So We’re All Lichens Now?

Getting back to the lichens. For many, they’re just background, splotches on trees and rocks, if they’re even noticed at all. But boy, have they been on a wild ride in human thinking of late. …

You probably know lichens are lifeforms that intertwine fungi and alga or cyanobacteria. Yeasts and other bacteria and sometimes another fungi can be involved, too. Lichens aren’t fungi, although their binomials are based on their fungal component. They aren’t alga or cyanobacteria, either. They’re chimeras, conjoining lifeforms otherwise considered to be in entirely different kingdoms. That’s weird — or is it? That’s the tree of life branching together, not apart. (Darwin, whose only illustration in The Origin is a sketch of branching forms, initially thought of corals as the metaphor for the history of life.)

The nineteenth century, the laissez faire capitalism that neoliberals have been remarkably successful in dragging us back to, gave us the notion that life was all competition, red in tooth et cetera. In hindsight, and some said this at the time, this was good cover for robber barons, racial capitalism, colonialism.

The dual hypothesis theory of lichens was formulated by Simon Schwendener (1829–1919), who was laughed out of the hall when he suggest that lichens were symbiotic. Subsequent notions of symbiosis stem from this model life-form. For it turns out life is quite chimerical. Our cells are powered by mitochondria. Plants have chloroplasts. Both seem to have been initially free-living organisms incorporated/joined into other cells. Genetic swaps aren’t just parent(s) to child; they can cross horizontally as well. (Instead of Spencer and his ilk, we should be looking at the anarchist Kropotkin, who wrote a book about cooperation in nature.)*

Today, we’re all a lot more amenable to the notion that we ourselves, utterly dependent on our gut bacteria, are something beyond just “I.” “Us” is more like it, as in, “I am an us.” The tree in the forest is not just a tree in the forest, but interconnected with mycorrhizae and interconnected with other plants through mycorrhizae. (Not to mention being habitat, and all those myriad interconnections…)

So, we are all lichens now, say the authors of “A Symbiotic View of Life: We Have Never Been Individuals.” Life as “complex, intermingled relationships–not only among microbes, but also between microscopic and macroscopic life.”

“Symbiosis is becoming a core principle of contemporary biology, and it is replacing an essentialist conception of “individuality” with a conception congruent with the larger systems approach now pushing the life sciences in diverse directions.”

This, says David Griffiths, is all very queer, as he riffs on the binaries we’ve imposed on life (and human sexuality) as the political constructs they are.

Much food for thought.

*Addendum: “Herbert Spencer had used the lichen symbiosis as microcosm of his super-organismic outlook on life. He saw it ‘communistic arrangement.'” Schwendener saw it as a master/slave slave relationship.

2 Responses to “So We’re All Lichens Now?”


  1. 1 Sherry Felix December 14, 2020 at 2:51 am

    I was just tho king about that. We are us.

  2. 2 bridgetbenbug December 21, 2020 at 8:24 am

    I’m watching trees being felled and thinking about this.
    As you say, ‘The tree in the forest is not just a tree in the forest’


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