Co-operation & Community








Atoms and Community


Kevin Loughran



There is a tradition of using the metaphor of the atom to describe a supposed state of separate and self-interested existence.  For example, Matt Ridley described the first life on earth as being atomistic and individual.1  Norton Long described modern American cities as economic sites for combining and re-combining atoms.2


But atoms are not separate, isolated entities.  An atom, as a fundamental unit of a particular chemical element, is a part of a whole: it is a sub-division.


The use of the metaphor of the atom reflects a tendency to see existence in terms of its individual components, whether material objects or human beings, rather than in terms of interactions and the outcomes of interactions.


Atoms exist in a dynamic state: they move; they interact with each other; they combine to form molecules.  Atoms can be seen as readily as a metaphor for connectedness, energy, interaction, association, bonding as a metaphor for separate existence.  It would be as realistic to talk about atoms in terms of association and community as it would be to talk of them in terms of isolation.


People exist in a dynamic state.  They interact; they combine in relationships and in different forms of association.  Dwelling on what is separate in human existence may encourage a tendency to over-emphasise what is unchanging in that existence.


For example: community may be discussed in terms of individual persons, a place, a particular social group rather than in terms of the process of conscious interaction and patterns of relationships which develop.  Martin Buber expressed this idea of community as being dynamic when he declared that community is “where community happens.” 3


It may seem strange to draw parallels between the state of existence of inorganic matter and the state of existence of human beings.  James Trefil, Harold J. Morowitz and Eric Smith noted what seems a deep gap between inorganic matter and life. 4  Yet according to Darwinian evolution, the first life forms must have evolved from inorganic matter.  They proposed a view of life as originating from a series of simple chemical reactions.  There is here less of a problem, less of a ‘gap’ if it is realised that matter is not still.  It is in a constant state of movement and change, because the atoms and molecules and sub-atomic particles which constitute matter are in a constant state of interaction and development (and decay).



Kevin Loughran






1   The Origins of Virtue.  Penguin / Viking. 1996.  p.152


2  The city as a political community,  Journal of Community Psychology. Vol. 14, no. 1, 1986.  p. 72


3  Between Man and Man.  English translation.  Collins / Fontana, 1973.  p. 51.


4  The origin of life, American Scientist.  Vol. 97, 2009.  p.206



















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