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Examining cooperation in nature: Q&A with author Kristin Ohlson

A flower and a bee

Flowers and bees share one of the most well-known mutualistic relationships in nature. Image by Ralphs_Fotos via Pixabay (Public domain).

  • In her new book, “Sweet in Tooth and Claw: Stories of Generosity and Cooperation in the Natural World,” author Kristin Ohlson explores the science behind collaboration in nature.
  • Her work examines research revealing that cooperation between species, and not just competition, contributes to the development and diversification of life.
  • Mongabay spoke with Ohlson prior to the book’s publication.

“Nature, red in tooth and claw.” According to Alfred Tennyson’s poem, “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” that line describes “Creation’s final law.” Scholars say it captures the sometimes ruthless nature of … well, nature. Tennyson’s assessment of existence is that survival is driven by competition, where the scrappy and the clever and the strong are the winners. The species that can’t muster the ability to grab what they need, using tooth and claw if necessary, fall by the wayside.

Indeed, economists like Thomas Malthus saw the value of human struggle in driving progress. One can draw a line from that thinking to Charles Darwin and his On the Origin of Species, in which the power of that struggle instigates the development and differentiation of life on Earth.

Darwin’s theory of evolution is an example of “how science can reflect the ideas of the time,” says author Kristin Ohlson.

Ohlson turns that idea on its head, seeking out instead the collaborative elements of existence in her new book, Sweet in Tooth and Claw: Stories of Generosity and Cooperation in the Natural World, published Sept. 6 by Patagonia. In the present time, science has begun to illuminate the myriad connections and bonds that different forms of life have with each other and how critical they are to survival. It’s cooperation that’s responsible for the interlinkages of species firing off signals to each other in an otherwise quiet forest. Such mutually beneficial relationships are also responsible for the emergence of complex, eukaryotic cells, without which multicellular organisms wouldn’t exist, she writes.

Through her visits with scientists, government officials and ranchers, Ohlson finds a metaphor in these partnerships for how we humans view our relationship with other lifeforms — and each other. Perhaps following the example of the species around us and the way they work together could help us tackle vexing problems such as biodiversity loss and the changing climate, she muses.

Kristin Ohlson, author of Sweet in Tooth and Claw: Stories of Generosity and Cooperation in the Natural World. Images courtesy of Kristin Beadle (left) and Patagonia (right).

Mongabay’s John Cannon spoke with Ohlson in August about the origins of the book and what she learned from writing it. This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: What prompted you to write this book? How did it get started?

Kristin Ohlson: I had written this other book called The Soil Will Save Us, and I got to meet all these scientists and farmers and ranchers who were trying to come up with an agriculture that actually heals landscapes. That was, of course, really exciting. One of the things that was so exciting for me about that book was understanding that plants have this relationship with the microorganisms in the soil. I didn’t know that before. The official line that gets pumped out from industrial agriculture [companies] is that plants are just takers. They’re just sucking up all the goodness out of the soil, all the nutrients and minerals, and that’s why you need to keep buying their products to replenish those nutrients and minerals. But as it turns out, plants are givers as well as takers. That mutualistic relationship that plants have with the bacteria and the fungi and the protozoa and the little animals, that whole soil community, was one of the most exciting realizations from that book. So I wanted to build upon that.

Then, I went to a conference where Suzanne Simard was speaking. She was talking about her incredible research into how trees are connected by this underground network of fungi that ferry water and nutrients and chemical messages all through the forest, helping the forest at large be a resilient ecosystem. I sort of levitated in my seat and thought, oh, cooperation in nature. That’s what I want to write about.

Mongabay: Do you think science is moving in the direction of greater recognition of the importance of cooperation, as opposed to competition, in nature?

Kristin Ohlson: It’s hard for me to be the one to say that we’re moving in that direction. [Ecologist] Judith Bronstein [edited] the standard text now on the standard, authoritative text on mutualism. I think she would probably say that research and perspective are growing. Unfortunately, one of the things that we all struggle with is that science has to be funded. Who’s funding science? It’s not the scientist. The funding is not [aimed] at understanding nature and helping humans adapt and work with nature. It’s usually science that ultimately will fund products to have us hack nature. So who funds science is a big roadblock.

I do think that probably more of this science is growing. I mean, people around the world are talking about [Simard’s] work. It’s almost like magic, in a way, right? We look at a forest, and there’s all this stuff going on there. And we have no clue because we can’t see with just our eyes. There are these powerful connections going on among living things.

Trees and plants have mutualistic relationships with the microorganisms in the soil. Image by jplenio via Pixabay (Public domain).

Mongabay: Why do you think there’s been so much emphasis on competition, the “tooth and claw,” in nature?

Kristin Ohlson: I think competition and conflict are naturally more interesting to us. We couldn’t have thrived as living things for as long as we have without having an instinct to be on the lookout for danger. I think that’s a big part of it. We naturally give our attention to things that seem threatening. We tend not to understand that cooperation is kind of the default. We have massive cities [that] couldn’t function without massive amounts of cooperation at every level. But we’re only drawn to where that cooperation breaks down, where there’s a gunfight or a robbery, or a building falling down.

It’s the same way with our bodies [that are] built from special cells that were created by a mutualistic bond between ancient microorganisms. We are built from the floor up by these elements of cooperation. All these cells cooperate within our body, and the cells cooperate to form organs, and those organs cooperate with each other. We don’t notice that because that’s just the backdrop. We [only] notice when that cooperation breaks down. One of the scientists I interviewed talks about cancer as being a failure of cooperation.

Mongabay: In the book, you cover the discussion around competition and cooperation in nature and how it stretches back in history.

Kristin Ohlson: What really stands out for me is how much culture affects science and how much science affects culture. The ideas that we live with now mostly stem from Darwin and his colleagues. I was interested to find out that Darwin, as he developed the theory of evolution, was a product of the ideas of his time. Maybe just in the Western world, we have the idea of the lone genius, the person who just figures it all out all by himself or herself. But no, he was very much influenced by the ideas of Thomas Malthus, who was a wealthy pastor who argued that human reproduction would always outstrip resources and that the struggle over those resources and even death were good for society. When Darwin was casting around for a theory to make sense of all these observations he had made about the great diversity of life around us and the fossil records showing that there were life forms that no longer exist, he read Malthus and his ideas about progress through struggle. The thing that really stood out for me was how science can reflect the ideas of the time.

When I was researching, it took me a while to understand that what I was looking for was scientists studying mutually beneficial relationships between species. I found [ecologist Douglas] Boucher’s book about mutualism back in the mid-’80s. At the very beginning of his book, he said that, for a long time, mutualism had been sort of dismissed and wasn’t an active area of study, but that was really changing, and there was a big return to that. I thought, wait a minute. What happened to that big return?

A leaf fossil. Darwin, as he developed the theory of evolution, was interested in fossil records of extinct species. Scientists were studying mutually beneficial relationships between species and coevolution. Image by Scott Hart via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Mongabay: Did Boucher’s book help lay the foundation for grappling with these concepts? You also mention biologist Lynn Margulis and her work on the origins of life and how it has diversified.

Kristin Ohlson: It laid some foundation. [Margulis] was castigated for years for her ideas that we are formed from this union between two microorganisms, and that’s how our eukaryotic cells developed, and that those cells were able to form relationships with other cells, and then all the diversity of life that followed. [Margulis] was tough. She really persisted in pushing those ideas even though the culture of science was pushing back pretty hard.

Mongabay: How might our understanding of cooperation in the natural world inform our responses to these crises like climate change and the extinction of species?

Kristin Ohlson: One of the things that’s important to realize is that we are part of the natural world. We have separated ourselves philosophically from the rest of nature, but that is a fool’s errand. We are part of the rest of nature, and we are, in fact, healthier, and our capabilities are enhanced when we have a connection with the natural world. What I hope people come away [from the book] with is realizing that we have to cooperate with the rest of nature instead of just saying we’re humans, and it’s a shame that other species can’t make it while we thrive.

I wrote in the book about that stream in Oregon, where, back in 1957, somebody put a random stream through a culvert because they wanted to put a road over the top of it. And it turned out that the culvert completely disrupted salmon migration up that stream. The culvert was too high, and also, the water coming through the culvert came down at such an angle that it scoured the bottom of the creek and ruined the salmon spawning habitat on that side of the culvert. For 62 years, this culvert had prevented salmon and also Pacific lamprey from migrating up [the stream].

People could have said, what a shame, but we need that road, so we’re not going to change anything. But no. People studied exactly why this culvert was preventing that migration, and they changed it a couple of years ago. There’s a culvert now that the salmon and lamprey can move up. I think it’s 16 or 17 miles [26-27 kilometers] of the stream above that old culvert where there are now salmon and lamprey. In that case, people were saying, OK, we can have both. We can have the road, and we can have the salmon migration if we just figure out what the particulars are. It’s not only a boon for the salmon and the lamprey — they’re getting more and really nice habitat — but [also for] all the creatures that feast upon the salmon and the lamprey. Then, as I found when I was doing the chapter about Suzanne Simard’s work, those salmon carcasses that those creatures take out of the river and eat part of and drop in the forests deliver a very specific form of nitrogen essential to forests flourishing.

Salmon and trout migration upstream. Image by Brandon via Unsplash (Public domain).

Mongabay: Can you talk about the cooperative efforts of farmers and ranchers in Nevada working with scientists to restore wetlands in the U.S. state of Nevada?

Kristin Ohlson: That didn’t start as an effort to rebuild wetlands in Nevada. It started with scientists and government agencies wanting to improve streams so that this one local trout could survive. To improve those local streams, they had to get some ranchers to change the way their cattle were managed. That part of the United States is an area where there’s been huge friction between ranchers and government agencies and scientists for years. I think ranchers in that area generally felt under attack by a range of people who say that cattle ranching ruins landscapes, that [beef] is bad to eat.

Yet they are people who love the landscape, love the land [and] want to live in a thriving ecosystem. But it was hard for them to change their ways when these scientists and government agencies first got in touch with them. But they did start to make some changes in the way that they managed their cattle, mostly in terms of how much time the cattle could spend by these creeks. It was a not-insignificant change for the ranchers because it meant more work for them.

[But with] this small change of how they were managing their cattle, nature started to fill in those degraded sides of the creeks. That’s one of the things that I just loved about that story was that nature was ready with seeds that were already in the soil or that drifted in on the wind or that came from the animals that came to drink there. Vegetation started growing around the streams, and the ranchers were cheered somewhat by that.

Then, the beaver came in and just completely changed this landscape. The before-and-after pictures are just stunning. In the past, you see these same creeks that are just narrow and dry on all sides. [Today, there is] a completely different ecosystem coming up with all this riparian vegetation and big ponds that the beavers had built, which is bringing in wildlife, the actual water table around the creek started to change. It was just such an inspiring story, not only [of] the land changing, but of the relationship among the ranchers and the scientists and the government agency people changing. They all felt like it was such a triumph, even though they all had to change a little bit.

A creek in Nevada, U.S. Ranchers in Nevada worked with scientists and government agencies to restore their landscape. Image by James Marvin Phelps via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Mongabay: It is a really fascinating case. What other stories from the book stand out to you?

Kristin Ohlson: I just loved all the stories, and I loved doing the research. One of the stories that I just loved [and that] really became a kind of a guiding metaphor for me is at the end of the first chapter. I was talking to Katie McMahen, who was a colleague of Suzanne Simard and who is starting some new research to try to regenerate a landscape in Canada that had been ruined by a mine tailings [dam] flood. One of the things [McMahen] was doing was taking soil from the forest nearby that hadn’t been ruined and putting handfuls [in the holes where] she was planting these new little trees out in this ruined landscape. She said, it’s ecosystem memories and legacies. It’s little bits of DNA, it’s seeds, it’s little bits of fungi, fungal spores, bacterial spores, all these things that were part of that vibrant forest ecosystem, and we’re borrowing it to start new life there. I just love that idea — that, even in really degraded landscapes, there are probably still some ecosystem memories and legacies. I really do like to extend that idea to the landscape of human relationships, and I believe that even now, especially in the United States, where things are so conflicted and [there is] so much political disagreement, that there are those legacies and memories that will help us evolve a more cooperative culture.

Banner image: Flowers and bees share one of the most well-known mutualistic relationships in nature. Image by Ralphs_Fotos via Pixabay (Public domain).

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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