Saturday, February 6, 2010

Symbiosis and Spirituality--Selfishness vs. Selflessness

What defines selfless behavior?
What defines selfish behavior?

I'd like to ask you to think about these questions while considering the below examples of symbiotic relationships.  Are the various characters with the relationship selfish in trying to take something from the relationship or selfless in their giving and caring for the other party.

  • There are a myriad of species on the reef that act as cleaners.  The set up shop on a particular coral out cropping often displaying their 'open' sign with particular stripes or coloration.  Who do they clean?  They clean predators many times their size.  Predators that could very, very easily consume them since they cleaners often focus on the area most prone to parasites--the mouth.  Why don't they, then?  A mutual dependance, an interlocking mutuality.  <>
  • A near blind shrimp is good at digging a hole and a goby fish with massive eyes needs a home.  Bingo, presto, a match made in proverbial heaven.  I am particularly fond of this symbiotic relationship since I've watched it for a good number of hours.  It's amazing to see the constant contact of fin to antennae that is used to communicate the slightest threat.
  • Just watch this one--aphid and ants.  Let me just say how fascinated I am with ant cooperation--honey pot ants, weaver ants, leaf cutter (more to come there), their structure of roles and function as guard, harvester, queen attendant, etc., etc.  They will work with anything to survive.
  • Leaf Cutter Ants and Fungi.  This is effing brilliant because it's a tri-level symbiosis.  I've also heard that they have a special pouch for fungal transportation.  How awesome is that?
  • So worth watching.  Honey badger and Honey Guide bird--also known as Indicator indicator.
  • I include this one just cuz it's cool.  Fish and bioluminesence.
  • Other honorable mentions:
    • The classic sea anemone/clownfish relationship.
    • Coral/nudibranchs/giant clams using zooxanthellae to photosynthesize.
    • Lichens--the stuff that grows on trees and rocks are fungi and algae living together.
    • Vampire bat live symbiotically (loose definition) using reciprical altruism and exchanging blood that they've acquired that night. So, on tough nights one guy will help out another.  And the next night vice versa.  If the favor is not recipricated then there is an advanced system of shunning and remembering who owes who.
    • Terrestrial plants--90% live with mycorrhizae fungi to fix nitrogen.  You know how when you buy fertilizer it has numbers like: 10-10-10?  Those are three essential compounds--nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.  Nitrogen is an essential plant growth component, but the problem is that they can't make it and it isn't very naturally occurring in a usable form (since it's so stable and nonreactive).  Solution?  Have other organisms help you out and give them something in exchange--nutrients and a safe environment!!
    • Endophytes--awesome because we know so bloody little about them.  They are bacteria/fungus that live in every plant every studied, but for largely unknown reasons.  Some fungal endophytes have beneficial effects on the trees in which they live. They can enhance the trees' protection against disease and leaf-eating insects. For example, a fungal endophyte makes white spruce needles less appetizing to the spruce budworm. Furthermore, fungal endophytes (Microshaeropsis arundinis) are the only known potential biological control agent for white pine blister rust.
    • Oophila amblystomatis, commonly known as chlamydomonad algae or salamander algae, is a species of single-celled alga. The Latin specific name means "loves salamander eggs". It does not occur anywhere in nature other than in the eggs of a few amphibians, such as those of the spotted salamander, Ambystoma maculatum. The alga can invade and grow within an egg's jelly. Once inside, it metabolizes the carbon dioxide produced by the embryo and provides it with oxygen as a result of photosynthesis
    •  Siboglinid tube worm--They are the only known animals that, as adults, completely lack a mouth, gut and anus. They feed primarily on symbiotic hydrogen sulfide- or methane-oxidizing bacteria living in an internal organ, the trophosome. One gram of trophosome tissue can contain one billion bacteria. It is not completely understood how the worms instigate their relationship with the bacteria. One theory is that the very young worm has a vent on its body permitting the entry of the bacteria from the water
    • Arabian Babblers--have a host of seemingly altruistic behavior.  Males vie for sentinel positions which have the inherent danger of extra exposure to predators.  They also will share food with non-relatives, communally tending nests and taking care their young.  Why?  As a fitness indicator.  The babbler males are basically saying, "Hey, check me out.  I'm so healthy, my genes are so great that I have awesome vision, speed and agility that I can get away from predators.  My genes are so great that I can actually gather food not only for myself and my kids, but I have left overs for yours!"  Fascinating!  Think how that line of thinking could role over into humanity!
    • Back to the selfishness discussion.  So, are the above examples of selfishness since they are working for their own benefit, or is it that they're selfless in their generosity and altruism?  Well, what I'd like for you to see is how unhelpful those terms really are.  Consider this quote.
      "All men seek happiness.  This is without exception.  Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end.  The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views.  The [volitional] will never takes the least step but to this object.  This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves."  Blaise Pascal
      Blaise is saying that all behavior is selfish--it all is seeking happiness.  Perhaps not well.  Perhaps with incredibly flawed logic, but nevertheless every human ever, including Jesus, Ghandi and Mother Theresa all were selfish and behaving in a way that they thought would maximize their own pleasure.
      Consider an example of a heist.  An armed robber points a gun at your face and says, "Give me all your money!!"  It may seem that you have no choice, but you do and it is always toward the end that you think, in that moment, will bring you the most pleasure.  E.g., you think that money and death will bring you more pleasure than life with no money.  
      All behavior has motivations.  All motivations are inherently selfish in some respect.
      Another example:  
      Is it selfless to donate to charities?  No.  
      Is it selfless or selfish to donate for tax benefits?  Ya, probably.  
      Is it selfish to donate to impress those around you when the 'plate' is passed?  Ya, I'd say so.
      What about to avoid guilt?  Hmm...
      What about for the self satisfaction of knowing you did the right thing?  Hmm...
      What about to honor another's memory or wishes?  Hmmm...
      What about to enjoy another's enjoyment, take pleasure in another's pleasure?  Hmmm...
      The correct answer to the above is that, yes, they all are selfish, but we may not normally think in that respect simply because selfishness can have a selfless side.
      Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations wrote, "By pursuing his own interest he [, man,] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it."
      I think it is much more helpful to think in terms of:
        • Benevolent selfishness--symbiotic.  win-win scenario.  Seeks one's own betterment through the bettering of others.  Keeps the freedom of the other party intact.
        • Malevolent selfishness--parasitic/predatory. win-lose scenario.  Forceful.  Robbing.
      How is this view of selfishness helpful?
      • It allows you to consciously, intentionally use positive reinforcement to increase the likelihood of beneficial behavior in your life.  Meaning, if you can focus on and enjoy the internal mechanisms that made you feel good when you do the right thing then you are more likely to behave that way again next time.  If your wife wants you to take out the trash then it might be smart to feel gratified when you've honored her wishes and acted responsibly, etc.
      • It also makes you more conscious and intentional about higher forms of enjoyment--like fulfillment as opposed to carnal pleasure.  Life really can be about trading lesser pleasures for greater ones.  Example:  I can give food to the hungry and receive fulfillment instead.  Life isn't about self-denial and asceticism.  It's about gaining the highest forms of pleasure--which also involves improving others lives.  That's symbiosis.  That's what the great saints of the world intuitively already knew.

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