What Can Spiders Teach Us About Community?
Community is a word that’s bandied about often these days. It’s one of those nebulous but warm-and-fuzzy things that can mean lots of different things depending on who utters it and why.
As an advocate of the sharing economy, community is one of my favorite concepts, and I love to point out different things that help us build it. Whether physical or virtual, all communities need one basic ingredient: people. Unfortunately, that’s where the trouble starts.
People are arrogant, ignorant, insecure and combative. We like to surround ourselves with people who think and act exactly like ourselves, and call it community.
When in doubt, I always like to take a look at how Mother Nature handles concepts that elude the human race. And wouldn’t you know it, nature has quite the lesson to teach us about building and maintaining a strong community.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh wanted to know more about spiders. See, many spiders are soloists, which means it’s every arachnid for herself from birth until death. There are some, however, that live in groups. Happily, I might add. Colin Wright, a second-year PhD student in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Biological Sciences, wanted to know how they pulled it off.
The team ran the spiders through a series of tests, examining their performance in colony defense, prey capture, parenting skills, and web repair. The aggressive cohort was great at defending the web, capturing prey, and repairing their web. But they were awful parents.
“We didn’t know what the docile spiders did,” Wright says. “Were they just freeloaders?” No, it turns out, they were the ones who were capable of rearing large numbers of offspring.
In a separate study, Pruitt also created all docile, all aggressive, and mixed colonies of spiders.
The docile colonies died out first. No one was there to protect them from “parasite” spiders that picked off their young and stole their prey. The all aggressors died off second, as they became cannibalistic toward their young.
The mixed group thrived.
The spiders learned to recognize, and appreciate, the fact that each member of the colony had a different personality, different talents. And rather than force docile spiders to go out and hunt, or require aggressive spiders to stay home and lay eggs, they simply let each member follow their passion.
Spiders, with their tiny brains and hairy legs, are able to do something that makes world leaders break out in a cold sweat.
We are all different. We have different talents, diets, interests and, yes, even different beliefs. At our best we see those differences as an evangelistic challenge, and at our worse a line in the sand.
I think what the spiders are trying to teach us is that a healthy community does not mean a group of people who look, think, and believe like you. That kind of community, as the spiders learned, is a shortcut to disaster. A healthy community is one in which differences between members are not just tolerated, but celebrated. Where survival is guaranteed because everything–resources, talents, responsibilities–are shared.
Sharing is a give and take process. It means resources circulate, they don’t just flow up and down, or get amassed in a secret vault. As the spiders demonstrated, it means being willing to find the virtues in a point of view that differ from our own.
In spider colonies, there is less conflict, because they’ve already recognized a mutual end goal. There’s no time to fight over what’s right because the community is too busy working toward what’s best for everyone.
Smart lady, that Mother Nature.
Image via Thinkstock