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Animals Compete and It's Not Always Pretty

Competition is not a survival threat, but it feels that way.

I'm just trying to survive.

Piglets compete to survive from their moment of birth. They latch on to a nipple and fight off rivals. My friend brought her one-year-old to see piglets and the child screamed. What a clear expression of our horror at the facts of life! We learn to muffle that scream, but the feeling endures. (Thank you for this story, Donna.)

One way to manage this feeling is to "oppose" competition. But social rivalry is part of life as a mammal. If you get angry about competition, you can end up angry most of the time. You are better off learning to live with it. I’m not saying you should steal food from your brothers and sisters. I’m saying you can build insight into your brain's evolutionary preoccuption with social rivarly. Your survival is not at stake most of the time, but it feels that way because social dominance promotes survival in the state of nature. You can enjoy your life as a mammal among mammals if you understand your brain's heritage.

Building skills for next year's competition.

Here’s a fascinating example. If you watch the sea lions near the San Francisco piers, you are seeing a “bachelor herd”– the losers in the annual competition for mates. The winners go to the mating grounds with their harems while the bachelors practice their fighting skills until next year. A crowd of tourists is always watching these sea lions, and you can hear them pointing out the ones that look like the mamma, the pappa and the baby. The tourists are influenced by the heart-warming statue of a cuddly sea-lion family erected at the site. Public-art czars chose not to upset people with a statue of bachelor males fighting for the survival of their genes. (Thanks for this story, TK.)

The imagined ideal of sea-lion life.

You can fill your mind with statues of how you think the world should look. But you may end up with contempt for the world as it is. That doesn't help you or the world around you. You can benefit from acceptance of the world you actually live in, even as you aspire to change it. When I find myself struggling to accept what is, I ponder the competition between hummingbirds and flowers.

The nectar always seems harder to get at.

Hummingbirds and flowers live in a perpetual arms race. Flowers keep making their nectar harder to get at because their pollen spreads more when they make the hummingbird work more. A hummingbird with a longer beak is rewarded with more nectar. But as soon as hummingbirds evolve longer beaks, flowers evolve longer styles. (Thanks for this story, Chelsea.)

But the hummingbird doesn't get angry at the flower for obstructing rewards. That would be a waste of the hummingbird’s energy.

Your energy is precious. You may be frustrated about obstructions that block your nectar. But getting mad at the obstructions is a waste of energy. You can invest it in strengthening your wings instead. You will end up with more nectar.

"It's not the nectar I care about," you may say. "It's the principle of the thing." But if your quest for principles leaves you angry at flowers a lot, you might want to remember the hummingbird.

A simple method for doing this is outlined in my new book, Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity.