A. The Law of the Jungle
The classical version of the ‘Law of the Jungle’ covers a long series of pre-ecological assumptions regarding the interactions among species within an ecosystem, as well as their respective interpretation for social relationships. The origin of the term is not scientific but literary, having been coined by Rudyard Kipling in “The Jungle Book” in 1894. The author describes a type of legal code that is followed by wolves and other anthropomorphized animals in the forests of India, which made it possible for them to live together peacefully. Currently, however, it has gained quasi-scientific status and has become associated in the people’s mind with adversarial concepts such as every man for himself in this dog-eat-dog world, anything goes the struggle for life, survival of the fittest, kill or be killed, might makes right, etc.
More specifically, this notion interprets the proverbial “jungle” as a place of strictly limited resources and potentially unlimited population, which forces its inhabitants to compete amongst themselves to obtain a larger portion, eat or be eaten, in the struggle to increase their probabilities of surviving. The use of any resource by one excludes their use by another, so each measure of success by the former means an equal measure of loss for the latter. In other words, the jungle was perceived as a fixed pie, which each species struggled to get a larger slice of.
1. Social Implications
The problem with this description of the jungle was not only its lack of scientific accuracy, but also its social implications. It was assumed that human beings came out of that jungle, belonged to it and, therefore, were subject to its laws. Society was equated with a human jungle, in which diverse individuals and groups competed to obtain the available resources. The ‘Law of the Jungle’ became part of the adversarial worldview upon whose foundations were built many of the social structures that we see today, whether economic, political, social, etc.
In this way, the market became a jungle where different economic actors competed for a larger share of the earnings. The political arena became another jungle, where politicians vied with each other for ‘power’, perceived as a resource that was as valuable as it was scarce. Similar struggles developed among students to obtain the highest grades, among religious denominations to have more truth or be more ‘saved’, among physicians and the diseases they fought, between entre ‘progress’ and nature, and even between farmers and their fields, since they had to ravage the earth in order to wrench its fruits.
We have become so accustomed to this situation of widespread strife and struggle that it does not seem strange to us, but all too ‘normal’. Therefore, we have stopped calling it just the ‘Law of the Jungle’, and come to consider it a natural outcome of the legitimate laws of each nation state. Now when we hear the term ‘Law of the Jungle’, we think of what would happen in the case of a widespread downfall of the established order: a situation of anarchy and the tyranny of the strongest, as supposedly occurs in the animal world. However, let us bear in mind that this ‘established order’ is already organized as if it were a jungle in which each member competes to ‘survive’.
2. Ecology is Born
At the time when this concept was being developed, flora and fauna were being studied in isolation, or within a relatively limited sphere of interaction and influence. Many of the ‘researchers’ were actually opportunistic explorers, with little or no scientific training. They lacked the conceptual and physical instruments needed to study ecosystems as such, so their understanding of the ‘Law of the Jungle’ was necessarily superficial, being limited almost entirely to chance observations.
During the 1960’s, however, a new science called ‘ecology’ was born, which came to fill that void. Ecology studied the linkages among living beings and their relationships with the environment or, in other words, ecosystems as super-organisms whose characteristics transcend those of their individual members. This made it possible to actually study the jungle with full scientific rigor for the first time.
Ecologists have studied under varying circumstances what happens when a species is removed from an ecosystem, and in all cases the system has los its vitality. This would not be the case if the true 'Law of the Jungle' were actually struggle and competition for limited resources, because in a situation of ‘the fewer the mouths to feed, the more each receives’, eliminating a competitor would mean more for the rest, whose lot would improve. This drop in the welfare of the other species in an ecosystem means that their relationship with the removed species had been one of mutual support and symbiosis, even when it had apparently been their predator.
A classical example of this is the case of the shepherds who saw that every so often they lost a sheep to the wolves that roamed the area. They mounted a hunting campaign against the wolves, which were completely exterminated. This stopped the periodic loss of sheep, but soon a worse problem arose. In the absence of their natural predators, there was a disproportionate growth in the population of rabbits, which ate the pastures meant for the sheep. Soon the grass available for the sheep was so scarce that they began dying of hunger in greater numbers than when the wolves had attacked. Finally the shepherds were forced to import wolves from outside of the region in order to control the rabbit population. They no longer minded sacrificing a few sheep to feed the wolves – a small price to ensure the welbeing of the flock as a whole.
3. The New ‘Law of the Jungle’
The conclusion of these and other experiences has been that the real ‘Law of the Jungle’ is cooperation and mutual support among all living beings. They take from the system only what they need in order to live, while providing valuable ‘environmental services’ such as producing abundant food, hygiene, cleaning and filtering impurities, processing wastes into rich compost, maintaining and improving soils, etc. The more each member contributes to the system, the greater the welfare of all, including the contributor itself.
For example, an apple tree would only need to produce one apple in its entire life in order to ensure its reproduction. However, it produces hundreds of apples each year, because it is feeding the system it is part of, thereby increasing the wellbeing of all, including itself. A sea tortoise lays dozens of eggs on the beach, not to compete with their predators, but to feed them, because eventually they will be the ones to feed her and her surviving young. Even lions, when chasing their prey, provide valuable environmental services by increasing the cardiovascular health of the herd, thinning out the old, injured and weak, and ensuring that they dig up the earth with their sharp hooves, thereby improving the growth of the grasses that the herd grazes on.
At this point, there is sure to be someone who will charge us with attributing intentionality to these species by saying that they provide environmental services. However, this interpretation assigns no more intentionality than the old one by which they were competing for survival. The only real difference is that we are so accustomed to thinking in terms of competition, that it seems more 'natural' to us than cooperation.
Similarly, a society that is characterized by interdependence and mutual support among its members progresses through the contributions that they make above and beyond what they subtract from the whole. If we want to abide by the laws of the universe, we would do well to implement a profound reform of our social structures, to adjust them to the cooperation, reciprocity and mutual service that characterize the natural world.
This gave birth to the idea of ‘social ecology’, which provides new metaphors for conceiving society as a complex network of inter-connections and mutual influences. When society is conceived in this way, the current culture of adversarialism is seen as destructive and counterproductive for the system as a whole. Karlberg explains that:
…through these complex inter-connections, the oppression and impoverishment of any population affects all members of the larger social ecology. This can be seen, for example, in the close association between poverty and population growth, which in turn are associated with environmental degradation and food scarcity––conditions that keep societies in perpetual states of conflict and insecurity, [which] in turn result in police and military expenditures that burden all members of society––rich and poor, oppressors and oppressed––while merely entrenching cycles of conflict and insecurity without addressing their root causes.1
B. The “Wolf of Man”
A variation on the ‘Law of the Jungle’ is Plautus’ famous formula in his Asinaria, taken up again by Thomas Hobbes in his “Leviathan” : homo hominis lupus, “man is the wolf of man.”2 That is, each individual is obliged to either ‘eat or be eaten’, ‘kill or be killed’. Currently, this concept is associated with early versions of the ‘food chain’, according to which plants are eaten by animals and each animal by others, in a relatively linear progression.
According to this version, man is at the highest point on the chain, since he eats both plants and animals, which begs the question of who eats man. The answer given in this case is that the predator of man is another human being. This notion has been taken by many as a universal law able to explain or ‘justify’ predatory behavior among humans. Particularly, it was used as part of the justification for the conquest, colonization and exploitation of indigenous peoples, which originated from the European continent as of the 16th Century. Right makes right. If everyone either eats or is eaten, and if man is a wolf to man, then it should not be surprising that the most accomplished peoples exploit the least capable.
Today, however, developments in the ecological sciences have replaced this linear representation of the food chain with more systemic models of ‘food cycles’ and even ‘food networks'. The same species of worm that is eaten by the bird that is eaten by man, may end up feeding off the body of both bird and man. That is, the worm is the wolf of the bird that is the wolf of the worm that is the wolf of man that is the wolf of the bird, and so on.
Another, even deeper conceptual change, as we saw above, is having traded the initial violent view of ‘eat or be eaten’ for a new worldview in which each member of an ecosystem provides valuable ‘environmental services’ to the other species and to the system as a whole. In this way, cycles or networks of environmental services are formed. Each species provides food for the system that feeds it, and does so to the best of its ability, because the better-fed the system is, the better each species will be fed by it.
From this new viewpoint, it is now suitable to ask what services we humans currently provide or could/should provide to society and to the entire global ecosystem of which we are part. Are we giving back to the system an equal or greater amount as we are taking from it? If so, we are part of the solution; if not, we are part of the problem. Even more importantly, are we, through our words and deeds, reproducing the old understanding of the ‘Law of the Jungle’, or are our words and deeds helping to rise above it and replace it with new concepts that are needed to move towards a culture of peace?
1. Karlberg, Michael. “Beyond the Culture of Contest – From Adversarialism to Mutualism in an Age of Interdependence”. Oxford: George Ronald Publisher, 2004, p. 98.
2. Hobbes, Thomas, of Malmesbury. "Leviathan or the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiastical and Civill". Printed for Andrew Crooke at the Green Dragon in St. Paul's Churchyard”, 1651.