Bill Long 6/5/06
Symbiosis is such a "70's" term, even though it had been around for about a century before the 1970s. It is derived from the biological realm, and emphasizes an association of two organisms which live attached to one another and contribute to each other's support. Yet it was in the 1970 when people started singing of symbiosis. Recall the he Youngbloods' tune, "Come on people now, smile on their brother, everybody get together try to love one another right now.." We might call the song "Get Together" the anthem of the communitarian movement, the movement that gave us the vocabulary of symbiosis. And then there was Paul Stookey's popular "Wedding Song" (1970) sung at countless weddings, most of which probably ended in divorce within a decade, with the following words:
"The union of your spirits, here, has caused Him to remain/ For wherever two or more of you are gathered in His name/ There is love, there is love....
As it was in the beginning is now and till the end
Woman draws her life from man and gives it back again
And there is Love, there is Love.
So, here was language of mutual interdependence, love, getting together, living together, community, symbiosis. Those were the times. I think that in the 1980s and 1990s the times changed, as they always do, and people (mostly women, as I recall) started using the term synchronicity rather than symbiosis, perhaps realizing that it wasn't so good to live with the guy after all, even though they still wanted special times. Yet the 1980s and 1990s was also the decade of "soul mates," so synchronicity didn't push all relationships to the sidelines.
The Scientific Use of Symbiosis
Normally I try to "humanize" scientific terminology, but now I want to focus on the scientific meaning of symbiosis. When it first was introduced in 1877 it was defined in terms of another word: commensalism. "In the Lichens we have the most remarkable instance in the vegetable kingdom of...symbiosis or commensalism." And, by 1882 a distinction arose between parasitism and symbiosis: "Certain animals have imbedded in their tissues numbers of unicellular algae, which are not to be regarded as parasites, but which thrive in the waste products of the animial, while the animal feeds upon the compounds elaborated by the algae. This combined condition of existence has been named by Dr. Brandt symbiosis." Thus, we see at first that symbiosis was to distinguished from parasitism; in symbiosis things seemed to "live together" in a way that benefitted both.
By the 1880s, then, we seemed to have the following terminology for association in the animal world. Beings could be: (1) autonomous; (2) commensal/symbiotic or (3) parasitic. Actually, the use of parasite in English goes back to the 1530s/1540s and refers first of all to people rather than features of the animal or plant kingdoms. In Udall's 1542 translation of Erasmus' Apophthegmes we have: "Parasites, were called such smellefeastes as would seeke to bee free geastes at riche mennes tables." Shakespeare also reflects this usage in Timon of Athens: "You knot of Mouth-Friends:...Most smiling, smooth, detested Parasites."
Establishing More Categories
As is always the case in Western thought, however, someone has to systematize things more fully, and this happened too with respect to symbiosis. By the 1940s the term symbiosis had risen to such a level that it became the generic term to describe all relationships between animals/plants. "De Bary..used symbiosis as a collective term, the subdivisions of which include parasitism and mutualism." By the 1970s this became standard in the field of biology. "Actually symbiosis.. includes mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism." Now we can understand the Wikipedia (online) Encyclopedia article on symbiosis, which divides symbiosis into six categories: (1) parasitism, where one is benefitted and the other is harmed; (2) mutualism, where there is a "win-win" situation; (3) commensalism, where one benefits and the other is not affected; (4) amensalism, in which one is harmed and the other not affected; (5) neutralism, in which both organisms are unaffected; and (6) competition, in which both organisms are harmed.
Don't you love it when something, which began as a living observation of nature gets turned into a series of categories which may or may not have living exemplars? The categories then tend to "trump" life or nature, and become the compartments or lenses through which then we tend to look back at that same nature. But who is to say whether this exhaustion of all the logical possibilities for mutual living relationships is really a helpful way to define and learn about nature? For here is what happens in the next generation after a "Wikipedia-type" definition flourishes. Educators will take this list of six ways in which bodies can live with each other, make the students learn all the terminology and, in the mean time, the students never experience the first-hand joy of actually seeing animals or plants which relate to each other in these ways. That is, our scientific terminology, in an attempt to be helpful and "exhaustive" actually may keep us from understanding and enjoying life rather than enriching that same life.
So turn with me now to a time before the terminology of symbiosis was fully fixed, so I can introduce other words to describe the various ways that things might live together.
Oh, by the way, a symbiont is one of the two members of a symbiotic relationship. Many sources call it the weaker or smaller of the two members, but there doesn't seem to be any good reason to limit it to the weaker member. Indeed, the OED says: "Either of two organisms living in symbiosis."
Copyright © 2004-2008 Wiliam R. Long