Symbiotic Lives. Theories and Practices of Coexistence in the Anthropocene

The study of symbioses, the lasting associations between unlike organisms, has become increasingly prominent in the life sciences with the advent of new sequencing technologies over the past two decades. They enable biologists to trace the complex coexistences and interrelationships of microorganisms with each other as well as with plants, animals, and fungi. Since biological knowledge is central to the Western understanding of reality, life, and self, it is not surprising that this profound questioning of the discipline’s fundamental assumptions has also resonated with a broader public. Science and art exhibitions, in particular, have taken up symbiotic knowledge.

In this context, climate change and the Anthropocene form a basis on which this coexistence takes on a new importance. It exceeds the romantic notion of connectedness to nature and instead focusses on questions of humanity’s survival and the biosphere as we know and need it. In this context, recent research findings on symbiosis are treated as evidence for a conception of nature that understands and describes life as a generally cooperative process. On a microscopic level, nature might be much more benevolent and cooperative than we previously assumed. This allows for a new political and ontological understanding of symbiosis as well as for a revaluation of the human species as part of a living planet.

Among the most important key figures for this political interpretation of symbiosis are Lynn Margulis and Donna Haraway. Over the course of their scholarly work, both authors have declared symbiosis a ‘material-semiotic’ figure of thought that can be used to describe not only biological processes, but also higher education policy, capitalism, and the climate crisis. In other words, for Margulis and Haraway, symbiosis has always been more than a scientific term; it functions as an ontological category that can be used to criticise predominant modes of being and to outline new ways of life.

Starting from the important role of these two scholars, this doctoral project aims at highlighting the genesis of symbiosis as an ontology in Margulis’ and Haraway’s work: How do they shape the transformation of a scientific concept into a political and philosophical one? What role do metaphors and other representational techniques play? What philosophical resources are included or alluded to? What is the role of scientific networks and friendships? To what extent can their practices be understood as symbiotic? Through textual analysis, the review of archive materials and media appearances, and interviews with members of their thinking collectives, the project traces Margulis’ and Haraway’s symbiotic ontology and how it emerged from the social upheavals and intellectual currents of the 1960s and ’70s in which both women were actively involved. Thus, the project explores just how Margulis gave ontological weight to symbiosis in her exchange with thinkers of diverse backgrounds, and just how Haraway expanded upon Margulis’ efforts. On one hand, by reading and speaking to biologists, Haraway incorporates the conceptual image of symbiosis into her own relational ontology. On the other hand, she adds ontological elements to the symbiosis research of fellow colleagues.


Fig. above: © D.M. Nagu

Head researcher(s): Salome Rodeck


Salome Rodeck


13 Jun 2021 · 6.00 pm

Salome Rodeck a.o.: Learning How to Live Together: A Symbiotic Worldview

online via Zoom

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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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