What does it mean to be the greatest country on earth? Many Americans equate that title with winning wars, saying that our country deserves its advantages because of its military prowess. But does destroying enemies really make us superior?
At the root of this debate is an oversimplification of evolutionary science. Nearly everyone is familiar with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, or the idea that more-able organisms tend to produce more offspring, driving evolution. This phenomenon, commonly referred to as “survival of the fittest” (a term coined by English philosopher Herbert Spencer), is often extended to justify American exceptionalism.
But recent discoveries in biology are putting a hole in that logic. In our own bodies, microbial cells outnumber human cells 10 to 1; those organisms help us digest food, develop our immune system and more. Additionally, nearly 10% of the human genome may be viral DNA. We are not simply individuals who have won some evolutionary competition; we are systems of cooperating species.
In that sense, the whole paradigm of competition has to be reconsidered. It’s the cooperation–not always willing–of humans worldwide that allows Americans to enjoy the advantages of cheap food, cheap goods and cheap gas. And as other countries rise, eventually things will even out. The end result will be a population in equilibrium, much like the bacteria and viruses that thrive within our bodies. It’s time we start considering how to manage that coming coexistence.
Graffin is the author of Population Wars: A New Perspective on Competition and Coexistence
This appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of TIME.