Symbiosis in LO LO11270

Jacqueline Mullen (
Wed, 4 Dec 1996 22:38:08 GMT

In LO11219 Thomas Benjamin said...

>In nature, symbiosis is one of the several mechanisms that seem to keep
>the ecosystem in balance. Naturalists and biologists have added
>considerable knowledge to help us understand how the ecosystem is kept in
>a balance. I think there is much that we can learn from this principle to
>help us design organisations. I agree with the views expressed here that
>suggest, the three types of symbiosis mutual, comensal and parasitical
>require an environment that connects and links the different types to make
>the concept meaningful in an organisational context.
>The concept is worth pondering over to gain valuable insights. For
>instance, in nature, it is designed that some are parasitical while others
>are mutual. In the long run they keep the ecosystem in place. Nature does
>not assign a value to this behaviour.

I agree. The metaphor of an economy and its agents as an
ecosystem is a rich one, in my opinion. (Not as good as a human-centered
one, but we can't have everything!) The complex inter-relationships
between mutual, comensal, and parasitical symbiosis engaged in the wild
and woolly dance of systemic integrity. Therefore, I confess, I too would
be skeptical of a desire to rank certain symbiotic relationships within a
biosystem as "better" than others, perhaps more "moral". Each seems to
serve its function in maintaining the system in dynamic equilibrium.

>However, in human relationship, we
>find paracitical transactions undesirable. On face value, yes, it is
>undesirable. On the other hand I wonder if it is more appropriate to
>consider in human systems, expected behaviour as a more realistic way of
>defining the nature of symbiosis. For instance, an invalid relative or
>colleague may be in a paracitical relationship, but is that not expected?
>Isn't it the role of the host to give till it hurts?

Here we do get into a bit of a mess, don't we? Yes, I agree, even
on a more intimate, micro-level of human relationship, if we really wanted
to, we could consider "Grannie, sorry luv, you've become parasitic." But,
I ask myself, why bother? With all the interesting metaphors out there to
structure relationships, what would chosing symbiosis as a metaphor in
this case serve? Would labeling some relationships as parasitic help in
any way? Would this actually aid introspection?? The problem is, in these
days of rampant reification, such a metaphor might well highlight the more
easily identifiable physical or economic aspects of the relationship,
while hiding all those wonderfully intricate non-tangibles involved in our
relationship with dear old grannie, making it so mutually vital. How
about things like unconditional love, warmth and wisdom, a sense of
connection with our roots, our family and history, or how about inklings
into our own experiences as aspects of ourselves are mirrored in familiar
familial rituals, their meanings passed down through the generations? Of
course, grannie might be an irritable old cuss, however, there still is
quite a danger in these linear, tangible times of overlooking the value of
the inevitable ineffable, ethereal side to rapports. I'm not convinced
this act of valutation helps relationships develop. Sometimes I just
don't want to know if Schroedinger's cat is dead. I trust the process of
unfolding potentials.

In the end, I'm inclined to think that the metaphor of symbiosis
applied to human systems, particularly at the micro-level, is rather
constricting, so I wear it uncomfortably. It seems reductive and somewhat
insulting. It is taking a metaphor of a "complex adaptive system" and
applying it to a "complex evolving system", where there is learning,
relationships generated, structures changed and choices made. I prefer
these metaphors to be fun.


Jackie Mullen

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