How life forms mature from competition to cooperation

Sensemaking / How life forms mature from competition to cooperation

An evolutionary perspective on life’s inherent motivation to self-organise and cooperate in diverse communities.

By Ash Buchanan / 08 May 2017

“We have created a perfect storm of crises and we’ve got to grow up. It’s as simple as that. 

It’s time for humans to reach the mature cooperative phase…

Any species goes through a juvenile or youthful phase in which it needs to acquire as much territory and resources as it can and multiply as fast as it can, elbowing others out of the way to establish itself and its place on the planet. 

Eventually this gets too energy expensive… There comes a point in which there seems to be a maturation process, in which the species discovers the advantages of cooperation.”

— Elisabet Sahtouris

This is the 3.8 billion year old story of evolution and its maturation cycle. It applies to all living things — from bacteria, molecules, cells, tissues and so on all the way up to the human species.

First, there is unity when a new species first comes into existence. This is followed by an expansion phase — a economy of growth, diversification, individualisation and competition until that gets too energy expensive. Then life’s expression tends to fundamentally rebalance towards an integrative phase where species creatively seek to solve all of the issues of the differentiation phase.

As Elisabet Sahtouris explains, cooperation consumes less energy than expansion. There are limits to growth and there comes a time when a species evolution must dynamically rebalance and mature, moving from an 'empire-building' phase in which it establishes its identity and territories, to a cooperative and integrative phase in which it builds constructive reciprocal relationships. Life-forms learn how to wisely balance friendly competition and mature cooperation — to come together and create something new at a higher order of complexity.

This is how atoms become molecules — molecules become cells — cells become tissues — tissues become organs — and so on, until you become you.

Does this story sound familiar?

It sounds a lot like the current direction of our human ecosystems.

It would appear our growth focused ecosystems (our societies, cultures, political systems and economies) have grown and diversified to the limits of the planet. They have become too energy intensive to continue growing and we are being challenged to explore alternatives. Are we reaching the limits of our growth focused ecosystems?

We’ve just had a youthful golden age of differentiation, diversification and empire building. It would appear from an evolutionary perspective we are being challenged to mature and create contribution focused ecosystems. Challenged to create cooperative and integrative ecosystems (societies, cultures, political systems and economies) that bring people together in concert, recognising our oneness with the community of life. How we can become indigenous again, in a way that transcends and includes all of our progress to date.

Celebrating crisis and uncertainty

Elisabet suggests in this moment of crisis, we don’t need to overly stress about bringing down the growth focused systems.

Why? Because life is inherently intelligent, and the growth based systems have historically brought themselves down naturally. Much like how a caterpillar dissolves itself before it turns into a butterfly. Life naturally self-organises and innovates to co-create alternatives when there is a crisis.

We just need to listen carefully to what our inner nature and our ecosystems are calling us to do. It’s an opportunity to connect with a deeper level of our humanity and be open to changing the myth we are telling ourselves about the way life and our ecosystems (our societies, cultures, political systems and economies) work. An opportunity to write a new story about creative cooperation — and become the change.

Outside is a mirror of inside

“The issues of outside are a mirror of the issues inside” — Otto Scharmer

Similar shifts — from unity to differentiation to reintegration — not only take place in the physical world. They also take place in our inner lives.

Why? Because creating change ‘out there’ in the world requires an openness to deep change within our inner lives — in our underlying beliefs, attitudes, assumptions and worldviews.

This shift, from unity to individualistic differentiation to group-orientated integration is a central feature of the Fixed, Growth and Benefit Mindset framework.

Particularly relevant here is the Benefit Mindset — describing society’s everyday leaders who use their development to contribute to the wellbeing of the communities and ecosystems they belong.

Global maturity

It appears system wide maturation — from differentiation to reintegration — is becoming particularly pronounced at a global scale.

You can see it in the fact we now have over a million NGO’s creating positive change in the world, a rapidly growing purpose driven business industry and wellbeing based education reform. A movement united by a shared awareness of our oneness with the community of life. A global community skilfully networking to share information, mobilising its members with unprecedented speed.

Paul Hawken suggests this is the biggest movement in human history and there is no leader, it’s emerging and self-organising naturally. Could this be life’s inherent intelligence at work?

Our evolutionary role

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” — Albert Einstein

What is our evolutionary role in uncertainty and crisis? When you start asking that question, you start asking a deeper question about what it’s going to take for each of us to evolve.

It appears to be natural to go through an empire building phase. It also appears natural to face limits to growth.

The question is; are we ready for embracing the natural maturation to a cooperative phase?

If you are, I’ll leave you with Elisabet’s evolutionary suggestion on how we can best do it;

“Find something that makes your heart sing…. and find a way to do it that fits into a loving harmonious cooperative world."

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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