Home > bioinspiration > Is this provocative, informative, or offensive?

Is this provocative, informative, or offensive?


Different species of <i>Paramecium</i>

Several species of Paramecium. Image courtesy of the Protist Information Server.


Competitive exclusion is an ecological principle initially developed by Russian ecologist Georgii Frantsevich Gause in the early 1930s. In a series of experiments, Gause demonstrated that if two species of Paramecium that utilize the same resources are placed in direct competition with each other for limited resources, one will flourish, while the other will not. In my quest to clarify on the state of the field early this week, I came across a rather… interesting… paper entitled, “Competitive Exclusion: A biological model applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict“. Whoa.

Despite this being a rather textbook example of how biology can be used to inspire a field far outside itself (i.e., politics), it has been very interesting for me to watch the expressions as I unveil the title to fellow biologists. I have received a number of raised eyebrows and even explicit sounds of distaste. It appears that most everyone (including myself) thinks that this paper is talking about the extinction of one of the ethnic groups, a classic interpretation of competitive exclusion.

Interestingly, the author of this paper, Dr. Kristen Urban, is actually a well-traveled scholar and expert of Middle East affairs. Here is her brief biography, lifted straight from the pages of BioOne and Politics and the Life Sciences (which, by the way, is an explicit mix of biology and… politics!!):

“J. Kristen Urban, an associate professor of Political Science at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, holds an MS in Biology and PhD in Political Science, and was a 2004 Fulbright Scholar to Bahrain. She is also the recipient of a 2006 Malone Fellowship from the National Council for US-Arab Relations. Her recent academic publications have appeared in the Journal of Religion,Conflictand Peace and Literature and Nation in the Middle East, edited by Yasir Suleiman and Ibrahim Muhawi (Edinburgh University Press, 2006).”

It turns out that Dr. Urban’s use of the Principle of Competitive Exclusion is a more conservative and modern interpretation, recognizing that direct competition leads to conflict and limitation of population growth, but not necessarily elimination of one species (speaking organismally), or in this case, intergroup conflict. With this paper, she strives to explore the characteristics of the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict while using the biological principle to explore potential outcomes and solutions for remediation of the conflict:

“The Law of Competitive Exclusion suggests that a stable equilibrium between species/populations sharing a niche can only be achieved when the density dependent mechanisms of each population come into play before either outcompetes the other. In particular, the findings suggest that the key variable is not land, which can be utilized differentially, but relates to the competition coefficients involved in the competition, chief of which is nationhood. The competitive exclusion approach privileges process over outcomes,and would suggest that Palestinian sovereignty be recognized first as a legitimate construct, and only then the geographic boundaries of a Palestinian state be delineated through inter-party negotiations.”

For those of you intrigued by the conflict and how a biological principle has been applied towards trying to achieve resolution of a situation that has faced countless gridlocks and set-backs, I highly encourage you to read this paper, and develop your own opinion to the question: is this particular application of bioinspiration provocative, informative, or offensive?

  1. 10 November, 2010 at 16:22

    I think we need to be really careful about translation attempts such as these, and how much they qualify as BID. As a general principle, BID is about analogical transfer. That implies both the use of analogy as an aid to discovery, but also the use of analogy as proof of concept regarding the mechanism. I don’t see a very deep analogy here between biology and the Palestinian issue, at least something that is not basic common sense. I think the analogy here is really being used as a justification. Why do the individuals compete more with members of the same “species” more (or less) then each other. Why is land or water not a limiting resource-how can an idea result in K? Aren’t there other aspects of relationships between nation states then the actions of their individual members? If so, why is a competition analogy appropriate?

    This seems much like the state of industrial ecology. A rather superficial application of analogy that does little more than validate common sense. So-not offensive-but not useful either.

    How is your class going?

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