Sunday, January 15, 2012

…social symbiosis


I have to be honest…I have long considered the political scene in this country tantamount to a Barnum & Bailey sideshow (despite having majored in political science)!

“Come one, come all! Witness the amazing ‘missing link’ blathering on about nothingness, the snake oil salesman switching pitches faster than an Indy 500 driver changes gears on a dry straight-away, the spineless and the mental midgets from all walks of life!  Come one, come all. And do be amazed!” 

But I recently stumbled across a candidate in touch with World 3.0…Elizabeth Warren, whose run for Romney’s US Senate seat in 1994 failed but is back on the November ballot in Massachusetts.  Warren brings to the table a fresh perspective, one involving the world as we experience it… complex, interconnected and adaptive.  In September as the OWS movement was gaining momentum, Warren astutely reframed the “greed is good” mythology into one of modern day truth: social symbiosis.

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there, good for you. But, I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” [ ]

In his 1975 book Sociobiology: the new synthesis, E.O. Wilson introduced social symbiosis as it related to the insect world, particularly, ants. By his definition, symbiosis includes all categories of close protracted interaction. When the symbiosis benefits one participating species while neither benefiting nor harming the other, it is referred to as social commensalism. Mixed flocks of birds foraging in the winter are an example of social commensalism. When both species benefit it is social mutualism. Aphids kept as “cattle” by ants exemplify social mutualism.  Social Parasitism occurs when one species benefits at the peril of another. (354) Wilson writes that “[i]n its consequences on population growth parasitism does not differ fundamentally from predation.” (354)

Old-man politics is social parasitism still pumping the mythological Horatio Alger message, still relying on backroom fat cats and still shape-shifting without a morsel of conscience, misconstruing Paul’s declaration of being “All things to all people…”

Elizabeth Warren is a glimmer of a new political generation…telling Donne’s truth: “No man is an island, entire of itself...” We are social beings. We live in a symbiotic relationship with one another. We create the society in which we live. By seeing the essence of our world as social symbiosis—individuals linked through mutually supportive networks, then we take our first step  in transforming it.

John Donne poem No man is an island speaks to the heart of social mutualism.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Kay Strong, Ph.D., Southern Illinois University, M.T., University of Houston, M.A., Ohio University; Associate Professor at Baldwin-Wallace College; Areas of expertise: international economics, contemporary social-economic issues, complexity and futures-based perspectives in economics. E-mail:

1 comment:

  1. What a great quote by Elizabeth Warren. As you examine the more successful countries in terms of living environment, you see that important to creating a successful growing economy are a good transportation infrastructure, the importance of good schooling and health care and interdependence of trade and investment with foreign countries. Now add the entrepreneurs.

    The interdependence of the world doesn’t only apply to positive economic growth. It’s vital to our world. Look at the deforestation of the Amazon and its affect on global air supply. Or at plastic waste toxins showing up in fish caught on the other side of the world. Or acidity from coal fired electric plants transmitted thousands of miles by air currents.

    I googled some quotes on interdependence: Some good ones: Henry Van Dyke -“In the progress of personality, first comes a declaration of independence, then a recognition of interdependence.” Mahatma Gandhi - “Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency. Man is a social being.”


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This blog lives under the auspices of the Department of Economics whose mission has been to hold high the lantern beaming an "economic way of thinking" onto the world. Selfishness, rationality and equilibrium have been central to the teaching of an economic way of thinking rooted in the Renaissance. And, in this regard, the department has faithfully stayed the course. The intent of this blog, thinking out loud..., however, is to entertain exchanges which may challenge the centrality of economics as we teach it.