Lecture
22 Mar 2024

From Lichen to Human Life

Symbiotic Organisms as Models of Social Organization
By Jan Baedke
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.

Venue

ICI Berlin
(Click for further documentation)

With

Jan Baedke

Organized by

Maria Dębińska
Julia Sánchez-Dorado
Ben Woodard

In English

First published on: https://www.ici-berlin.org/events/jan-baedke/
Rights: © ICI Berlin

Part of the Symposium

Model Organisms: Materiality, History and Politics

Model organisms are life forms used to test biological theories of various kinds in laboratory settings. Research with model organisms muddies the line between models as material objects and models as abstract entities. Model organisms are not fully constructed, since they are evolved beings, but the longer they reside in a laboratory the less they resemble their kin in the wild. At the same time the construction of biological generalities from the research results from one model organism involves an extrapolation beyond species constraints.

The aim of this symposium is to investigate how research practices and theories of life are differently deployed according to different organisms and their affordances. This is particularly evident in the choice of organism and how it produces not only bio-medical results but also generates historical, cultural, and artistic relations.

For example, the genetics of fruit flies slowly begins to stand in for genetics in general, the deep homologies discovered through cephalopod eyes surprises in part due to their supposed alienness, epigenetic effects in agouti mice give hope for human dietary diseases, the regenerative capacities of the axolotl become bound up with fantasies of immortality, and the horizontal gene transfer among archaea and bacteria undermine our notions of organismal or even philosophical individuality.

Venue

ICI Berlin
(Click for further documentation)

With

Héloïse Athéa
Anika Bartens
Tarsh Bates
Cécile Fasel
Erin Freedman
Axel Gelfert
Tarquin Holmes
Anatolii Kozlov
Mariano Martín-Villuendas
Anna Mikkola
Celeste Pérez-Ben
Ombre Tarragnat
Jacqueline Wallis
Yoshinari Yoshida
Sabina Leonelli
Rachel Ankeny
Jan Baedke

Organized by

Maria Dębińska
Julia Sánchez-Dorado
Ben Woodard
Cite as: Jan Baedke, ‘From Lichen to Human Life: Symbiotic Organisms as Models of Social Organization’, lecture presented at the symposium Model Organisms: Materiality, History and Politics, ICI Berlin, 22 March 2024 <https://doi.org/10.25620/e240322-1>