Now to return to where this discussion began. Living entities, like automobiles, need constant refuelling to run. Competition for resources, pitting one life form against another, is the inevitable result. The most able become parents to offspring that genetically inherit their parents’ capabilities. In this way, the “exploiting” trait was strengthened as it self-selected down through the ages. The urge to exploit must by now be genetically encoded. The natural world of plants and animals is not a paradise where every living thing exists in peaceful harmony with every other living thing. It is a battleground of constant aggression, each species against all others, and within a species, one member against another. (In fact, it is precisely because species members compete against each other that species evolve into different species, as the Grant’s work with the Galápagos finches showed.) Nature only appears peaceful because we rarely notice the underlying conflict. Expansion and conquest take place slowly, as with plants; or unnoticed, as is usually the case with insects; or hidden in the underbrush, as happens mostly with birds and animals. When we eulogize the peacefulness and serenity of nature we do not recognize the irony we mouth. All species compete for territory to obtain resources. As these resources become depleted it is inevitable that this competition will become more and more intense, most particularly between members of the same or closely related species, for they eat the same types of food and prefer the same kind of habitat.
It may not be pleasant to think that life aggressively exploits its surroundings, battling with any life form that gets in its way, but that is the nature of the beast. (In fact, as Dawkins stated, animal speed, eyesight, hearing, and so on, increases precisely because they are taking part in “arms races.”)
The notion of a non-evolving, non-varying, non-exploiting, life form is non-sense. Non-exploiting life forms are dead life forms—living and exploiting are one and the same process. Further, much as we might dislike the idea that we humans exploit, we can find plenty of evidence that even the best of us live via exploiting and protecting what we have. Who does not eat? Who would not buy stock if a genuine opportunity to gain presented itself? Actions such as these ably demonstrate that we all exploit when given the opportunity. Humans may not exploit every time, and we are usually selective in what, and who, we exploit. But some people are less circumspect than others, and some of their exploiting activities cause extensive grief and trouble to many. (This is a topic to be discussed further, in Part Four, when we explore how excessive exploitation might rightly be identified and constrained.)
- Of course, if the world was awash with food and there were few inhabitants, then competition need not be aggressive. Its denizens would still be “exploiting” the resources, but they would have no need to fight each other to gain a share of what is available, and the “less-able” would possibly survive and reproduce as often as the more-capable. This peaceful situation would change as the population sizes increased however, for life does not voluntarily restrict its own procreation.
- At first glance, this statement may appear to be too sweeping. Indeed, some life forms cooperate symbiotically, and many never come in contact with one another. But, I would argue, symbiotic relationships essentially create single organisms out of two—both are needed to survive. And those who never contact each other still draw upon resources that either directly or indirectly (through growth and spreading, or the distribution of waste products [via movements in the surrounding environments]) would otherwise eventually supply energy to those at a distance.
- This suggests a direct relationship between perceived population pressure and aggressive human behaviour.
- I have searched many times for a better word than “exploit” to define what life does. Exploit is a harsh word, and conveys many negative images and feelings. But I can find no other word so descriptively accurate. (We will better understand why this is so as we continue.)
- Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 192-3.
- Lawrence and Nohria, condensing work conducted by many into one comprehensive theory, state that humans are controlled by four drives: Acquire, Bond, Learn and Defend. This is too many, in my opinion. I think that just two drives can account for the behaviour of all species—Exploit and Reproduce. The compulsion to exploit, to me, contains Lawrence and Nohria’s concepts of Acquire, Defend (what one has acquired), and much of Learn (we learn to better exploit). The urge to reproduce is equivalent to their drive to Bond.
See Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 2002).
- If it is life’s basic nature to exploit, then we would be foolish to ignore or deny this fact. Recognizing that life lives through exploiting allows us to explain much, and facilitates the correction of excesses when they occur. We do ourselves no favour by refuting the nature of reality, regardless of how unpalatable it may seem.