This talk examines the historical use of model organisms in symbiosis research, focusing particularly on bipartite interactions like the plant root-rhizobium relationship and algae-fungi symbiosis in lichens. The latter has been pivotal in shaping diverse images of (i) societal structures and (ii) human individuality. This talk will scrutinize debates about lichens since the late 19th century in order to address (i) hierarchical relationships in biological and social systems, which span from master-slave dynamics to ‘symbiotic’ social companionship. Additionally, the talk will explore (ii) how model organisms in symbiosis research have influenced ideas about biological and social individuality, autonomy, and heteronomy. In recent years, for example, the works of L. Margulis and D. Haraway have shown how organisms like lichens can be understood as signposts for the interwovenness of human individuals and global environmental settings, for the loss of individualism, or for the legitimation of collective responsibility. Finally, the talk will draw on the studies of holistic theoretical biologist A. Meyer-Abich in order to problematize these two dimensions. In the 1940s, based on his analysis of lichens, A. Meyer-Abich developed the concept of holobiont. This concept anticipated key elements of Margulis’s later theory of endosymbiosis. On the one hand, A. Meyer-Abich endorsed quite different sociopolitical imaginaries (e.g. national-socialist views of symbiotic companionship); on the other, he highlighted the importance of agential autonomy and the independence of partners in ‘social symbiosis’. This intricate case serves as a catalyst for broader reflections on the nuanced role that model organisms for symbiosis play in comprehensions of both the social fabric and the individual aspects of human existence.

In English
Organized by

Maria Dębińska, Julia Sánchez-Dorado, Ben Woodard

How to Attend
  • At the venue (registration required): Registration will open on 6 March 2024

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