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Robert Andrew
 
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The key to co-operation

09 February 2014, 13:58

The widespread use of antibiotics over the last sixty years or so has resulted in many bacteria being resistant to one or more types of antibiotics. Speculation is rife that in a few years we may not have any more effective antibiotics.

 The spread of immunity to antibiotics is enhanced by bacteria of different species being able to swap useful genes with each other in a process known as conjugation. Thus, as one strain develops a resistance to a particular drug others then develop it as well. Bacteria recognise the importance of having a common immune system which works co-operatively to resist harmful intrusions.

 Conjugation, or more simply, the ability to share ‘life and survival skills’, has probably been the main reason for the longevity and abundance of bacteria. For the first half of our geological time our ancestors were bacteria and most creatures on our planet still are bacteria. Their instinct for survival enables them to inhabit virtually every corner of the earth, including inside the human body. Fully ten percent of our own dry body weight consists of bacteria, some of which we cannot live without. It is a sobering thought that the number of E. coli in the human gut far exceeds the total number of people that now live or who have ever lived.

 As bacteria do, all human societies and cultures emphasise the essential value of helping others. Most will agree that co-operation is in general advantageous, even though it may curb some individuals’ freedom and personal objectives. The benefits achieved by co-operation are generally believed to exceed those from individual selfishness. Co-operation can increase the fitness of the co-operators, when the co-operators together can collect more resources than the sum of the resources collected by each of them individually. The difference is that bacteria unequivocally accept this philosophy and do not waste valuable time debating and arguing about the concept.

Unlike bacteria, multi-cultural communities are not in a position to swap their genes to increase their resistance to pending disasters. What they can do, however, is for sections of the community to share useful knowledge with other sections of the community. For example, the previously privileged white community could find it in their hearts to share their knowledge and skills with less privileged sections of the community.

 Many observers believe that worldwide we are in the midst of a sweeping skills and knowledge crisis that threatens to bring to an end any form of economic expansion. It has become common knowledge that a lack of highly skilled employees is cited as the major barrier to growth in many countries. In South Africa, particularly, the shortage of skilled employees and the lack of resources to provide skills training could become the major reason for a stagnating or declining economy. Empowerment without providing for skills and knowledge is surely meaningless.

 In the business world, co-operation between competing companies has usually been viewed with a great deal of suspicion by both business and consumers alike. Losing competitive advantages and the possibility of cartels and monopolies are seen as the major risks of such co-operation. In multi-cultural communities, the diverse nature of language, heritage, culture, race, lack-of-trust and religion are recognised as stumbling blocks to co-operation. Unfortunately, these stumbling blocks are commonly generated at ‘higher levels’, such as combative political parties, and tightly ‘cohesive’ religious and cultural groups. What seems to be needed now is to allow the platform for sharing relationships to move down to much 'lower' levels where relevant and practical skills and knowledge can be shared between ordinary people from different cultures and backgrounds, without the baggage of politics, religion, bureaucracies and from hatred and mistrust that were induced by apartheid.

The key to co-operation, both in the immune system of bacteria and in multi-cultural communities, is the co-operative management of knowledge. Appropriate knowledge has to become embedded in all the organisms so that strategies to resist common negative influences are available on a broad front. As an example, instead of training their own employees, companies and NGOs should perhaps be investing in appropriate training technology to create wide knowledge 'networks' that enable individuals from similar companies and NGOs to share expertise, exchange knowledge and learn on demand. In this way 'communities of learning' would develop which, by learning how to continually adjust to new and changing ideas, would benefit all sections of communities and the country as a whole.

               

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