One morning, as I approached a butterfly bush behind my house, I startled a black swallowtail, which fluttered upward and disappeared over the fence. It was the first time I had ever seen one. It was stunning. Midnight wings, gossamer in the sunlight, and gracefully tapered into the classic tail lobes. A flash of heaven in my own backyard.
When the butterfly was gone, I wondered if the purple plumes of the host plant had responded to its arrival by preparing a tastier meal. No, I had not fallen into the rabbit hole of “Wonderland.” Rather, I was recalling a recent study by Marine Veits and her ecology team at Tel Aviv University. The study outlined how flowers produce sweeter nectar when bees approach them.1 Veits and her colleagues exposed evening primroses to the recorded sounds of a flying bee as well as to various simulated sound frequencies in the range of bee wingbeats and also in a silent range. Nectar was extracted from the flowers before and after each treatment. Researchers found that flowers exposed to natural and synthetic bee-sound frequencies vibrated to those frequencies and produced significantly sweeter nectar than those exposed to other frequencies and silent conditions. Furthermore, it took only about three minutes for the flowers to respond to these “guest” sounds.
Veits and her team explain this sudden reward given by flowers to bees as an example of mutualism, a principle of operation in nature whereby two different species benefit from each other through their relationship.
In this case, the plant, by producing a tastier treat for the bee, enhances its cross-pollination, and the bee, of course, gets a sweet deal.
According to Carol C. Landry, at least 170,000 plant species and 200,000 animal species are participants in mutualistic relationships; thus, these reciprocal exchanges are a vital part of ecology systems.2 While pollination is a prime example of mutualism, numerous other examples of mutualism are operating in nature. The most notorious of these is the oxpecker, a colorful African bird that skims parasites off large mammals such as zebras and rhinoceroses. Remora, otherwise known as suckerfish, attach themselves to whales, sharks, and turtles, and take a danger-free ride while they keep the host’s skin clean of flaky skin and harmful parasites. Pilot fish actually swim into sharks’ mouths to floss their teeth.
One of the most engaging illustrations of mutualism is called allogrooming, during which animals, especially primates, groom each other. Cats also engage in allogrooming (birds in allopreening), and we see it in mammal sibling interactions too.
Our own human skin and hair contain a mutual microsystem that is vital to our health. Some skin bacteria protect us against invading pathogens by alerting our immune guardians to fend them off, while others secrete chemicals that prevent harmful bacteria from attaching to us. Still others benefit us while also benefiting the bacteria that help us. What forethought the great Designer had, knowing the need of these kinds of mutual relationships. How careful was His plan to equip our skin with microbiota to fight against and prevent harmful invaders at such little cost to us, the largely unconscious hosts, even while they “educate” our immune system.
We can see mutualism in nature as another thumbprint of a Creator whose own selflessness is reflected in all of His works. Ideally, mutualism, with its bidirectional benefit, is a lesson for us and something that naturally occurs among humans as well.
For centuries humans have been bartering goods to improve both quality and variety of living. In my own community, neighbors trade lemons for oranges and persimmons for pomegranates. Services can also be traded: for example, trimming a tree for fixing a broken fence. Mutuality in these forms can go a long way toward maintaining a sense of harmony and peace, a sense of everyone looking out for the needs of one another.
An intensive form of human mutualism was miraculously visible in the early church through the Holy Spirit’s power. Shortly after Pentecost, believers began to gather together and share their possessions with one another: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44, 45, ESV).3 The generosity the early believers displayed spilled over into many communities. As they continued to help one another and praise God, the Lord gave them favor with others and “added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (verse 47, ESV).
In God’s perfect design for life on earth, which He implemented in Eden, every living thing worked for the good of everything else. Humans, animals, and plants sustained each other through mutual giving and receiving. There was no fear that self or others would lack anything. Everything was in harmony. Univeral peace was a given.
When sin entered the world through human transgression, the principle of self-centeredness began to contaminate that which was once declared “very good.” Inhabitants of earth began to contend with each other within and outside of their species. Stronger animals preyed upon weaker ones. Predation became a normal way of life for much of the animal kingdom, and many species of animals now survive by scurrying around to avoid being taken by a predator.
God longs to restore us to our original state of mutual giving. One of His main reasons for sending His Son into this broken world was to show us how to serve others through Jesus’ selflessness. Now He offers each of us a place in that plan so that the occupants of this world can experience healing and growth through Him.
Jesus’ plan for human giving is so potent that even other members of the creation benefit from it. “For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19, NET).4 Here on earth we can practice what we will be doing for eternity, giving mutually to others—to divine, human, and nonhuman creatures.
In her book Patriarchs and Prophets Ellen White wrote about the law of mutual dependence: “We are all woven together in the great web of humanity, and whatever we can do to benefit and uplift others will reflect in blessing upon ourselves.”5 God’s wise design for all His creation was based on the principle of mutuality in giving. Humans, animals, even bacteria, were to give to each other, something that makes the world a sustainable place. When sin entered the world, mutuality was compromised, but it did not disappear entirely. We can still see it today even in our gardens. And the thought that God would provide “dental insurance” to sharks as they protect their much smaller “dentists” shows me how much we can trust Him to meet our every need.
Melissa Brotton, Ph.D., chair of the English Department at La Sierra University in California, is an avid student of ecotheology.