Coral polyps symbiosis
Project (2019-)

Symbiotic Knowledge: The Biology and Philosophy of Cohabitation in the Anthropocene

The recent proliferation of ecological discourses can partly be understood as a response to growing consensus on climate change and the Anthropocene proposition. The central message is that ecologies matter, and human lifestyles have become unpredictably involved in the foundations of the Earth’s biogeochemical functioning. The folding of the natural and cultural realms has inspired a range of humanities scholars to engage with the environmental sciences in order to uncover, understand, and criticize the human-made transformation of the planet.

Symbiosis, the idea of organisms living in association with each other, is one such area of engagement. Timothy Morton, the environmental philosopher, has proposed to recognize the increasing knowledge of ecological entanglement as “the symbiotic real.” Feminist STS scholar Donna Haraway has drawn on the Holobiont debate in the life sciences, and with the “Camille Stories,” presented a piece of speculative fiction on symbiotically altered transhumans. And Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers have repopularized Lynn Margulis’ Gaia hypothesis, the notion that the accumulated metabolic processes of living organisms have profoundly shaped Earth’s surface.

Starting from the growing popularity of symbiosis as a way of rethinking planetary life, this project traces this development through the complex intertwinement of cultural and scientific imaginaries. My analysis follows symbiosis-as-discourse from its mid-nineteenth century inception and initial marginalization to its popularization in the 1970s and 1980s and recent proliferation in both the life sciences and the humanities. The project explores how symbiosis has repeatedly inspired scholars to think about the conditions of sociability and cohabitation in both the “natural world” and human societies. With the advent of the Anthropocene discourse, rethinking these terms has gained new relevance. By contextualizing the renewed interest in symbiosis in relation to the history and philosophy of biology, this project contributes to a better understanding of how Anthropocene knowledge transforms entire fields and disciplines. It also stresses the importance of critical engagement with knowledge transfers between the natural sciences and humanities, in order to avoid naïve scientism undermining the relevance and implications of thinking symbiotically.