Symbiosis : an Universal Paradigm

Symbiosis is a fascinating subject, with indescribable extensions, not devoid of universal implications, and metaphysical considerations.

Almost all animals and plants use symbiotic bacteria, which allow them to perform certain metabolic functions by proxy. Some plants have bacteria that fix nitrogen. In the stomachs of cows, there are bacteria that digest cellulose.

Mitochondria and chloroplasts, essential components of cells, were once independent creatures, living independently of their current hosts. It is their genomic DNA, very different from that of their current host cells, that bears witness to this distant past.

It is inferred that mitochondria and chloroplasts penetrated primitive cells at a remote time and then adapted to life inside these cells. The symbiosis between mitochondria, chloroplasts and primitive cells is at the origin of giant leaps in the evolution of life. The assembly of simple structures with specific biological properties has made it possible to build increasingly complex cellular structures faster and faster. The mechanism of symbiosis thus avoided the already advanced cells having to reinvent by chance of genetic mutations what the symbiotic creatures brought them directly, on a plateau of sorts.

Physicist Freeman Dyson observes that in the universe, very many cases of symbiosis are also observed. We’re talking about symbiotic stars. Many of the objects observed in the universe are associated in symbiotic systems, either in pairs or within more complex systems. Symbiotic galaxy pairs are widespread. These symbioses frequently prepare fusions, just as ancestral cells ingested mitochondria and chloroplasts. Thus large galaxies « swallow » small galaxies after having been symbiotically associated with them for some time. The nuclei of swallowed galaxies are observed inside those that have swallowed them. This is called « galactic cannibalism ».

At the star scale, there are also many cases of symbiosis. Symbiotic star pairs are composed of a highly condensed element such as a white dwarf, a neutron star or even a black hole, and another normal star, which will also eventually be swallowed.

Symbiosis phenomena have been discovered between two neutron stars, which slow each other down due to the interaction of their gravitational waves. In the end they merge together and create a unique star in a gigantic splash of light and stellar matter, within a few thousandths of a second. This type of phenomenon is observed several times a day, through gamma-ray discharges, which are considered to be the most violent events in the universe, even more so than supernova explosions.

The Sun and Earth also form a symbiotic couple. The Earth brings chemical and environmental diversity. The Sun guarantees a stable supply of energy. Life was born thanks to the combination of the Earth’s potentialities, its variability, with the constancy and stability of the Sun.

The symbiosis paradigm applies to cells and galaxies, and also to man. For example, in the human couple. Or, on a different scale, in cultures and civilizations that are capable of symbiotic union.

We can hypothesize the existence of other forms of symbiosis, more abstract or more philosophical. Thus, the relationship of tension between the manifest and the latent can be described as symbiotic, or the link between the evidence of the phenomenal world and the mystery of the noumenal world, or between the relationship between the human and the divine.

It is possible, in order to continue to spin the metaphor of symbiosis, that we are not alone, isolated in our minds and souls, solitary like navigators lost in the ocean. We may well be, without our own knowledge, associated by several kinds of symbioses with higher forms of life whose form and power we cannot conceive, but which accompany us, throughout our peregrinations, in different planes of reality.

If everything is a system, as the ancient Chinese civilization likes to emphasize, then it is possible that our very being is an integral, systemic part of a multiplicity of symbioses, of varying importance.

Just as mitochondria play a particular role in the metabolism of each cell, just as the entire universe constantly produces countless forms of symbiosis under the influence of gravitational forces, so men, individually and collectively, may play their symbiotic role, blind, unravelable, but not mythical, on scales of time and reality, which we are unable to suspect.