Mutual Aid or Cut throat Competition?

Darwin, father of the theory of evolution, taught us the behavior of species. The main tenet of his theory was that when the resources for which the members of an species are competing are not sufficient, there is a fierce struggle amongst the members to outdo one another and in the end it is the strongest and fittest which emerges the winner.

This theory has many opponents not only in religious quarters but within science itself. And the issue is not satisfactorily settled.

Charles Darwin

For almost 100 years, no single person did more to promote the study of the Evolution of Cooperation than Peter Kropotkin.

His thesis is also based on thousands of observations he made while visiting through Siberian jungles and villages. Even though the resources are threadbare, but he did not find the brutal dog-eat-dog world of Darwinian competition.

Peter Kropotkin

He searched high and low—but nothing. “I failed to find, although I was eagerly looking for it,” Kropotkin wrote, “that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution.”

Instead he saw mutual aid—everywhere. “In all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes,” Kropotkin wrote, “I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution.”

And it wasn’t just in animals. The peasants in the villages he visited were constantly helping one another in their fight against the brutal environment of Siberia.

What’s more, he noted a correlation between the extent of mutual aid displayed in a peasant village and the distance of that village from the hand of government.

It was just as the anarchists had suggested. “I lost in Siberia,” he wrote, “whatever faith in state discipline I had cherished before. I was prepared to become an anarchist.”

And now another piece of research has thrown its weight with Kropotkin. Complex social behavior was considered to be unique in animals, especially humans.  Now with recent findings, we may need to extend this ability to plants. 

The old wives tale, “if you talk to your plants, they will grow better” may actually have a string of truth to it.  Except they don’t have ears to hear, they have chemical sensors in their roots, like “tongues in the earth.”

Recent studies have shown that plants seem to respond to other neighboring plants, and will alter their growth patterns accordingly.  At McMaster University, Ontario Canada, Susan Dudley and Amanda File have demonstrated that plants grown near their siblings are less competitive than when they are grown near unrelated “strangers” of the same plant. 

The response of plants to competition in their environment has been well documented.  They are known to sprout deeper roots for water and nutrients.  However, recognition of their own genetic kin has never been seen before.

In their experiment, Dudley and File grew batches of Cakile edentula (the Great Lakes Sea Rocket) together in pots of four.  Some were paired with members of the same maternal family and others were paired with unrelated families.  Considering that the plants were of the same species, the growth of their root masses were expected to be the same. 

Surprisingly, a greater mass of roots were grown when plant “strangers” were grown next to each other, while less root mass was associated with tandem plants of the same maternal line, thus indicating a sharing of resources as opposed to competing for them.  The mechanism behind plant kin recognition is still a mystery.