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Symbiosis and Sandy
AUTHOR
Rafe Sagarin
Rafe Sagarin
is an Associate Research Scientist in the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona and Program Manager for Oceans at Biosphere 2

No one expected that the “bromance” forged between Republican Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie and Democratic President Barack Obama in the days following the strike of Hurricane Sandy would last. We all expect that Governor Christie will go back to tough talking denunciations of Obama at the first opportune moment, and that Obama will endorse even a piece of cheese with mold forming in the shape of a donkey before he nods to Christie in the next New Jersey Gubernatorial race. Nonetheless, an alliance formed between these two former and future adversaries that was real and impactful.

Called an “October Surprise” by political pundits, these kinds of alliances are no surprise to biologists. Alliances between competitors are neither the dominant factor nor the exceptional case in nature, but rather simply notable touchstones in continual processes of alliance forming and breaking that allow life to adapt and diversify. As I discuss in my book, Learning from the Octopus, these alliances, known most broadly as symbiotic relationships, can be quite transient (as in the Christie Obama marriage) or so lasting as to blur the identities of the original individual partners. They can occur between members of the same species and between species–such as small scavenging fish and large predatory fish–that would appear to have no reason to work together.

They arise to solve challenges, not to create perfect and final solutions. The scavenger fish that symbiotically cleans parasites from the jaws of a large predator avoids getting preyed upon by that particular predator, but it has no notion that it is eliminating the problem of predation in general. The Obama Christie alliance arose because of a mutual need to get aid quickly and efficiently to a region in chaos. People can and have speculated on the associated political needs (Christie looking ahead to the next Governor’s race, or the White House in 2016; Obama needing to “look Presidential”) but there’s no doubt that the more concrete needs were driving especially Governor Christies overtures to the President. There’s also no doubt that either man had in their heads that the purpose of this alliance was to usher in a new era of bi-partisanship, where political affiliation made no difference and everyone got along.

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At the same time, the likely transience of the Obama Christie relationship shouldn’t bring us to the cynical conclusion that these partnerships can never last. Symbiotic relationships that have emerged in the most unlikely corners of human society have shown surprising resilience. My associate Terry Taylor of the International Council of Life Sciences has helped foster working relationships between Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian doctors and health ministers. They have been working together for years now to track and respond to infectious diseases no matter what side of whichever disputed territories these diseases arise upon. The key here, as in all natural symbioses, is that the practitioners are focused intently on the challenge at hand, and the challenge is more powerful—just like Hurricane Sandy—than any political argument. Moreover, these practitioners are not trying to create peace in the Middle East—they are just trying to address the challenge.

That intent and narrow focus doesn’t preclude alliances from producing additional dividends. Federal-State processes for doling out disaster aid may be improved permanently from Obama and Christie’s news-cycle-long courtship. The Middle East disease surveillance networks may one day be looked back upon as the first step on the road toward lasting peace in the Middle East. In fact “emergent properties”, or things we couldn’t expect simply by adding up the input of two organisms in partnership, often develop from an initial relationship forged out of immediate need. In other words, we make a huge mistake in chalking up these kinds of relationships to mere political games. Rather, they are the powerful force that has allowed organisms for billions of years to reach far beyond their innate capabilities to solve unexpected problems and capitalize on whole new opportunities.

Dr. Rafe Sagarin is an ecologist at the University of Arizona. A Guggenheim Fellow, his two recent books are, Learning from the Octopus (2012, Basic Books) and Observation and Ecology (2012, Island Press).

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One Comment

  1. Dave says:

    Wow. What a monstrously useless essay. This illuminates precisely nothing about the Christie-Obama episode because it ignores even the most recent history of federal responses to natural disasters. Did the Bush administration fail so badly because they did not act “symbiotically”? No.

    Who, exactly is “chalking up these kinds of relationships to mere political games”? And why should we take as given that such political realities are less meaningful than the biological metaphors you promote? Certainly we have more evidence that the actions and beliefs of other people (past or present) hold more profound relevance to contemporary people than do the behaviors of invertebrates.

    Marshall Sahlins once said that “a theory ought to be judged as much by the ignorance it demands as by the knowledge it purports to afford”. Given that you offer only the most superficial of political or biological analysis here, we should likely assume that this essay’s primary function is as a plug for your book. This does not excuse the shallowness of the argument in both. Of course we can ‘learn from the octopus’, but such explanations cannot (and should not) take priority over the historical ones, which are more empirical, rigorous, and generally less suspect.