Symbiotic Worldview. Theories and Practices of Coexistence in the Anthropocene

While the prevailing opinion in Europe at the end of the 19th century was that all interspecies coexistence was parasitic, the phenomenon of symbiosis has been increasingly debated in a variety of ways in recent years. New findings on the omnipresence and significance of symbiotic processes for the development, survival, and evolution of living beings calls into question fundamental assumptions about genetics, immunology and evolutionary biology. Many entities that we understand as ‘individuals,’ are only created through the interaction of chemical processes of symbionts. Instead of fighting ‘hostile’ microbes, the immune system seems to distinguish between symbiont and parasite via 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) have publicized the fundamental questions driving such research, inviting us to question fundamental concepts such as ‘species,’ ‘individual/self’ and ‘nature.’

The philosophical dimension of symbiosis research is being negotiated in the Environmental Humanities as a concept that allows us to critically examine the connection between Western worldviews and their environmentally destructive consequences—summarized under the term ‘Anthropocene.’ The philosopher and literary scholar Timothy Morton has appealed for us to overcome the conceptual separation of human and non-human beings and return 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, a biologist by training, has introduced the notion of ‘sympoiesis’ with reference to the work of symbiosis researcher Lynn Margulis as a fundamental and directive concept for deconstructing and overcoming the Anthropocene condition.

This dissertation focusses on the surplus of meaning generated by the term symbiosis, a concept that seems to always already exceed its biological reference by pointing to fundamentally philosophical questions. In this context, the main aspect of this research is directed towards the historical processes underlying the ontological speculations and socio-political hopes that the term has evoked at different times and the inferences that can be drawn from these shifting relations for the present.

In order to approach these questions, three phases will be examined comparatively: early re-search around the turn of the century, during which interpretations of symbiosis ranged from comparisons to slavery to that of universal altruism; the nineteen-seventies and -eighties, when 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, symbiosis research in the 21st century, where a pluralization of methods and concepts can be observed and at the same time public interest in the underlying science has been growing–especially in light of questions raised by the Anthropocene concept. In this way, the project will contribute to the expansion and linking of the growing fields of research that are concerned with the changing significance of the natural sciences and humanities in the face of the ongoing crisis of the Anthropocene.

Head researcher(s): Salome Rodeck


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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