Symbiotic Knowledge. Biologies and Philosophies of Cohabitation in the Anthropocene

How can we describe the coexistence of different organisms? How intimate are their interconnections? While at the end of the 19th century the opinion prevailed in Europe that all interspecies coexistence was parasitic, the phenomenon of symbiosis has, in recent years, been increasingly debated in a variety of ways. New findings on the omnipresence and significance of symbiotic processes for the development, survival and evolution of living beings seem to call into question fundamental assumptions of genetics, immunology and evolutionary biology. For example, many structures of organisms, which we understand as ‘individuals,’ are only created through the interaction of chemical processes of the symbionts. Instead of fighting ‘hostile’ microbes, the immune system seems to distinguish between symbiont and parasite only in complex ‘negotiations’ with microorganisms. Popular scientific books such as Ed Yong’s I contain multitudes (2017) and Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (2017) pick up the fundamental questions of such research findings and invite us to question common terms such as ‘species,’ ‘individual/self’ or ‘nature.’

This philosophical dimension of symbiosis research is increasingly serving the environmental humanities to critically examine the connection between Western worldviews and their environmentally destructive consequences—subsumed under the term Anthropocene. Thus, the philosopher and literary scholar Timothy Morton advocates overcoming the conceptual separation of human and non-human beings and returning to what he calls the ‘symbiotic real.’ Sociologist of science Bruno Latour uses the Gaia hypothesis to initiate a re-evaluation of the ontological status of planet Earth as a symbiotic whole. Finally, Donna Haraway, herself a biologist by training, refers to symbiosis researcher Lynn Margulis to develop ‘sympoiesis’ as a fundamental and directive concept for deconstructing and overcoming the Anthropocene.

The dissertation project focusses on the surplus of meaning of symbiosis as a concept that is not purely biological, but always already philosophical. In this context, the main interest is directed towards questions concerning the historical change of the ontological speculations and socio-political hopes that the term has evoked at different times in history and the inferences that can be drawn for the present.

In order to approach these questions, three phases will be examined comparatively: Early research around the turn of the century in which interpretations of symbiosis ranged from comparisons of slavery to universal altruism. The nineteen-seventies and -eighties in which efforts to establish symbiosis as a counter-movement to gene-centered reductionism went hand in hand with a critical examination of human-nature relationships in the context of global environmental movements. And finally, the symbiosis research of the 21st century, which is seeing a pluralization of methods and concepts and, at the same time, growing public interest, especially with regard to the questions raised by the Anthropocene concept. In this way, the project aims to contribute to the expansion and convergence of the growing fields of research concerned with the changing significance of the natural sciences and humanities—a process paralleling the dissolution of the human-nature dualism in the face of the Anthropocene.

ZfL Doctoral Fellowship 2020–2022
Head researcher(s): Salome Rodeck



15 Feb 2019

Salome Rodeck: Symbiosis. The Past, Present and Future of a Concept

Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Boltzmannstraße 22, 14195 Berlin

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