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.