A Homo sapien's guide to coexistence

You probably feel pretty special right now. You’re part of the only Homo genus of the hominid species to currently inhabit planet earth. Go you! You won the evolutionary fight against those nasty Neanderthals. At least that’s the story of evolution we’re told. A story of species battling it out generation after generation until only the victor remains. But in fact, that isn’t how evolution works at all. Evolution involves far more coexistence than competition.

Around three hundred and fifty thousand years ago, when Homo sapiens rocked up, there were already other human species wandering around different parts of planet earth. Homo Erectus had been around the longest, in fact well over a million years when we joined them, and we both spent about two hundred thousand years together. At the same time, Homo Floresiensis, who had been around for three hundred thousand years already was also hanging out, and stuck around for two hundred thousand years after Homo Erectus became extinct. Homo Naledi arrived around the about the same time we did but left the party early after about a hundred thousand years. And then there was Homo Neanderthalensis. They turned up shortly before us and only left around 40,000 years ago.

So, what happened? How did we go from many homo species to just one? In 1920, the paleontologist Marcellin Boule popularised the idea that Neanderthals were brutish, dim-witted and less ‘advanced’ than Homo sapiens. The idea spread that as the ‘superior’ species Homo sapiens violently exterminated the Neanderthals. In fact, the science has debunked this extermination myth. And although we will never know for certain all the factors that led to the extinction of the other homo species, including the Neanderthals, in their case it looks more likely to have been a result of small population sizes and interbreeding. And yet we cling to the myth because it fits our misunderstanding of how evolution through natural selection works. We take ‘survival of the fittest’ to mean a battle for survival, a fight to death, as it were, one in which the superior species triumphs. We think we survived because we were better than all the others.

This competitive exclusionary thinking lets us believe that where species share similar traits and live in the same environment, that they must compete for the same resources until one is driven to extinction. The paradox of the plankton tells us otherwise. In plankton, aquatic biologists see different species coexisting. They live in the same environment, consume the same resources and yet are not fighting for survival by trying to exterminate each other. They coexist.

The idea of coexistence doesn’t compete with the idea of competition, it encapsulates it. Coexistence relies on competition as one force, but for every drive to compete there are stabilizing mechanisms that allow species to continue to live without having to fight against extinction. Different trees coexist in the same environment because they grow to different heights, spread roots in different ways, rely on different animals to spread their seeds. Different species of mosquito lay their eggs in different places. Different species of butterfly select different plants to feed on to reduce competition, which is why there are over seventeen thousand species around the world. If competitor always led to a single winning species we wouldn’t see the 8.7 million species of plants and animals that currently exist. Environments benefit from diversity. Evolution relies on it.

Why is this important for us to know? After all, there’s nothing we can do about how species evolve. It’s important because it of the story it tells us about how change happens. If we believe the story of evolution, the greatest example of change ever, as being about one thing replacing another, and that the thing doing the replacing is better, we only see one side of how change plays out. The more we accept this story, the more we miss out on the story of coexistence that is going on at the same time. What we learn about change from the complexity of evolution we can apply to what we know in other arenas and areas of our lives. We don’t have to accept the story of conflict over cooperation, of competition over coexistence, but in fact most of us do.

When calls to ‘Smash The Patriarchy’ ring out in challenge of the dominant social, political, cultural, and economic thoughts that value the idea of hegemonic, toxic masculinity, our intuited tendency would be to agree wholeheartedly. But what comes next? If one dominant idea is removed only to be replaced by another dominant idea, then what have we accomplished? We’ve taken one group of people who dominated others and given their position and power to a different group, who now also dominant others. If the competitive evolutionary thinking that created the patriarchy remains even after the patriarchy is dismantled, then something resembling the same pattern will emerge again.

We can’t build an inclusive society by applying that kind of competitive thinking, by saying that some ways of thinking, being or doing aren’t allowed. That’s exclusionary. What makes democracy so successful as a philosophical and ideological stance, even if our political implementation is lacking, is that it allows all other philosophies and ideologies to exist. It encapsulates them, just as coexistence encapsulates competition. We may find fascism abhorrent but as a democratic society we cannot set out to destroy it, for that would be undemocratic. We have to find ways for all philosophies and ideologies to coexist, and for there to be competing and stabilizing mechanisms that prevent any one from becoming dominant.

If all those millions of species can coexist, then maybe all of our ideologies can too, and we can build a society that is inclusive for everyone.