The Democracy of Living Things

For most people, it comes naturally to view the range of all living things in a hierarchy of one kind or another. Humans are “higher”; among animals, the big (whales) and the cute (dogs) rank above the small and ugly (insects); plants are disposable and/or edible; bacteria are bad unless proven otherwise. Big fish eat little fish. The struggle to survive goes to the “strongest” (the common misinterpretation of fittest).

Such distinctions have their purposes, but they seem to minimize what we all have in common. I suggest as a corrective lens that we occasionally savor the view of the living world as a Democracy of Living Things. You and I are citizens, and so are every crow, dandelion, rat, spider, mushroom, flounder, and elephant. We all share the challenges of starting our lives, surviving, and reproducing. We all struggle and rest and flourish, though some of us experience those conditions more consciously than others. In light of the differences among us all, such common ground is narrow but deep.

Our Democracy operates under no formal political or legal safeguards, yet it remains reasonably democratic in that all its residents participate in the pursuit of their lives and in the local labors of their species. True, there are pecking orders, leaders and followers, hunters and hunted, and queens, soldiers and workers. But there are few tyrants wresting power from others and killing in order to cling to that power.

All members of this democracy are endowed with certain entitlements. Having been created in the first place, they are entitled to live at least briefly, to struggle in their pursuit of thriving, and to take their chances in the lottery of who will be spared in disasters such as earthquakes that are fully beyond anyone’s control.

Still, most people can’t help but see other living things—including some of their own species—as fundamentally different from them, as less nuanced, less valuable. Our intelligence serves our ego that strongly. Perhaps the idea of a Democracy of Living Things can encourage a more vivid acknowledgement of each individual organism.

Look around. We are all alive here, in the Democracy of Living Things.

6 thoughts on “The Democracy of Living Things

  1. Interesting perspective. To continue your thoughts, I would say that ultimately democracies rid themselves of tyrants, and it will not be a real long time from now that the human tyrants are eliminated.


  2. If we don’t think this way my guess is we will collapse into the abyss left by the species we have chauvinistically or mindlessly eliminated. As coral reefs give their last gasp and phytoplankton die off civilisation as we know it will crash into a desolate heap. As the Buddhists have taught we are all co- dependent arising. This interdependence enriches our living world. Instead of a hierarchy of better or less than , we have the where withall to embrace your marvelous democracy of all living things. Life feeds on life. Indigenous people thanked their prey for giving up their existence to sustain them. Today the mass industrial food trough separates us from the living environments and creatures that fill our gullets. Origins are lost. Consumption is an end in itself.
    Perhaps as the world turns to neo fascism and militarization we may grab for
    our “ just deserts” with a greater, more desperate fanaticism. Hoarding stocks
    Will set off wars and famines. As Nigel Collar said recently- hope is useless. We must feel the beauty of life. We must be brought to tears. Only then can our love of life seek to save it. ( Nigel is a leader in saving birds from extinction- currently a skylark in sw Ethiopia.) Thank you Brock for reminding us that democracy in all its forms and revelations is our only- dare I say- chance.


  3. Mark, thanks. A dismal but vivid vision. The possibility of repeated wars over food and water sources is chilling–and seems close. Global migration miseries may be foreshadows. But outside the human sphere, who knows what life forms may spring up, in the way that living things insist on doing. By then, though, you and I will have been “voted out.”
    Thanks you for the fullness of your description.


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