Biological techniques for accelerating your business networks

Nature’s preferred method for creating complex new species is known as Symbiogenesis which suggests that complex new species usually form, not by an act of independent ‘quantum evolution’, but by the coming together and merging of two or more (less complex but independent) species. We can also apply this to business networks.


In a previous article, How to make a business network grow, I reviewed research which showed that in terms of network growth - size and fitness are the two critical factors in attracting new members.

However this is only part of the story on growing a business network with enough strength and diversity in depth to provide comparable resources as a large monolithic corporation.

To complete the picture we have to understand an amazing biological phenomenon – Symbiogenesis.

Random mutation and gene trading are the two principal means for bacterial evolution. However it was known that neither of these methods were effective in explaining the larger forms of life.

The big question was how did these higher forms of life evolve?

This question was answered in the 1960’s by Lynn Margulis [1,2] with the discovery of Symbiogenesis - a third, totally unexpected avenue of evolution with profound implications for all branches of biology.

I contend it also has huge implications for todays business networks.

What is Symbiogenesis?

Symbiogenesis is nature’s method for creating complex new species.

Margulis discovered that within the more complex biological cells there is genetic material which exists outside the cell nucleus. When this material is analysed it is clear that it has not come from the nucleus but from the DNA of other independent species.The theory suggests that in nature complex new species usually form, not by an act of independent ‘quantum evolution’, but by the coming together and merging of two or more (less complex but independent) species.

This often starts with one species eating the other which responds by exploiting its host as a parasite. Over time this combative form of symbiosis (See Article : How symbiotic is your collaboration) can evolve into symbiogenesis where the smaller species becomes forever part of the larger species albeit maintaining its own distinct structure but living forever inside the body of the host.

But what has Symbiogenesis to do with business networks?

Rather a lot actually! Symbiogenesis suggests that if we want to develop a network which has real resource richness, depth and texture then the best way to do it is not to go it alone in trying to grow our network.

Instead we should try to date and merge with other networks.

Principles of 'Network Dating'

In keeping with the theory of Symbiogenesis there are some important principles to follow in network dating:

  1. It needs time
    Symbiogenesis does not happen overnight - there needs to be a getting to know each other period between networks.
  2. It needs intimacy and risk-taking
    Eating and being a parasite are acts which involve intimacy and vulnerability - both networks must take the risk of disclosing and exposing to each other.
  3. It may actually come out of competition
    Symbiogenesis often starts in a prey-predator scenarios – don’t just consider friendly networks as potential partners.
  4. It needs diversity
    A cornerstone of symbiogenesis is that the two species are significantly different (often in size and function) and can be mutually advantageous to each other. So consider much bigger and much smaller networks than your own and also those in different business sectors.
  5. Three is not a crowd
    Many examples of symbiogenesis include multiple species (e.g. Mixotricha Paradoxa is a minute ameba made up of at least 5 kinds of organism ). So you may date one network at a time but don’t treat it as a marriage of just two parties.

The key stages in network dating

I propose that there are at al least three distinct stages in the network dating roadmap as we progress towards full inter-network symbiogenesis particularly :

  1. Linked Networks
    This is where two networks have established mechanisms for regular exchange of information and relationship development.

  2. Bonded Networks
    This is where some agreements are now in place between the networks on joint action – however the networks are still largely independent.

  3. Merged Networks
    This is where the networks now closely co-ordinate all their activities and information on an on-going basis – true symbiogenesis.

So if you want to grow a network which has richness, diversity, depth and texture then the best way to do it is not to go it alone but to learn from symbiogenesis and start network dating.

References and more technical material

[1] “The Symbiotic Planet – A New Look at Evolution” by Lynn Margulis and published by Science Masters 1998

The following useful commentary on the book is from an educational forum

Microbiologists have known for some time that the most fundamental division among all forms of life is not that between plants and animals, as most people assume, but one between two kinds of cells - cells with and without a cell nucleus.

Bacteria, the simplest life forms, do not have cell nuclei and are therefore also called prokaryotes ("non-nucleated cells"), whereas all other cells have nuclei and are called eukaryotes ("nucleated cells"). All the cells of higher organisms are nucleated, and eukaryotes also appear as single-celled, nonbacterial microorganisms.

In her study of genetics Margulis become intrigued by the fact that not all genes in a nucleated cell are found inside the cell nucleus:

”We were all taught that the genes were in the nucleus and that the nucleus is the central control of the cell. Early in my study of genetics, I became aware that other genetic systems with different inheritance patterns exist. From the beginning I was curious about those unruly genes that weren't in the nucleus.

As she studied this phenomenon more closely, Margulis found out that nearly all the "unruly genes" are derived from bacteria, and gradually she came to realize that they belong to distinct living organisms, live small cells residing inside larger cells.

Symbiosis, the tendency of different organisms to live in close association with one another and often inside one another (like the bacteria in our intestines), is a widespread and well-known phenomenon. But Margulis went a step further and proposed the hypothesis that long-term symbioses, involving bacteria and other microorganisms living inside larger cells, have led and continue to lead to new forms of life.

Margulis published her revolutionary hypothesis first in the mid-1960s and over the years developed it into a full-fledged theory, now known as "symbiogenesis," which sees the creation of new forms of life through permanent symbiotic arrangements as a principal avenue of evolution for all higher organisms.

The most striking evidence for evolution through symbiosis is presented by the so-called mitochondria, the "powerhouses" inside most nucleated cells. These vital parts of all animal and plant cells, which carry out cellular respiration, contain their own genetic material and reproduce independently and at different times from the rest of the cell. Margulis speculates that the mitochondria were originally free-floating bacteria that in ancient times invaded other microorganisms and took up permanent residence inside them.

"The merged organisms went on to evolve into more complex oxygen-breathing forms of life," Margulis explains. "Here then, was an evolutionary mechanism more sudden than mutation: a symbiotic alliance that becomes permanent."

[2] “Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life”, by Nick Lane, Oxford,

Reviewed in The mother of inventions, Saturday November 12, 2005, The Guardian

“Margulis argued that mitochondria were originally free-living organisms, which became engulfed by other cells, which, themselves lacking the mitochondrial capacity to oxidise, struck a different bargain. Instead of eating the creatures they swallowed, they used the mitochondria to perform the chemical transformations needed to derive the maximum energy from their other foodstuffs.

The mitochondria sacrificed their own individuality, but the combined - symbiotic - cells were so efficient that they out-reproduced most other life forms and became the basic stock from which all today's multicellular organisms evolved”.

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