the same time part of one big organism that has remained in perfect balance for countless millennia. The truth is, there are no winners or losers, predator or prey, sentient or non-sentient life forms in the ecosystem. There is only balance and unity. By viewing our ecosystem through the human supremacy lens of conflict and competition, we predispose our own very toxic and aggressive relationship with that ecosystem and the planet, demonstrated through our corrosive track record so far.
Our focus on conflict, rather than balance, is not accidental. It was key to the growth of our civilization, which needed narratives of conflict, violence and supremacy over other species in order to justify its expansion. Throughout their history, empires relied on narratives of racial or species differences, supremacy and competition in order to grow and sustain themselves. Our political, social and religious institutions were founded on these concepts, which they have used for the subjugation of other species and human races. Our popular culture today focuses on conflict and superiority of one species over another, as this is the narrative that serves the human supremacy dogma that maintains humanity’s delusional ambitions.
Our economic system has undoubtedly influenced how science works, reducing most scientists to butterfly collectors who study individual species, leaving the most important aspect, the study of the relationships between these species to humanists, cosmologists and off-beat ecologists. This is a natural consequence of the emphasis of our capitalist system, which is not on how we relate to all other beings on Earth, but how we can study them so that we can exploit them. In the process, the butterfly collector becomes dumber and dumber, disconnected from the collective intelligence that he shares with his specimens, and which he will never quite grasp.
Our obsession with cataloguing and recording other life forms is a very capitalist, product-centric way of looking at Earth, merely from an ownership perspective, as if the ecosystem is a Pokemon-like game of products on a supermarket shelf. We are more interested in owning nature than understanding it. And we focus on the differences between species rather than the attributes they share, as we desperately try to explain everything through narratives of conflict. The butterfly collector pays more attention to how butterflies differ from each other, as opposed to the attributes that they share. The more sizes and colors of butterflies there are, the more exciting the chase is. The butterfly collector however doesn’t know or learn anything about butterflies, even as his collection of victims grows.
Our system wants to turn us into blind, mindless butterfly collectors that simply want to own and consume, focusing on what makes species or humans different from each other, rather than on what brings them together. Only if we continue to see differences rather than commonalities between species and human races, can the narrative of conflict upon which much of the modern world was built be maintained. Differences help our system create power structures. Once these power structures are in place, they can be exploited. Morphological differences between species and between humans help our system justify the creation of the power structures it needs in order to spread its web of exploitation and destruction. These same differences have over the millennia been the ideological powerhouses behind the religious and political structures that were nothing but the marketing departments of this capitalist system.
We seek differences and hierarchies all the time, so that we can find ways to dominate either over other species, or within our own. In our desperate quest for differences that we can exploit, we have spent thousands of years asking ourselves whether the dolphin is smarter than the octopus, or if white people are smarter than black people. An intelligent species to us is one that is “problem-solving” in human terms, like a chimp able to ask for more bananas by pressing a button, or an octopus able to get itself out of a trap. It is a definition of intelligence that again is based on conflict and competition and judged on purely human criteria important to our species and our species alone. We tend to consider a species “intelligent” based on whether it can get itself out of a mess, or how effective it is in killing all the other species in order to dominate, but these are human criteria. We judge intelligence by human colonialist and supremacist standards, although, ironically, we ourselves are clearly failing to tick the box “getting out of a mess” in the way we are dealing with the climate emergency. We face an existential crisis, at the root of which is the belief that anything natural outside of the human species is raw, lesser and inherently hostile to us. We have started a war where there never was one, ultimately a war with ourselves.
Perhaps the most shameful of all of our narratives was the belief that nature was the one who started the war. Nature was the “unruly” one, who needed to be tamed. Whether it was a thousand year-old tree cut down or an indigenous tribe exterminated, it was all done under the same principle: they deserved it, because they are “lesser” and “different” life forms. They were not high enough in the hierarchy. But the false narrative of “advanced civilization vs wilderness” has collapsed. Man was all along the wilderness to be tamed, and nature was the only balanced, sustainable and civilized system that ever existed, uniting all species in harmony and allowing none to dominate.
Bio-chauvinism, racism, slavery and colonialism may have set the foundations of today’s global economic system, but arguably nothing much has really changed. People of color still struggle more than whites for opportunities and economic prosperity. Ball and chain have been replaced by debt slavery across the population, regardless of race. We are all slaves, pinned down like butterflies and compared to each other in an increasingly scrutinizing manner. The system is creating ever more narratives of conflict which it desperately needs to feed upon.
8 thoughts on “The False Narrative of Conflict”
George, as usual, you know the human predicament extremely well. Our base survival mechanism has us trapped. We look out at the world with a tragically simplistic point of view that sees “other”. We have completely failed to recognize all is “one”, there is no “other”. Our “cult’ ural stories and our relationship with death and dying has created a materialistically simple minded imaginary view of reality that certainly appears to be collectively suicidal. Mother nature’s way of creating is not individualistic. The mechanism it uses to express creativity is one that our simple mind view does not like. We are trying to elevate ourselves into a “GOD”. We suffer from an identity crisis. A god complex. Creature and creator are one in the same already without the need for a separate “GOD” or for us to take over god’s roll of deciding who or what should live or die for our superior benifit. Our lot in life is to overcome simple mindedness and or die trying. At present it appears we our failing to overcome our collective ignorance. Love Rick
I have enjoyed your response Rick, you have put it so eloquently thank you
Hi George, thanks for the acknowledgement. I go through daily life as a creature without an identity, aka cultural story, or significance. Unable to communicate deeply with most. An alien in an alien world. Reluctantly going through the act of normalcy in a story I don’t think I would have written, had I been given the opportunity. I hate being a hippocratic and imposter, but feel it is necessary to the alternative. I don’t really know how to or want to survive like a hunter gatherer. Ted Kaczynski’s lifestyle does not appeal. Love Rick
I wrote a medium long comment, and it hasn’t posted. When I retried, WordPresssaid I had already posted it!
Strange I can’t see it but thanks for reading anyway
(re-try, somewhat close to the original)
Auto-pilot applies to humans too. We are social mammals, and behave accordingly. See: https://www.ecologycenter.us/ecosystem-theory/the-maximum-power-principle.html
Free will is an illusion based on reflexive self-consciousness. See:
My layman’s view:
Determinism is not about pre-ordained events. Heredity incl. genes, epigenes, microbiome, viruses, prions,…and experiences since conception are physical (energy-matter-information) and *embodied.* This cumulative baggage confronts present externality, with the resulting behavior the product. Ideas, memories, feelings, perceptions, are caloric and electro-chemical.
Blame game solves nothing. Different cultures/religions develop values over many decades based on geography, climate, resources… What is good for Sharia Law is often opposite for western democratic law. What endures is selected!
Best we can do is try to adapt to changing reality as rapidly as possible. Nature is doing its best to reverse our plague phase (400% growth in lifespan of living individuals), and it always wins.
I don’t see how any of your commentary relates to my essay as it is served quite fragmented so I’m sorry that I will be unable to respond. I see a lot of philosophy and links here, which I don’t like as philosophy tends to be absolutist and running down theoretical rabbit holes. But all good conversation. Thank you again.
Your essay assumes free will!