Environmental Ethics: 2.1 Symbiosis Or Mutualism (1)

Author:  Image of S.M. JainS.M. Jain
Published: 13.02.2012
Updated: 30.07.2015

Core Principle:

The first and foremost principle for environment is symbiosis or mutualism. It is fundamental and foundation of other core principles. The environmental matrix is such that all constituents are interdependent. No one constituent including human kind and no single component in one kind of constituents e.g. a person in human society, a bird, an animal of any sort, an insect and even an atom functions in isolation. Every atom in a molecule is important for proper functioning of its all other atoms and vice-versa all other atoms are important for functioning of every single atom. In human body there are trillions of living cells. Each cell works in conformity, in cooperation with all other cells, for mutual benefit. A single errant cell causes cancer or other malfunctioning in the entire body and endangers its existence. Within a living cell there are other organelle mitochondria and others which work in conformity to enable the cell to function properly. Within each organelle in a cell there are numerous molecules and within a molecule there are atoms and within an atom are protons, neutrons, electrons and quarks, all functioning in conformity and harmony with each other. In any inanimate man-made machine also every component however small or big is important for the proper functioning of the whole machine and function of any component is dependent on all other components. The entire fabric or matrix is so intrinsically integrated that nothing happens or exists in isolation at all micro or macro levels. Mankind must learn, understand, imbibe and follow the principle of mutualism or symbiosis as it has to live in harmony for mutual benefits, with all other constituents of environment.


The principle of symbiosis or mutualism as manifest in human body or a man-made machine is true at macro levels also between man and man, animal and animals, tiniest insect and insects and interalia between man and animals and insects and all life forms. All life forms are interdependent and must function symbiotically for existence and welfare of each other. Life forms are integrated not only amongst themselves but also with all other physical constituents viz. air, water, soil, minerals and others. The boot-strap principle of Dr. Geoffrey Chew rejects singularity or isolated capability. The manifested properties of any biological or physical unit is because of presence of and cooperation of others. David Bam has also authenticated the principle of undivided whole. Even genes in living organism manifest in response to environment by their on and off mechanism. Genes communicate and cooperate with each other and synthesise required proteins symbiotically. Like wise the atoms and even subatomic particles electrons, protons, neutrons and quarks behave in response to environment. Particles appear as objects with certain mass in their space aspect and in their time aspect as process involving equivalent energy. Neither the electron nor any other object has any intrinsic properties independent of environment according to the Quantum Theory. According to Wheeler there is “Quantum Foam” in which every particle is connected with every other particle with a quantum interconnectedness, all of which is also subjected to super space. The first spark of life in organic molecules evolved and was possible only because of ambient environment, favourable and conducive for it. The single fertilised egg develops into a full complete human or animal because the environment in womb is amicable. The life forms are conditioned by physical environment the air, water, soil, temperature, atmospheric pressure etc. and the physical environment is also modified by life forms. The earliest life forms the Prokaryotes, the microbes, bacteria without cell nucleus lived without oxygen. These began to modify environment, produced oxygen by photosynthesis and stage was set for emergence/evolution of Eukaryotes, the single celled microbes with nucleus containing chromosomes, the genetic code. Eukaryotic cells are result of symbiosis between prokaryotes viz. mitochondria, chloroplasts which are continuing to live as organelles in the cells of various organisms.

All constituents of the environment singularly and collectively, animate or inanimate, assemble and disintegrate, take birth and die in a continuous and harmonious process symbiotically not only for its own kind but for the whole complex of the environment. In “I CHING” the Chinese book of wisdom this process has been mentioned very beautifully “.... the powerful light that has been banished, returns. After a time of decay comes turning point. There is movement but it is brought not by force. The movement is natural arriving spontaneously - transformation of old becomes easy. The old is discarded and new is introduced. Both measures accord with time, therefore no harm results”. Even the “Big Bang” theorists wonder that after initial chaotic conditions, the universe that evolved is so smooth, harmonious and regular. Einstein believed in inherent harmony in nature. Such is the nature of things, their actions and interactions, symbiotic and harmonious, integrated and interdependent, contributing to the environment which is a composite system, a big organism, comprising multitude of subsystems, ecosystems, climaxes, succession stages of species, subspecies which are like organelles in a organism. Every subsystem is whole of its parts but part of the bigger system and functions as such. Human beings are part of this system and must function accordingly and symbiotically. Scientific research has substantiated that cooperating with others is hardwired into humans also. In a study of brain activity scientists found that longer the participants of experiment helped each other, the stronger the flow of blood to the pathway of pleasure in brain. Evolutionary psychology, the science of how human moral sentiments and behaviour evolve over generations maintains that daily life of every human society rests on reciprocal altruism and one’s happiness is designed and integrated with the happiness of others. The golden rule is that it is necessary to be nice, holding door open for those behind. Different people, animals, birds, insects, bacteria, plants have different sensory and other capabilities which are complementary, supplementary and reinforcing for mutual benefit and should be utilized e.g. sensory premonition of calamities like earthquakes by animals and birds.

Darwin’s Theory:

There are arguments and counter arguments about Darwin’s theory of survival for the fittest. Darwin studied, emphasised and subjected to quantitative analysis only the competitive aspects and not the cooperative aspects in nature. In spite of this he himself could not ignore these and expounded benefits of biodiversity in his monumental work “Origin of species”, citing experiments that varieties of crops grown together produced greater yields. He did not name the experimenter who was later identified by researchers. The experimenter whose experiments Darwin cited was George Sinclair, head gardener for duke of Bedford. Darwin mistakenly considered the species or subspecies as unit of survival in his proposed theory of evolution. Within a century it became quite clear that it was the organism not alone but in relation with the whole environment. Any organism which thinks only in terms of its own survival will invariably destroy the environment and thus destroy itself. Darwin’s theory was questioned by noted scientists James Live-stock, Ilya Prigogine, Manfred Eigen (Chemists); Paul Weiss, Lynn Margulis (microbiologists); Gregory Batson (anthropologist), Erich Jantsch, Erwin Laszlo (System theorists) and many others. It has now been established that most relationships amongst living beings are essentially cooperative, symbiotic, interdependent and co-existent. Even competition is cooperation in wider context. When there is room only for one, the other, the smaller one will disintegrate by its own mechanism, it is not thrown out, it simply bows out.

Examples of Mutualism (Symbiosis):

In nature mutualism, cooperation and positive interactions are wide spread. The negative interactions or aberrations are stray and few and are mostly because of anthropocentric attitude of mankind. Mutualism is manifest in numerous associations. Intestinal bacteria notably (Escherichia coli) live symbiotically in digestive tracts of humans, derive nutrition but simultaneously help in digestion of food. Ruman bacteria in ungulates, flagellates in termites only can digest food as animals do not have necessary enzymes. Lichens are associations of fungi and algae and live in such a symbiotic relationship that it is not two but one new organism. In lichens fungi absorb and hold moisture and break minerals from rocks and make it available for algae which in turn prepare food for both by photosynthesis. It is only by action of multitude of microorganisms in soil that make nutrition available to plants and it is plants that prepare food for animals and humans. One kilogram of fertile soil may contain a few trillion decomposer organisms, fixing nitrogen, breaking rocks, making minerals available to plants, retaining moisture and aerating soil. Unfortunately the indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides are almost annihilating these and thus affecting the natural fertility of soil.

Coral reefs are an excellent example of mutualism amongst several life forms. Individual coral polyps join to form coral reefs, sharing nervous network and reproductive capabilities so cohesively that it is difficult to consider them individual organisms. In addition innumerable bacteria, plants and animals live on their top, fishes and invertebrates in their nooks. Over 60% energy requirements of coral reef is from photosynthesis by algae living in coral tissue. Human body is combination of trillions of cells and a singular cell of smaller organelles (mitochondria) and others, all living symbiotically. Chloroplasts in green leaves, apparatus for photosynthesis are complete smaller organisms like cells and mitochondria, capable for self replication. Then there is purple bacteria, the photosynthetic bacteria that employs its extremely sensitive molecular antenna system that absorbs individual photons and passes on to reaction centre the green chloroplasts where splitting of water molecules and synthesis of various products, proteins, carbohydrates etc. takes place. Large number of green algae grow in tissues of the worm (Convoluta roncoffensis), releasing nitrogen and preparing nitrogen compounds for host and in return get suitable matrix for its growth. Sea anemone (Adamsia palliata) grows on shell of the hermit crab (Eupagurs pridaux) and serve as powerful deterrent against predacious fish, A worm Neresis also lives inside the shell and helps to keep it clean and in return gets food. The crocodile bird fearlessly enters the mouth of crocodile, removes leeches around teeth, the ferocious crocodile does not harm it. A long tube worm of genus Riftia possesses no mouth, stomach, intestines or anus and the bacteria living in its inner nutritional tissue provide it the primitive circulatory systems. Nitrogen fixing bacteria in roots of leguminous plants fix nitrogen directly and make it available to plant. Likewise Mycorrhiza fungus makes nutrients from soil available to plants. Green algae grow on long groove hair of sloth bear making it turn almost green and help in camouflaging. In crab-coelenterate relationship the later helps to camouflage and in return gets food. Mixed groups of zebras and ostriches derive mutual benefit by virtue of keen sight of ostriches and greater power of scent of zebras.

There is an intricate symbiotic relationship between the tree Colvillea major and the Dodo bird. The seeds of this tree would germinate only after passing through the gut of the Dodo. Since the bird has become extinct, only a few old trees of this species are now left and their seeds are not germinating. Seeds of many other trees germinate only after passing through guts of certain animals. Microorganisms are main producers of vitamin B-12. Microphytes, macrophytes, algae, fungi, crabs, larva, planktons were brought from natural water source to clean Susan lagoon by their interacting food chain. Halophytes, Haloxylan recurvum (Lana), Sasoda harrorosona (Sajji), Suada nudifora (Lunia) accumulate salts from saline water up to 40-50% and contain 20-30% oil and 10-20% protein, are good fodder and poultry feed. Phyto-remediation of fluoride contaminated ground water can effectively be done by the aquatic plant Hydrilla verticillata and the plant does not show any toxity symptoms, grows and multiplies normally in presence of fluoride (S.R. Ambika and S. Sumanlatha, Bangalore University). Likewise symbiotic association in root zone of bacteria and micorrhiza fungi is an effective rhizosphere bioremediation of soil contaminated with xenobiotics being increasingly released ever since industrial revolution (Bidisha Ghosh, University of Bombay). Various insects, butterflies, honey bees etc. take nectar from flowers of trees and plants and help in pollination. Human beings, animals, birds etc. by eating fruits of trees and then carrying, dispersing the seeds help trees in dispersal of their seeds. Deep sea creatures Detrites live on detritus of food, plants, dead bodies etc. from above, filter the detritus and maintain cleanliness. Many animals and birds, hyena, vulture etc. are scavengers and eat left over by others and also dead bodies and help in maintaining cleanliness.

Many microorganisms also break up and decompose toxic pollutants as found in guts of whales, digesting naphthalene and anthracene petroleum products. Extremophiles, the bacteria living in extremely hot boiling volcano vent, convert poisonous hydrogen sulphide into organic matter. Professor Darrek Lovely has diverted power of extremophiles in turning dissolved gold into solid gold through an enzyme that coats microbes. Bacterium Alcaligens is used for biodegradable mouldable polymer polyhexamurates. The DRDO scientists in India have developed microbes that clean wastes at Siachin glacier. The bacteria Agrobacterium radobactor degrade explosives down to natural compounds and minerals. Bacteria Dehalococcodies ethenogenes is a pollution eating bacteria which was first found in sewage sludge (Research Scholar Rekha Sesdhari of the Institute of Genomic Research in Mary Land). The bug has different strains eating different pollutants. Dermestid beetles are used to clean bones because of their unmatched ability to strip bones off desiccated flesh of mammal carcasses without damaging even the smallest most delicate specimens for long term archival preservation. Several bacteria, fungus and virus are used for manufacture of various medicines. Yesti fungus is used in medicine for cancer. In genetic engineering protein is carried through virus. New chemicals are being developed through bacteria. There are numerous examples in nature of symbiotic mutually beneficial relationships.

In human society mutually beneficial, complementary, supplementary relationships between individuals, groups and nations are necessary for peace, happiness and even efficiency of any activity. Symbiotic relationship also implies obligation and duty to help weak, disabled, poor, sick and old. Such conditions are generally inevitable and every one is prone to these. It is not out of compassion but as a duty that society should take care of such people because any one, any time may get afflicted needing care and help. Old people have given a lot to society and their experience can be gainfully utilised and therefore should be cared not out of pity but as duty in lieu of their contribution. Joint family system is an ideal example where young, adult and old contribute for mutual benefits.


Environmental Ethics


Prakrit Bharati Academy, Jaipur

Society for Scientific & Ethical Living, Jaipur


1st edition 2006

HN4U Online edition:

Dr. Rudi Jansma



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