Have you ever thought about what you are? The question might seem simple at first but it can be answered from different perspectives. I recently stumbled upon Peter Godfrey-Smith’s marvelous book Metazoa: Animal Minds and the Birth of Consciousness, and I was surprised to discover an answer to the question of what we are that I hadn’t considered before.
The collaboration of living things
There is a lot to like about Godfrey-Smith’s book. It’s a wonderful adventure in learning more about all manner of different creatures and the way they function. Despite the obvious differences throughout the realm of living things, there are some astounding similarities. The part that intrigued me the most, however, was the statement that “Animals and plants are huge collaborations of cells.” (Godfrey-Smith, 2020). I’d never thought of a living thing as a collaboration before.
I’ve known for a long time that we are made up of trillions of cells that are in a constant state of growing, living, dying, and being replaced. Cells are, themselves, complete little living creatures. Single-celled organisms number in the thousands, but that’s not what I want to focus on here. Way back in the distant past, single-celled critters hooked up together and formed multicelled beings. The plants and animals that we are so familiar with today are the results of that collaborating process.
The collaboration becomes even more startling if we think about all the separate and distinct organisms that live within us. I don’t know about you, but it’s a bit weird for me to think of myself as being the unwitting host to a massive number of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and assorted other minuscule beasts. It’s not the details here that are important for my purposes. The lesson for me in this revelation was just how important collaboration is.
The importance of collaboration
On all sorts of different levels, we are at our best when the multitude that we are is collaborating like a finely tuned orchestra. Problems occur when collaboration is interrupted. Problems are rectified when the balance is restored.
All sorts of illnesses occur when the community in our gut is disturbed in ways that interfere with the quantity and composition of this thriving microscopic metropolis. Similarly, psychological turmoil and unrest arise when our ambitions and expectations start to pull apart rather than push together. The conflict of oppositional goal states and desires can produce debilitating stress and anguish.
A contented life is a collaborating life. A symphony rather than a cacophony. We can apply this principle not just to individuals but also to collections of individuals. In the same way that the teaming up of single-celled creatures resulted in the magnificent spectacle of the plants and animals inhabiting our planet today, when we as individuals collaborate with each other, we can produce astonishing results.
Serious calamities require collaborative solutions
When collaboration breaks down, the impact can be devastating. All manner of social atrocities, such as war and interpersonal violence, could be characterized as a failure of collaboration. Serious calamities threatening our global village, such as climate change, poverty, hunger, and inequity, require a collaborative solution. In fact, problems such as poverty and hunger could be solved overnight if people in positions of power and influence grew tired of the problems and decided they should no longer exist. Inequity is only a feature of our global landscape because those who could change the situation do not have the desire to do so.
Oxfam released a new report to coincide with the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in which it revealed that the world’s top 1 percent secured nearly two-thirds of the $42 trillion in new wealth that has been created since 2020 (Aljazeera, 2023). This is anti-collaboration on an unprecedented scale. Imagine where we might be if policies, laws, standards, and regulations required collaboration—or if the brilliance and ingenuity of the top 1 percent could be harnessed for the good of the planet rather than just the benefit of their bank balances, it’s difficult to imagine the kind of utopia-for-all we might be able to create.
Collaboration is an essential feature of what we are. Living an unencumbered life requires collaboration both within and between individuals. All of this ocean of collaboration is based on a design of control. Every living thing, from single cells to bazillions of collaborating cells, are controllers. Understanding ourselves and those around us as collaborating controllers could help collaboration happen more often.
Appreciating the importance of collaboration makes the words of the great American medical physicist William (Bill) T. Powers all the more prophetic: “The childhood of the human race is far from over. We have a long way to go before most people will understand that what they do for others is just as important to their well-being as what they do for themselves.”
Aljazeera. (2023). Richest 1% bag two-thirds of $42 trillion in new wealth: Oxfam. Accessed on 17 January 2023 from Richest 1% bag two-thirds of $42 trillion in new wealth: Oxfam | Business and Economy | Al Jazeera
Godfrey-Smith. P. (2020). Metazoa: Animal minds and the birth of consciousness. London: William Collins.