International Relations and the Natural World
This discussion stems from a recent Radiolab podcast on recent discoveries in ecology. Essentially, most trees are significantly reliant upon symbiotic relationships with both the trees around them and with microscopic fungi within their root systems. The most intriguing conclusions stem from the critical supportive roles trees play in the survival of surrounding trees, even with different species. Research has shown that through the massive interconnected network of roots under the ground, trees have created a local support network that is used to transport crucial minerals and nutrients to one another and send warnings of intruders. When certain trees are killed within this network, it has an overall negative effect on the group – nearby trees become more likely to contract deadly pathogens for example. An interesting anecdote – apparently trees may even loan considerable amounts of carbon to nearby trees of different species when in need, and in return be repaid in carbon in the future. A Scientific American article explains this in more detail.
Of interest to international relations, these discoveries have produced a paradigm shift in how ecologists view the overall interaction between trees. In partial contradiction to the standard view that trees are in constant competition with one another for resources such as sunlight, soil, and water, these findings paint an alternate picture of species instead cooperating extensively to improve survival. In turn, I wonder if this could lead to a similar shift in IR. The eternally dominant paradigm within IR, realism and its various forms, is modeled along Darwin’s ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ view. States, as organisms in nature, are in continual competition for scarce resources and only the strong and wise will survive. Both biology and IR grew out of the Enlightenment’s shift to empirical development rooted in observation of the natural world. Original realist theories argued that politics is essentially governed by human nature. Violent conflict was impossible to avoid because humans, like animals in the wild, were guided by instincts and mindsets geared to seize and guard success in the eternal competition for survival. As realism progressed, the anarchic system was brought in as the primary guiding force of international politics. Neorealism argues that those who do not look out for their own interests will inevitably be culled from the system, leaving only the states who do. This line of thinking follows nearly verbatim the core of Darwin’s argument, simply substitute ‘state for ‘organism’.
The constructivist deviation from realism argued that while political actors may view the interaction with other states as a competition within a zero-sum game, they do not do so because this system is externally imposed and therefore unavoidable and unalterable. Instead, conflict exists because political actors have imposed it upon themselves through their own perceptions. How states interact with one another is integrally influenced by how they perceive both each other, and the system they operate under. Just as human interaction is unavoidably tinged by our perceptions of one another (racist and sexist biases for example) and our perceptions of the system we interact under (the perceived existence or lack of the rule of law), so are interactions between states. Thus, cooperation and trust becomes very difficult to establish between states who de facto see themselves as operating within a competitive system alongside self-interested actors.
The natural world has always provided an accessible example for society looking to make sense of complex human behavior. Perceived violent competition between observable organisms in nature made violent competition between people seem more reasonable. Furthermore, people have long compared themselves to desirable organisms we see as dominant in nature. The number of leaders who have compared themselves or adopted the sigil of various carnivores greatly outnumbers more pacific possibilities. Just as these predators appear to regularly prosper and survive in the competitive environments they live in by ruthlessly taking what they want, so should individuals and states who similarly want to survive and prosper. However, historically our understanding of the natural world has always been limited by what we could observe. Until the development of the microscope and subsequent improvements, we had very little insight into interactions happening at the microscopic level between smaller organisms. In contrast, the behavior of apex predators and their large prey has always been highly visible. What if historically, the previously described cooperative behavior of trees had been observable? Wouldn’t the ability of trees to both numerically prosper and live much longer lives have appeared at least as desirable if not more so than the often short and violent lives of large predators? I would argue that merely the existence of an alternate understanding of natural interaction centered more on cooperation rather than competition could have had a significant influence on how society perceived and rationalized the violent interaction between their fellows, and the understood ability of both individuals and states to interact cooperatively and peacefully.
Following the constructivist argument, we believe what we are socialized to believe. If political actors were educated and socialized to the existence of both the competitive and cooperative aspects of the natural world around us, and in particular to the existence of ecosystems where symbiotic, cooperative behavior is critical to the survival of its residents, would we then see a gradual change in how these actors perceive both the international system and the interaction between states? Instead of inescapable competitive behavior rooted in a common acceptance of anarchy, the dominant paradigm could shift to a default need to cooperate because it is necessary for individual survival. This line of questioning certainly requires significant empirical work to determine if there is indeed a strong connection between how society perceives the natural world and how it perceives the political world. Yet the reward would be a much better understanding of how society develops political understanding, and insight into the inter-development of knowledge across the sciences, even between the typically compartmentalized natural and social sciences.