fun among the fungus! politics and science in the 19th century


It isn’t known as well as it should be that both Georg F Hegel and Beatrice Potter were players in the study of the biology of the lichen, which in turn revolutionized the study of natural selection. Or at least I didn’t know. I do now thanks to Jan Sapp’s Evolution by Association: a history of symbiosis. A book I’d heartily recommend.


Hegel came first. Technically, Hegel didn’t know a lichen from a snowy owl. But he did put forward a view of the master-slave relationship in the Phenomenology of Spirit which must have influenced Simon Schwendener, a Swiss biologist who looked at lichens through the microscope and was startled by the fact, as he saw it, that lichens were not plants or organisms like the oak and the tiger. Rather, he claimed, they were composites.

Lichens, he argued, represented a master-slave relationship. The master was a fungus of the order scomycetes, "a parasite which is accustomed to live upon the work of others; its slaves are green algals, which it has sought out or indeed caught hold of, and forced into its service." He went on to describe how the fungus surrounds the alga, "as a spider does its prey, with a fibrous net of narrow meshes, which is gradually converted into an impenetrable covering. While, however, the spider sucks its prey and leaves it lying dead, the fungus incites the algae taken in its web to more rapid activity, nay, to more vigorous increase."7

This view, which Schwendener released to the world in 1868 (when, in America, they were putting in place the 13th and 14th amendments), was immediately controversial. Some thought this messed up the whole Linnean schema, and thus it couldn’t be true – another instance of classification influencing the classified. But Beatrice Potter in the 1890s also looked at lichens, and saw that Schwendener was right, at least about lichens being composite. But the paper she wrote about it had to be given to the Linnean society by her uncle, since the society didn’t allow women – even in the audience. And she couldn’t proceed with her studies as the British Museum because she was a woman who had made a stink. So she said to hell with it and turned to writing classic children’s tales. I don’t know if any enterprising critic has seen a lichenous theme in the Tale of Peter Rabbit, but I’d bet there is one somewhere.
Of course, in the 1860s and in the 1890s, the real intellectuals thought everything was competition. Surely! Superior races succeeding inferior ones, and all that. Nature bloody in tooth and claw. So the idea that all might actually be something else – cooperation – that was an offense to the Zeitgeist. If this was true, anarchy would rule the world!
These political views were not separate from the science. The positivist view that science floats on a cloud of theory above objective facts gives us a poor sense of what science does, since in the end theory is always about interpreting and organizing facts – and showing which ones are pertinent and which aren’t, showing what explains exceptions, etc. Just as the political economics of Malthus run through Darwin – which is not a criticism of Darwin, but an explanation of how science reaches out for models – so to the beginning of the discovery of symbiosis was couched, plainly, in terms of political power.  Its rejection, too – a rejection of any model that can’t be reduced to competition – is plainly political. Which isn’t to say it is wrong; rather, the controversies it arouses depend very much on organizing our vision of things.

It was out of this kind of controversy that symbiosis, as distinct from parasitism, was born:
“Some came to see in the lichen the possibility of a
more general phenomenon: associations between phylogenetically distinct organism
that ranged from the loosest to the most intimate and essential, and
from the most antagonistic and one-sided to the most beneficial for the wellbeing
of both associates. A neutral term was required that did not prejudge
such relationships as parasitic. Therefore, in 1877, Albert Bernhard Frank
(1839-1900) at Leipzig coined the word Symbiotismus: "We must bring all the
cases where two different species live on or in one another under a comprehensive
concept which does not consider the role which the two individuals play
but is based on the mere coexistence and for which the term Symbiosis
{Symbiotismus} is to be recommended.”

Interestingly, the other term in contention at that time was “mutualism”. This, naturally, was abhorrently sentimental to biologists who unthinkingly adopted the term “competition”, as if this was not rooted in a very heteronormative sentimentality that sits in an EZ chair, waves a pennant and roots for the home team.



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