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October 14, 2013

Global ethics, global society: Just Something to Consider

"You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand."
-Woodrow Wilson

Infighting amongst the tribes, nations and religions of Europe has a very long history (many, many centuries if not millennia).  It culminated in the massively, destructive First World War and was followed by an unprecedented meeting of world leaders in 1919 now called the Paris Peace Conference.  Never before had so many delegations from around the world come together, face-to-face, to talk about anything.  At the Paris Peace Conference many issues were dealt with including questions of different territories' and nations' right to self-determination, the nature of Germany's reparations, and also the forward-looking 14 points of President Woodrow Wilson.  One of his points was a call for a League of Nations that would give nations a forum to resolve their conflicts in a civilized way and thus abolish wars forever.  The League of Nations was instated, but because of further corruption, economic instability, nationalism and conflicting imperialistic ambitions, Europe plunged into another war that sucked many nations around the world into its abyss.  Following this even more devastating war the United Nations was established emerging as a more powerful and effective international organization than the League of Nations.

I'm going to leave this story momentarily to tell another, but I will, hopefully, connect them together at the end to make a unifying point.

In evolutionary history many major "inventions" of Life to overcome environmental limitations have arisen as a direct result of new relationships based upon mutualistic symbiosis. 

A list of just a few such evolved mutualistic relationships:

-3.45 billion year old fossils of stromatolite-like colonies of bacteria show that even on the early Earth there was an advantage for bacteria to form colonies, working together, and not just to wing it on their own.

-About 2 billion years ago Eukaryotic cells took up bacteria that became our cells' mitochondria and plant cells' chloroplasts.  Without these bacteria living in our cells animals couldn't use oxygen to breakdown complex molecules to produce energy for their bodies and plants couldn't use the sun's energy to make sugars and other important biomolecules.  These methods produce far more energy than fermentation and other ancient forms of metabolism.  Because fermentation isn't efficient you can't power much more than a single cell, but with oxidative respiration and photosynthesis you produce enough energy to fuel large, multicellular bodies like the trees and dinosaurs which evolved later.

-There are 650 million year old fossils of sponge-like multicellular animals.  Without the innovation of multicellularity no animals nor humans could've arisen; we'd all be single cells still floating around in the microcosmos.

-Approximately 480 million years ago the first plants came on land and they seem to have made the landing with the help of fungi.  Fungi act like root extensions helping plants suck up more moisture and minerals from the soil than they could ever do on their own; in return, plants share some of their sugars and nutrients, manufactured during photosynthesis, with the fungi.  Without this relationship plants may never have been able to colonize the barren face of the Earth to make it the lush green that supports so many kinds of life-forms today.

There are many more mutualistic symbioses responsible for evolutionary innovations like sexual reproduction, flowering plants and pollinating insects, bacteria and fungi living in the digestive tracts of animals helping them digest difficult substances, social organization in insects and many animals, etc., etc., etc.  There are really too many for anyone to list, but the last I would mention is the symbioses that humans have developed with plants and animals through domestication.  Agriculture was a major revolution in human history that led to the modern societies and cities that most people live in today.  Pigeons were an ancient form of email.  Horses closed the distances that separate and reduced the workload of humans.  While wild wolves dwindle in number their relatives, the dogs, are the most popular and numerous pet in the world, acting as companions, guardians, guides, rescuers, etc. 

All of these innovations have led to more complex life-forms and lifestyles.  All of these mutualistic symbioses have increased the capacity of Life to Do.  Because of these inventions the organisms of Earth have swam in the oceans, burrowed miles deep into the rocks and dirt, walked on land, soared in the sky, and flown through space.  I would dare say that these evolved relationships have played a major role in making Life the beautiful, dynamic, interesting and mysterious force that it is. 

Going back to the beginning I would point out that it was the endless instability and the horrible price of wars that finally brought together the leaders of the world at The Paris Peace Conference to consider the prospects of a lasting peace.  And it was WWII that brought about the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizing that ethics and social responsibility were issues that went beyond borders.  It was an evolutionary leap in understanding, if you will, that underscored the need for cooperation and fairness amongst all peoples if there was to be an end to such disastrous conflicts.

In some ways, we are the benefactors of these developments.  Not that conflict has taken its last breaths, but we live in a world more connected and aware than at any other time.  More and more, rather than living in fear, through endless wars and insecurity, we can participate in the cultures of people everywhere and learn about the "OTHER" who in another time and place may've been the aim of our faceless fears, hatreds and slurs.  We can experience other societies, art, music, architecture, language, food, etc., with the click of a mouse, at an ethnic restaurant, a culture class, a book or movie, with a plane flight, etc..  Also, because people around the world can speak for themselves, through various technologies, rather than through the words of biased judges and recorders we can become aware of the great diversity of perspectives that exist; and the more diversity of perspectives there are the greater the odds are that there will be solutions found to the pressing issues of modern times such as conflicts, economic woes, pollution, climate change, resource depletion, biodiversity, human rights, etc..  Awareness of and access to this diversity can take the edge off of loneliness and isolation because it increase the odds that one will encounter people with similar interests and experiences with whom one can share ideas and feelings to gain insight about how to navigate this great experiment we call Life.

What is the relevance of the evolutionary innovations brought about by mutualistic relationships?  It points out that cooperation between diverse species has more often than not led to greater capacity to DO, eventually leading to the possibilities of modern life.  Had the different mutualistic symbioses not evolved, there would be no us, no biodiversity, no beautiful biosphere.  The Earth might just be oceans full of selfish bacteria fending for themselves and vast, barren continents of rock and dust.  Perhaps life wouldn't exist at all because even at the level of bacteria it can be shown that they specialize and work together to perform necessary functions for the benefit of others.  Survival seems to be nearly impossible without accepting help and offering help........even if you're a bacteria. 

Taking this as a precedent we might conclude that good would come of cooperation between humans for humanity as a whole.  It has taken thousands of years of conflict for people to live together in the landscape of countries that we see today.  Many lives were lost when the Qin emperor fought to unify the kingdoms of China under a common banner 2000+ years ago.  Yet, without these events would China be the great nation that it is today?  What quality of life would there have been back then when every few tens or hundreds of miles in any direction there were people who were your sworn enemies?  People who might not let you live in peace because you were labeled in their mind as the "other."  People who probably look just like you (because many people who live in an area are often descendents of a common group who migrated there), but who have developed a different "identifying" language, a different "identifying" culture, a different "identifying" way of dressing that identifies themselves as superior to you.  How could we, under those circumstances, ever come to understand the commonality of humanity?  And when we look at the parched landscape of the world today, what are the artificial borders between us preventing us from understanding about each other?


The disparate nations of the world have fended for themselves and led us to this point in time where problems have taken on global proportions.  Is it likely that nations pursuing their own interests, solely, can solve problems like global warming, resource exhaustion, and pollution?  Will global environmental issues lead to crises in our times as damaging or more than WWI and WWII were for past generations?  In the aftermath will we be able to rebuild and settle our differences seeing the value in working together to overcome or will we become bitter and undermine one another even more?  Does it always take disasters to unite us or is it possible that evolution can be a guide showing that greater cooperation often leads to greater capacity to solve problems?  I don't know what the future holds, so the best I can argue for here is that though these questions may be misguided...............they might also be worth considering.

-Seth Commichaux

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