Spirit of volunteers underlies resilience

Today volunteers arrive from three states to help on projects at Meadowcreek.  It’s just a couple of projects and only a few people, but it promises to be a great Labor Day weekend.

Ants-1The two projects are at opposite ends of the work we do at Meadowcreek.  A stone mason will be designing and supervising other volunteers building new steps and porch for the Resilience House.

A website developer will be helping us revamp our website and migrate our webpages and this blog to a new web address.

Volunteers are crucial to the success of Meadowcreek, as they are to all resilient social ecological systems.  The spirit which motivates volunteers is the spirit of community which underlies resilience.  Volunteers are willing to work solely for the reward of helping the community.  You know they are dedicated to the good of the community since they contribute their time willingly.

Good volunteers are an example of the quality of resilience called modular connectivity.  A good volunteer is able to work independently.  Give her a task and she will complete it.  She won’t require constant supervision and constant attention.  She will be well-connected to the rest of the group and working toward the goals of the group, but able to work on her own.

In natural systems, all are volunteers.  Some species develop elaborate social structures, others don’t.  Ants, bees, and other social insects have the most advanced social systems.  The advanced social structure of ants has made them extremely abundant in most ecosystems. They comprise at least one-third of all insect biomass and may equal the biomass of humans.  Ants cultivate crops, collect medicines, have a division of labor for efficient production, have nurseries to care for their infants and hunt cooperatively.  Due to their single-minded, team focus on particular prey species, ants are even being studied to control pests in human organic food production systems.

Bees are fascinating to study because some bees are solitary and others are highly social.  Since the most primitive bees appear to have been solitary, bees may give us clues on how social systems develop.

Darwin noted that insect societies challenge his theory that natural selection operates on individuals. When some wasps or bees sting you, the are committing suicide because they cannot withdraw the stinger.  In his words: “Can we consider the sting of the wasp or of the bee as perfect, which, when used against many attacking animals, cannot be withdrawn, owing to the backward serratures, and so inevitably causes the death of the insect by tearing out its viscera?”

Darwin addressed this and other difficulties posed by the biology of social insects by suggesting that natural selection acts also at the group level: “We can see how useful their production may have been to a social community of insects, on the same principle that the division of labour is useful to civilised man.”

The problem for most evolutionists is understanding how social systems  can evolve and be selected for when it is individuals that survive or die and all the molecular basis of heredity resides in individuals.  They are wedded to the idea of selection of individuals because it makes so much sense.  They don’t realize that just beause something makes sense does not make it true.

Eventually the geneticists will overcome their assumptions and agree on a mechanism to explain evolution of social systems.  Ecologists, since we focus on a different scale, don’t have to wait for that conclusion.  Whatever they come up with will be consistent with the qualities you can see everyday in all resilient systems.

In addition to modular connectivity (networked but independent), complementary diversity is a second quality of resilience illustrated by all good volunteers, including social insects.  We need a diversity of skills to help Meadowcreek thrive.  Any resilient system has high levels of diversity.  But the diversity must be of a certain type.  It must be complementary.  Diversity which does not fit in with the existing system, such as kudzu or other invasive species, can destroy the existing system.

No volunteer is free.  All have some cost for the system.  Volunteers who don’t share the goals of the system have costs which outweigh any help they can give.

Diversity must be complementary.  All must work for the common good.  But good volunteers are always welcome and cared for at Meadowcreek.

So if you are independent, but like community, come volunteer at Meadowcreek.  Whatever your skills, as long as you are dedicated to our goals, we’ll find a good job for you.  Just email us at meadow@deltanetwork.org and join our community.


If you’ve never read Charles Darwin you really should.  The quotes above are from his 1859 book, On the origin of species by means of natural selection.  You can download it free at this link. For the discussion on social insects see Chapter VI, ‘Difficulties to the theory’, pp. 202-242.

For research on use of ants in pest control in human food production, see Offenberg, J., 2015. Journal of Applied Ecology at this link.