A couple of years ago I was introduced to the word “ubuntu”. I was told it came from South Africa* and could be translated as “I am because we are”. I found myself being deeply moved by what seemed to me to be the evident truth and deep implications of this phrase.
I wrote it down on a small piece of paper and stuck it up above my desk, along with other pieces of paper on which I have written down other sayings that strike me as expressing fundamental insights. Two examples are:
- “The more you know, the freer you are”, which comes from Daniel Barenboim, world renowned pianist and conductor.
- “I do not think that I am cleverer than anyone else. Those who do great mathematics spend night and day and constant attention to it”, which comes from Carl Friedrich Gauss, said by many mathematicians to be the greatest ever of their kind.
Often, when I am out walking or when I am sitting on the balcony, I find thoughts swishing around in my head in seemingly random ways. But this randomness is clearly an illusion for, at these times, experiences and insights that in the past have struck special chords in my feelings have a habit of popping unexpectedly into my mind. One day recently, while enjoying one of these agreeable reveries, I found the word “ubuntu” being unexpectedly linked to the concept of “the selfish gene”. Ever since I read the book by Richard Dawkins** in which he coined the phrase, I have baulked at accepting the bleak manifestation of determinism that its author proposes.
But as I sat contentedly in the warm glow of the sun, I found that the awkward juxtaposition of the notion of the selfish gene with the concept of “ubuntu” was seeding thought processes that suggested a challenge to Richard Dawkins’ idea.
No doubt, the reason it came to me at this particular time had something to do with subjects I have been reading about recently, most notably:
- The origins of life from its first microbial manifestations.***
- The history of our species from a genetic perspective.****
- The necessary and symbiotic functions performed by the multitudes of microbes in out gut.*****
All these subjects are bound to stimulate reflections on nature’s way of sustaining life on our planet. I can only assume that they played a part in forging the idea that popped into my mind. It was that if only Richard Dawkins had looked at the situation in a less blinkered way, he would have found every reason, not only to increase the number of pages in his book but also to change its title to the “The Generous Gene”.
Ubuntu and the generous gene
The idea was so simple. It was that the spirit of “ubuntu” could be extended by adding the words “… and we are because we exist in the living world”. For me it seems obvious that, if it is true that our existence depends on us being members of the group of human beings, it is equally true that our existence depends us being participants in the world we all live in, as created by the “Big bang” and made meaningful to us by the evolution of life on earth.
But what is the nature of this world? Of the many approaches to finding answers to this question, two are relevant to the way my thoughts were leading me:
- That our world is characterised by a seemingly unlimited examples of “symbiosis”, the phenomenon of two or more living organisms depending directly on each other for existence – whether they be the most primitive eukaryotes that have inhibited our planet for some two billion years, or more recently evolved plants or animals. Indeed the evidence is clear that it is deeply ingrained in every context where life is found . There can be no doubt that the fact that species provide reciprocal services for each other is a fundamental attribute of the living world as we know it.
- That our world relies on what, at first sight at least, seems to be an extremely wasteful way of ensuring the continuation of the species, but which, when looked at from a wider perspective, turns out to be necessary to it. One way of describing this key to the survival of our species is “genetically programmed generosity”.
Think of the number of acorns produced by an oak tree every year. Richard Dawkins would see this as an insurance policy for the continuation of the oak tree species and he would be right. But in the meanwhile (which may last for a matter of hundreds of years) the acorns fall to the ground and are eaten by animals, insects and larvae, or decomposed by microorganisms. In this way they, not only sustain the life of a multiplicity of living beings but also enrich the soil for future use by plants of any variety whose seeds happen to find themselves lodging in it.
Think also of the salmon that is said to lay thousands of eggs to ensure that a sufficient number of their offspring survive to make certain of the continuation of the species. Nobody knows exactly how many of these extremely vulnerable beings survive long enough to continue the reproductive cycle, but 2 per cent of the original number has been suggested. So what happens to the other 98 per cent? The same as happens to the acorns: they become food for other creatures and organisms and, thereby, play their part in sustaining the life of the oceans and the planet.
Nor are these isolated examples, the strategy of abundance is to be found in all aspects of nature’s way of doing things, and in most, if not all of them, an outcome is the increased wellbeing of a multitude of communities. I find myself forced to the conclusion that, if the absurd anthropomorphism of calling a gene “selfish” is permitted to Richard Dawkins, it surely legitimate to characterise the genes that are responsible for programming this abundance as “generous”.
For these reasons I propose to extend the meaning of the word “ubuntu”. My version is:
“I am because we are, and we are because we exist in the living world”
I feel sure that the wise Zulus who gifted us the wisdom encapsulated in the word “ubuntu” would approve. So, I assume, would ecologists and environmentalists. Surely, all of us, as human being, should be grateful for three gifts that are our birthright?
- The gift of being alive.
- The gift of being members of our species.
- The gift of existing in such a mutually supportive natural environment.
Footnote: Extending Nelson Mandela’s praise of ubuntu