Cooperating & Homemaking

Mary Catherine Bateson in conversation with Krista Tippett, from "Composing a Life," On Being, October 1, 2015:


Alas, one of the things we press on [children] is competition, because we have so much bought into the idea that competition is a law of nature — and the only source of creativity.

Incidentally, that is not a true biological fact. There is competition — as part of evolutionary process, but there’s a tremendous amount of cooperation also involved, even at the cellular level.: co-evolution, endosymbiosis.

When you were in high school, you looked through a microscope at a cell. And one of the things you learned to recognize was the nucleus of the cell. Right? And made pictures of it.

Well, the earliest life forms had no nucleus. And on the whole bacteria don’t have that kind of nucleus. And a biologist named Lynn Margulis, who was a microbiologist studying single-celled creatures and their progenitors, came up with the theory that the cell with a nucleus actually came about by one single cell organism taking up residence inside the other in a way that was mutually beneficial. The cells in the green plants have little islands of chlorophyll in order to do photosynthesis that is the base of our entire food chain, right?

It is now understood that they were originally like algae that took up residence inside these cells, because they needed a home that they didn’t have. And so for millions of years, every cell in every leaf is actually a cooperative enterprise.


Homemaking is creating an environment in which learning is possible. That is what we want the homes that we give to our children to be. Places where they grow, in many, many different ways. They learn how to connect with other people, they learn how to care for others, they learn particular skills, they learn their own capacities, and how to trust other people, and how to trust themselves. They learn what respect is.

One of the things that biologists have said about human beings is that we retain many of our infant characteristics throughout our lives. You’ve heard stories about the people that wanted to raise a lion in their home. People that have wanted to raise a chimp in their home. Other stories of trying to tame a wild animal. And when it matures, it loses its flexibility and the relationship breaks down. And there are typical physical changes that go with maturity in many species that are more dramatic than in human beings. Get a lot more hair, for instance. And in a sense, human beings remain childlike. They’re open to new learning, and even very deep learning that changes your personality really. Right through the life cycle human beings remain playful.