x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The Pocket Guide To Modern Life: Aesop and acacias

Nikolaus Oliver is on hand with a morality tale straight out of Aesop about African ants, elephants, giraffes and acacia trees.

In Africa, some kinds of acacia trees have a symbiotic relationship with swarming ants. The tree gives the ants food and shelter, and the ants fight off grazing elephants. The tree likes this, because elephants tend to destroy trees by stripping the bark off them in their eagerness to get a meal.

But when they start on this particular acacia - it's Acacia depranolobium, for your information - the ants rush over and sting the elephants all over the sensitive underside of their trunks. So it's good that the elephants can smell the ants, and approach Acacia depranolobium with extreme caution. Yet if the elephants ignore the tree altogether, it stops producing food for the ants, which go elsewhere and are replaced by nasty wood-boring beetles that kill the tree.

Giraffes, for reasons best known to themselves, don't care about being stung by ants, so they eat the leaves. But then, being less greedy than elephants, they don't strip the bark and so don't threaten the tree. And in any case, acacia trees have other plans for giraffes. As soon as a giraffe starts on the acacia leaves, the tree pumps out chemicals that make the leaves taste terrible. Not only that, they send a signal downwind so that all the acacia trees in the neighbourhood do the same. Which would leave the giraffe nothing good to eat.

So the giraffe has to work the acacia trees upwind and can get only a few leaves from each before the leaves start tasting bad and it has to move on. And that also explains why giraffes seldom throw dinner parties. Now, none of this is modern. It's been going on for years, although admittedly we knew nothing about it. But that's not the point. It seems to me that all this symbiosis and interliving has something to tell us.

Much of our thinking about economic life is predicated on ideas about competition and the fight for survival that go back to Charles Darwin and his The Origin Of Species. Yet in the natural world success seems to be as much about networking as fighting. The pursuit of self-interest doesn't mean trampling on other people. Quite the opposite. We must nurture them because they feed the system that feeds us. The elephantine industries and the ant-like sole traders exist in complex relations to one another.'

The giraffes have spoken: we must care for each other.