Why Communities Are Alive

Organisms are alive, cells are alive and bacteria are alive. All of these are vital “levels” of life, without which neither the highest level (the organism in this case) nor the lowest level (the bacteria in this case), would be able to survive. Complex connections are linking these levels together, in such a way that it has proven to be impossible for philosophers of science to reduce the higher levels (the level of the organism) to the lower levels (the level of cells and neurons). The linkages are there but they are just too complex to be caught in neat and true “law-like” laws. But when looking at these different levels of life, doesn’t there to be something one? Wouldn’t it be logical to have another level called “communities” after the sequence of levels of bacteria, cells and organisms? Just like there are “communities” of bacteria and “communities” of cells that work together in keeping alive the higher level of the organism, so can collections of organisms instantiate the live of a higher level “community”, can’t they? Let’s take a look at why the latter could be a reasonable extension of the “levels of life”.

What set bacteria, cells and organisms apart from communities? Looking at the biological structure of these entities doesn’t immediately provide us with a satisfactory answer. After all, bacteria, cells and organisms differ hugely in their internal biological organization. While organisms got organs keeping them alive, cells and bacteria don’t have “things” that can reasonably be labeled hearts or kidneys. Sure, cells got “organic units” (mitochondria, ribosomes, cellulose etc.) that on a certain level of abstraction could be compared to organisms’ organs. But, wouldn’t this be a level of abstraction in which communities, with its “organs” of power plants, libraries and transportation companies, might fit in as well. So a look at the anatomical structure of these levels might not solve the problem.

Another argument could be that – in contrast to communities – bacteria, cells and organisms are much more “coherent” units, much more dependent on each of its parts for staying alive than communities are. To put it crudely: if you rip a heart out of an organism’s body, it will die. And if you tear apart an organism’s stomach, it will (after a while) die. But don’t communities, on an abstract level, work pretty much the same? Aren’t communities also dependent upon its “organs” (read: power plants, libraries and transportation companies etc.) to stay “alive”? One could claim that the functioning of communities would be severely disrupted if one of these “organs” fails. For example, what kind of community would a “community” without its “organ” of agriculture be? A community without agriculture would turn the the “community” into a system that is functioning entirely different from the one including the agriculture. Or what about a community without law and public servants enforcing this law? That would surely create a “community” that is different from our “normal” conception of a community, wouldn’t it? And if so, wouldn’t that imply that the original community has stopped functioning or, to put it differently, has died?

But what about the “whole” community being dependent upon each of its “organs” in order for it to be able to function adequately? Isn’t it something different for a kidney to be ripped out of an organism, than it is for agriculture to be ripped out of a community? Well, I think it is not. For example, if the “organ” of law would fall away, chaos will ensue and a Hobbesian state of nature might begin. Therefore you could say that the structure or the coherence the collection of individuals had before the law was “removed” is gone, and that because of that the entity (read: that community) has died.

But what do you think?

Written by Rob Graumans

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