No one on the playground seemed to know where it came from or what it was all about, but it sure was fun. Just square off with a friend and off you go. Rock smashes scissors, but can be covered by paper. Paper covers rock, but can be cut by scissors. Scissors cuts paper, but can be smashed by rock. Maybe you called it ick-ack-ock, ching-chang-cholly, zig-zag-zog or ro-sham-bo.
As adult we play the game less often but are now in a position to appreciate its implications. Our first insight is that this game is unique. It’s not a polarized, zero-sum game, like so many of our competitive sports. Nor is it a cooperative game like playing in a band or climbing a mountain with a partner. No, this is something altogether different, a balanced three-way game structure in which there is no perfect alpha. Any hand gesture can be overcome by one other.
Likewise, it doesn’t take long before we realize that rock-scissors-paper is also a good model for a healthy ecosystem, a healthy body and a healthy life. Instead of three players, of course, there are millions. The complexity is immense, but the fundamental quality remains. Each “player” can prevail over some others at some times, but not always or everywhere. The game is internally self-regulating. This is how ecophysiology works.
Naturally, some will wonder about the top carnivores in a natural ecosystem. “Can’t the bears and lions and killer whales beat both scissors and paper?” It may well appear so, but even these megafauna can be defeated by microorganisms, famine, drought, floods or climate change. Strict hierarchy is a invention of agricultural and industrial minds; the true organization of a healthy system is circular and horizontal. There is no king of the biological hill.
The same principle holds true within the body itself. No organ, hormone, brain circuit or neurotransmitter is master. All systems are regulated by some other system or substance. When a process moves towards extremity, another process steps in to keep it in check. Extremes get regulated: blood pressure, blood sugar, heart rate, digestion, immunity, cellular growth: all are subject to control by other entities. Of course, this self-regulation isn’t always perfect. When the body fails to generate an effective counter-argument to a process run amok, disease is the result.
Traditional Paleo cultures recognized and embraced the spirit of rock-scissors-paper in their daily experience. The elders knew there was always some other life process that could beat them in an encounter - predators, poisonous plants, bad weather or disease. Indeed, the rock-scissors-paper game is still played in Indonesia as 'earwig-man-elephant' - elephant beats man, man beats earwig and earwig beats elephant (by crawling through his brain!).
Sadly, Western Civilization is not content to accept the rock-scissors-paper game. We find it too unpredictable and capricious; we want control. Our goal is to become, as Descartes put it, “masters and possessors of Nature.” Not satisfied with an occasional victory and reasonable security, we try to rig the game so that we are always alpha. Instead of accepting a limited, participatory role, we try to dominate the action with powerful machines, fossil fuels, pesticides, computers and hyper-specialization.
Likewise, we try to lock down our health with “ultimate” diets, exotic exercise programs and all manner of performance enhancements. Instead of playing the game with skill, grace and dignity, we try to rig the outcome. We take no chances.
Trying to gain an ultimate victory in rock-scissors-paper is a fool’s goal. The biosphere has more ways to trump us than we could ever imagine. The diversity of microorganisms alone is beyond our comprehension. Nature is supremely creative and is constantly finding new ways to regulate errant players. We defy the game at our peril.
Even if we could dominate the game, it would be a mistake. Gaining an ultimate advantage would disenchant our lives and slay the adventure. Risk is nourishment for our bodies and our spirits, but the modern Westerner, living in a world stripped of unpredictability, is starving for experience, ambiguity and physical engagement. We need the psychic insecurity that the rock-scissors-paper game provides.
To be truly healthy, we need to participate with life on equal footing and live within the circle of mutual influence. To play a sustainable game of rock-scissors-paper, we must abide by its spirit and ground rules. To play without catastrophic defeat, we must occasionally yield to other forces. At this point in history, humility would be appropriate and intelligent.