Though not all living things are social, and the level of social engagement of humans varies considerably, the connections among living things extends beyond humans and even beyond animals. It has recently emerged that trees share vital nutrients with each other in forests.

In The Scientific American of May 9, 2015  Jennifer Frazer wrote,

Hidden beneath the soil of the forest understory is a labyrinth of fungal connections between tree roots that scientists call the mycorrhizal network. Others have called it the wood-wide web. The connections are made by the filaments of fungi that grow in and around plant roots and produce many of the forest mushrooms we know and love. They bond trees so intimately that the more you learn about them, the more it is a struggle to view any tree as an individual. Forest trees and their root fungi are more or less a commune in which they share resources in a fashion so unabashedly socialist that I hesitate to describe it in detail lest conservatives reading this go out and immediately set light to the nearest copse.

The idea that trees depend for health on other trees is somewhat startling. It seems to be that we are beginning to see that living things range from those closely connected to others of their species (and sometimes beyond it,  like flocks of birds, pilot fish, or trees in forests,  to isolated individuals like panthers who except for mating,  function largely alone in territories they protect from others. The range seems to extend to all living things from bacteria who can only survive in contact with others

In this range of possibilities, human beings are extremely social animals. We need the close presence and protection of other people for some years as we learn to walk, talk or feed ourselves. It emerges that parts of our brain cannot like the centres that control speech, cannot develop properly without interaction with other people. Babies’ babbling is now seen to be good for brain development and the more the parents talk to their baby, the better will be the development of the speech centres of the brain. This means that we cannot be isolated minds inside mechanical bodies: our capacity to think in any language depends not only on the existence of other people, it depends on their active participation in our development into people who speak a particular language.

The quality of our development also depends on the quality of these interactions. A recent study in the UK showed that when parents helped their children like books and reading, the children did better at school and in life in general.

It is obvious then that we are not isolated souls inside mechanical bodies, yet that is how we are often treated when we are ill. It is time for this to change.

 

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