Curious Nature: Civil rights remind us that cooperation means survival (column)
Civil rights are those that guarantee a person’s equal protection under the law and ensure participation in society without being discriminated against or repressed. It has taken, and continues to take, many efforts by many groups of people to guarantee their own civil rights because where vague laws did not specifically apply to those groups, new laws had to be made that explicitly included them.
Federal holidays like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day remind us that civil rights have had to be fought for, not given freely, even within our own society. However, civil rights should be inherent for all citizens since we are all members of the same society and are all equals in humanity. Even now, the rights of members of our society, including significant sections of our local community, are being infringed upon rather than being protected and upheld.
We’re all equals in humanity, and we humans are only a single species in the millions of species alive today. We are only a recent addition to the incredible diversity of life that has existed on our planet for billions of years. But we continue to infringe upon the rights of other Earth citizens. The rights of nature have also had to be secured and defended, rather than understood as part of our shared community of life. This misunderstanding is why we needed to create the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the National Park Service Organic Act, and other rulings that protect the non-human members of our great country.
It may seem that without laws protecting citizens, then society wouldn’t be able to function as it does. However, there are several examples throughout the planet’s ecosystems that reveal this structure isn’t mandatory for cooperation. Many of us are familiar with pack hunting behavior in wolves, and some may be familiar with the defensive circles that adult elephants make around their young when a predator is present. In several species, individuals even put themselves at risk in order to help the group, such as when a squirrel calls to warn others that danger is near and thereby makes itself more noticeable to predators.
Some species even work with different species for the benefit of both, a kind of symbiotic relationship known as mutualism. We’ve heard of the remora fish and the shark, where remoras get protection and food scraps by literally sticking to sharks, and sharks are kept free of parasites. There are octopuses and grouper fish that hunt together. On land, coyotes and badgers will also work together to chase down or dig out prey. There have been numerous studies that observed cooperative behaviors within and among plant species as well.
In our own human history, evidence shows that collaboration to escape predation shaped how our bodies function today. Early humans were not the apex predators we like to think; we were preyed upon by large birds, cats, and other large predators as evidenced in fossil remains. Conflicts shaped the structures of our brains as well as our interactions. We learned to be more cooperative in order to succeed as a species, and even modern psychology studies reveal that our reward centers are activated when succeeding cooperatively in groups.
In some ways, cooperation has made us human, yet it is a behavior that we share with many other species. Perhaps if we can remember that working together is how we survive, we can include the non-human members of our environment when we think about who we define as “us.”
Nicholas Scarborough is a Foley Graduate Fellow and Educator for Walking Mountains Science Center, working toward his MA in Science Education. In addition to working with children, he also loves to paint, write, hike, and ski. You can find more of his writings about nature and art in his personal blog, The Art Outside, at http://theartoutside.wordpress.com.