The deadly marine wonder, the Portuguese man o’ war, resembles a jellyfish with its beautiful blue and purple ship-shaped bladder and impressive 30-foot stinging tentacles. What may at first appear to be a single organism is actually a colony of four completely different types of polyp, working together so closely that they are not able to survive apart.
In stark contrast, stories of people versus each other or people versus nature often dominate narratives in the public arena. Headlines announce wars, acts of terrorism, mass movements of refugees, and discussions about environmental degradation on a global scale. We know that people can work together in incredible ways, but it doesn't take a newspaper to show us that we often fail. Any parent is familiar with the battlegrounds that can develop so quickly when human selfishness takes over.
We are often confronted by pain and death in the living world, but there is so much to learn from the way that organisms work together. Creation groans, but we can also see evidence of beauty and harmony, from the smallest cell to the most sophisticated society. In biological terms, there is survival of the fittest, but there is also cooperation on a grand scale. We need to be aware of both these dynamics if we are to have a balanced view of God’s world, and what it can teach us about his character and purposes.
Our media may focus on death and predation in the natural world today, but this has not always been the way things are communicated. At one time, Western society celebrated the beauty and wonder of nature, seeing trees, rabbits and waterfalls through the sentimental, rose-tinted glasses of Romanticism. The English cleric Thomas Malthus’s emphasis on “struggle for existence,” in part, fueled an extreme swing-back. Society began to emphasize the “red in tooth and claw” competition for the “survival of the fittest.”
According to Jeff Schloss, a biology professor at Westmont College and senior scholar at the BioLogos Foundation, neither view—all idyllic or all strife—does justice to the wonder of creation. Today, biology is beginning to restore the balance by uncovering stories of cooperation alongside those of competition. Pain and death may endure in the living world, but tenderness and care also permeate at every level. Every animal, plant, and microbe relies on relationships of mutual dependence, support, or even sacrifice.
Martin Nowak coined the term “snuggle for existence” in his 2012 book, Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolutions, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed, in an attempt to articulate this alternate story in biology. This is not about the one-off cute stories that go viral on YouTube of apes adopting kittens. It’s part and parcel of how God’s creation operates—one of the greatest wonders of the living world. And it starts at the sub-cellular level.
Any cell more complex than a bacterium contains tiny energy factories called mitochondria that scientists believe were once a separate species. Biologists think that mitochondria used to survive alone. Meeting some larger cells, they either crawled inside or were swallowed up. However this situation came about, both parties benefited. Finding themselves in a protective environment full of nutrients, the mitochondria thrived and multiplied. The larger cells received some of the energy the mitochondria made, and in time the two became completely dependent on each other. A small circle of DNA lingers as the only memory of the mitochondria’s independence. Without the energy that our cells receive from these internal energy factories, life would be impossible.
This story of cooperation is also echoed in whole organisms. Years ago, Schloss studied lichens, where every species is a partnership between a water-holding fungus and photosynthesizing bacteria or single-celled algae. By pooling their resources, these species thrive in the hostile environment of a wind-blasted rock or tree. “These crusty co-operators don’t just endure but also help transform the environment so that a richer community flourishes,” said Schloss. “I’m blown away: After 200 years of investigation, we’ve just discovered a third partner. A yeast in the lichen’s surface may also help provide protection to the team.”
As a biologist, I understand Schloss’ enthusiasm. A video of slime mold that I saw recently had me captivated: I watched it swirling around in a petri dish, gradually rising into an elegant, contorting cone before bursting into “flower” as the spores were released. Slime mold species exist as single cells, going about their business of eating whatever nutrients they can find, safely ensconced in a rotting tree or neglected air conditioning unit. When food becomes scarce, the cells then come together, teaming up to form a fruiting body that sends off spores into areas where there might be more food available.
Cooperation is necessary across creation—even when organisms exist as independent individuals. Penguins huddle together through the Antarctic winter, moving constantly to keep warm and taking turns on the outside of the group. Meerkats live in extended families, working together to raise the young. Honeybees enact specialized roles in their hives, depending on a single female to lay all the eggs.
Schloss is convinced that the story of biology is not solely about ruthless competition. It’s also about cooperation. Molecules came together to form cells, simple cells came together to form more complex cells, complex cells came together to form organisms, organisms came together to form families, and families came together to form societies. It seems to him and many other scholars that cooperation is a creative force that has the power to produce radical developments in living organisms. It turns out that working together is an essential part of God’s good creation.
Still, Schloss thinks that competition and death in the animal world are part of that good creation, too. He points to biblical accounts of creation that reflect both cooperation and competition in the natural world. There are descriptions of God providing food suitable for carrion-eating lions and ravens—spurring on both competition and cooperative behavior like rearing young or moving in flocks and herds.
To understand and learn from the whole story of life on this planet, we need to explore both aspects of the biological world. Communities and cooperative relationships remind us that benevolence is not just prevailing, but is essential. Like the Portuguese man o’ war, God’s creation is knit together so closely that it is unable to survive apart. We are also an integral part of that creation, so perhaps we should “ask the animals” (Job 12:7), from time to time, about how we can work together?