One of the most common phenomena in nature is the (co)evolution into
a new niche, a new micro-environment for a particular life form. In
any given instance, niche-creation may arise from competition (the
organism gets squeezed out of its familiar niche by a more successful
organism into a new microenvironment, into which it then evolves or
modifies to fit better) or cooperation (an organism forms a new
symbiotic relationship with another organism, such as birds which eat
food from the teeth of large mammals, whose mouths become a new
niche). But actual evolution into -- and functioning and persisting
in -- a new niche is intrinsically neither cooperative or
competitive. It is a unique form of organism/environment interaction
distinct from both. I have a feeling it is one of a broader spectrum
of interactions beyond competition and cooperation which have been
overshadowed by human obsessions with (and debate about) competition
vs cooperation in nature.
I was drawn into looking at this evolutionary dynamic by a conscious
application of it shared with me by my daughter Jennifer. Community
supported agriculture (CSA) involves community members buying shares
of a farm's crops for a season and then being provided with their
portion of the harvest during that season. Jennifer is joining both
a summer CSA and a winter CSA -- in Vermont. Given that Vermont is
frozen pretty thoroughly in the winter, I asked her what a winter CSA
was. She said it was a farm that grew food in the summer and then
canned and otherwise preserved it and offered it to the community in
the winter. Members could participate in the canning and preserving.
Jennifer said that the woman who owned the farm and created this idea
did so because the farm next to her had a summer CSA and she didn't
want to compete with it, undermining it. She therefore created a
totally new niche, the winter CSA.
Jennifer also notes that this manifests in individual social life as
"finding your own place."
I see this as a manifestation of the evolutionary dynamic identified
by John Stewart and promoted by Michael Dowd, in which entities find
(or are given) ways to pursue their self-interest that support the
well-being of the larger whole they are part of. In Jennifer's
story, the conscious, value-based niche-creating farm supported its
own well-being not by competing with its neighbor farm but by
providing an additional local food source for the whole community
where none had existed before.
What is the name for this dynamic? Will "niche-creation" do?
Without a name for it, we are left with only the language of
competition and cooperation. With a name, we can consciously learn
about it, reflect on it, share it, and use it for the betterment of
society and life.
Clearly there is more going on in evolution than merely cooperation