It is an undeniable fact that the success in terms of survival of any individual is wholly dependent on the success of the species of which it is a part. This is especially evident in the case of the antechinus. This very excitable but unfortunate Australian marsupial, in fact, mates itself to death. At maturity, one year of age, it becomes obsessed with sex. It stops eating and sleeping and does nothing but sleep around with as many partners as he can. The male loses most of his vital proteins and shuts down his immune system to generate the metabolic energy for his heroic sexual marathon. He exhausts himself so thoroughly that he starts to physically disintegrate. His fur falls off, he bleeds internally and without a functioning immune system invites infection and becomes riddled with gangrene. Within a few weeks of non-stop debauchery, he is dead. His dedication to the survival of his species is unbeaten in the animal kingdom.
I recently attended a funeral of a young girl in Nias, an island to the south of Sumatra, Indonesia. I was invited as a member of their community, by her father. I had been living there intermittently in my bus for a few months by that time. It was not like any funeral I’d ever known in Australia, my birthplace. The full day of ceremony, feast and celebration was attended by not only the family and the people from her village, but neighboring villages as well. The character of the funerals, the generosity of the villagers and their devotion to their human community got me thinking. I wondered about how we, say in Australia for example, think about our communities and further, about our species. That’s how I came across that selfless, furry little sex god, the antechinus – his devotion to species. I wondered about the behavioral traits and other qualities that we value that lend themselves to success and to the survival as a community or species?
The definition of success
How we define success seems like a good place to start. I like the Webster’s English Dictionary definition of success because within its 2 explanations we are given not only the meaning of the word, but some clues about its changing nature. It defines success as ‘having the correct or desired result’ and ‘having gotten or achieved wealth, respect, fame’. The two definitions are so dissimilar they could be referring to completely different words. But if I venture beyond the print and look into history I can see that many moons ago they both faithfully described the same thing. Further, if I take the subject of life and reproduction, since I am on it anyway, the applied definition of success over the course of history becomes very interesting indeed.
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The first definition, ‘having the correct or desired result’ seems to be a straightforward definition, one that if I apply across many different contexts and throughout the history of life, still seems to ring true. Be it life on earth in general, the many species or communities of a species on earth, individual creatures or even at the level of microscopic male reproductive cells, spermatozoon, this definition is consistent with survival.
The process of reproduction in most mammals involves a winner-take-all swimming competition for around 100 million sperm cells racing towards the coveted and sometimes singular female egg. Amongst fellow sperms he who is praised as the victor, the solitary strongest and most gifted one-time swimmer is considered a success. It is his roughly 750 Megabytes of DNA data that merges in the soup of creation with the data of his prized egg to form the basis of new life – “the desired result”. Interestingly, as the average human ejaculate is comprised of about 180 million sperm cells, it can carry about 13,500 Terabytes of data – comparable to the hard disk space of 135,000 laptops of the type I am writing on now. I wonder if I should get ahead of the Silicon Valley boffins and patent ejaculate-based storage media?
Not only at this microscopic level, where amongst his peers the victorious sperm cell is considered a success, but reproduction, the event itself, is considered successful. And then, the individual male creature that delivered his payload to his female counterpart is considered a success amongst fellow herd, mob or clansmen. It is his genes that perpetuate life. And as the most aquatically able sperm, from the fittest male, creates life together with the most desirable female(s), the species itself, according to Darwin’s survival of the fittest, achieves “the desired result”. The community and the species survives and evolves with the incremental advantages that the champion sperm and those complicit creatures bring to this lascivious act.
PHOTO CREDIT: TBIT/ Pixabay
This definition of success I find hard to fault. Success and having achieved the desired result mean the same thing, in this case survival. This holds whether referring to the sperm and egg, the individual creature, the community and the species. Success (and the desired result) may well be achieved by acting out of self-interest, consciously or unconsciously, but undoubtedly also instinctively in order to perpetuate the species. This priority of species over individual makes sense, for the former can survive without the latter, but not vice versa. The end, even for the sex-crazed antechinus, justifies the means.
Wealth, respect and fame
The second definition is more subjective and human-centric. And it’s more contentious as its meaning and recent application has evolved from a time when a very different set of circumstances were in place and its validity could be understood. Is ‘having gotten or achieved wealth, respect, fame’ a valid definition of success today though? Are those characteristics conducive to survival? Or did this second definition of success take a wrong turn somewhere back in history? We need to roll back the clock to see what happened here.
The hominoids back in Neolithic times got along just as every other animal did and evolved according to the rules of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Accidental, advantageous traits that bolstered one individual’s ability to survive over another would result in reproductive success for that animal and through the perpetuation of his and her genes, evolution, and a greater chance of success for the species. I can see lineage between these prehistoric competitive traits, drawn into existence because of the threat of non-survival, back then, and our modern-day behavioral traits which support wealth, respect and fame. For instance, having gotten wealth derived from displaying an ability to provide. Respect has early beginnings in a male seeking acceptance of his dominance within a tribe perhaps. And fame, I suspect evolved out of the need for attention; attracting a mate. The modern definition evolved from competitive qualities once required for reproduction, evolution and survival. Competitive, individualistic behavior and qualities, observed as resulting in success of the individual and the species was then perpetuated, and so it goes.
What if survival was assured?
Fast forward to today’s version of man. Is competitive survival of the fittest behavior still relevant for human beings’ survival? Is it still improving our chances in the long run? This is where it gets a bit tricky. I would venture that up until a certain point in our evolutionary history, being a faster, stronger, smarter and generally more competitive hominoid meant that you probably had a better chance of attracting a mate and reproducing. This then would have improved the gene pool in those characteristics and improved the survival chances of the species.
Photo Credit: R McGuire/ Gratisography
But what if during our evolution, we reached a point in our development where as a species, we had developed sufficient mastery over other beasts and dominion over the natural world that long-term survival was no longer in question? Individuals struggling to survive because of inequitable wealth distribution and wars aside, at some point in our relatively recent past, as a species we did reach this point.
But the recent incarnations of these competitive behavioral traits continued to develop after the imperative of survival had left us. These days, it is so acceptable and even expected to display competitive, individualistic behavior as a means for success, that they have made their way into the Webster’s English dictionary as its definition. Chasing wealth, which I interpret in this definition to mean monetary wealth is a central tenet of our modern societies. This seemingly pointless pursuit of wealth increasingly leverages both human and natural resources. And as it is primarily an individual endeavor his separation from both his fellow humans and the natural world continues to become more pronounced. This being apart, as against a part of the human communities and the natural world has made it easy for this leverage to go from use, to abuse and even exploitation of these resources as he seeks individual success, not mindful of the success of the species.
The success of an individual depends on the success of the species and the species needs somewhere habitable to live. Even after survival became assured, with a relatively small global population, chasing wealth at the expense of nature was not a big deal. But we have grown in number and our ability to adversely affect our habitat. Environmental destruction and habitat loss is no news flash, but as it is the first time in our evolutionary history that it has been possible to totally annihilate our own habitat, I can understand how we have ignored the threat. With indefinite growth of our populations and economies, environmental depletion will only get worse. But here is the ultimate irony. Those same individual traits that were once beneficial for survival as a species, these ‘means’, unabated have become a means to a very different end, the end of our species. We will then join the ninety percent of all species that have ever lived, as per the fossil record, in extinction.
PHOTO CREDIT: R McGuire / Gratisography
Evolving for success
Man is unique though, in that more than any other animal, he can make conscious choices that effect his survival. For success, he will have to take evolutionary steps towards co-operation rather than competition with each other and with nature. The species needs to rank higher than the individual. The idea of being individual and apart from other members of the species and apart from nature, as against a part of it is based on false foundations because the individual needs the species just as all species are integrated and dependent on nature. Even at the individual level this separation underpins much unhappiness and poor health, so all round it’s hardly what I would call a successful policy.
We have been living in a way that falsely underpins our survival as a species since the day so many moons ago when survival had been assured. We need to redefine the concept of success so that it does not exclude the survival of the individual, the species or the living planet.
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