Parasitic Wasps, Biopolitics and the Tree of Life

Last week, we learned of a species of parasitic wasp, which through the transmission of a symbiotic virus produced in its ovaries to a caterpillar host, has actually been able to transfer parts of its genome into the host’s lineage.  The evolutionary history of this horizontal gene transfer, scientists estimate, dates back as many as 100 million years.  Apparently, certain species of moth and butterfly have appropriated the virally transmitted wasp genome, adapting it in order to provide some resistance against the common pathogen baculovirus, similar in structure to the symbiotic bracovirus produced by the wasp[1].

Genetically modified organisms occur in nature; the image of the atomic individual adapting solutions to problems presented to it by its environment, in competition for its survival, is problematized.  The genetic expressions of some species histories are characterized by reciprocity, if not outright mutual aid (most caterpillars die while performing the role of host.)  Thus, the orthodox conception of evolutionary adaptation, which problematizes the environment for individuals and reduces organisms to struggling organs of behaviour and which views populations as breeding pools, stands in need of some revision.

This orthodox adaptationist view is perhaps most recognizable in the image of the “Tree of Life”: the phylogenetic portraiture of evolutionary histories and ancestral relations, which so transfixed the early Darwinists, such as Haeckel…

Haeckel's Early Darwinian

Though Haeckel’s particular depiction is heavily dated, the figurative phylogenetic tree hangs over evolutionary biology even today – perhaps a consequence of modern Neo-Darwinism’s post-Enlightenment hangover.  Just this summer, a tremendous research project mutually supported variously by institutes of computational biology and natural or evolutionary history across the United States has resulted in the publication of the Open Tree of Life, a collaborative platform for the synthesis of phylogeny and taxonomy into a comprehensive tree-model[2] (whose “tips” number several orders of magnitude higher than those seen in Haeckel’s earlier depiction.)

But we have seen how parasitic wasps and archaeal viruses complicate this model, which establishes hard species barriers outside of ancestry and thereby obscures the possibility of genome fusion and horizontal gene transfer in evolutionary histories.  New phenotypic models that attempt to account for these phenomena have illustrated trees with deep and circular primordial root systems[3].  Further conceptual options include bushes, forests, and nets[4].  It makes sense to ask what kind of shape our tree is in: whether it is indeed standing strong despite countervailing evidence, or whether it is withering.

The tree-model depicts species histories as stratified and progressing (towards optimal adaptation vis-à-vis natural selection at the levels of genes, organisms, and/or cultures) as a result of competition within a shared environment.  Just as the Copernican Revolution brought about a shift in cultural consciousness, from a view of human existence under God as residing in His universal center to being just another speck in a godless sky, so has the Darwinian Revolution ushered in the era of biopolitics: the social and political being of humankind is seen as capable of reduction to biological explanations, and of subject to biological controls.  The competitive struggle for life results in genetic winners and losers emerging from the game of nature; the ethos of struggle and savagery is supremely vindicated.

The participation of the sciences in the early development of capitalism across Europe allowed science to serve “as an externality of the capitalist expansion, like roads and lighthouses, and as a way to solve particular problems”[5].  For the rising European bourgeoisie, the question of its own freedom was a problem for it, just as the question of the expression of freedom through ownership and exploitation is for it in the modern day of neoliberal capitalist globalization.  The early biopolitics thus opened as a theatre for the ideological ascendancy of a class rising to rule; this class was the bourgeoisie, who across Europe could wield scientific knowledge as an ideological weapon by which to unshackle itself from old feudal oppressions and religiosity.

Darwin’s theory of evolution was not widely supported at the time of its publication in 1859.  Historians of evolutionary history have long emphasized that that the reception of a theory is as much a result of the particular sociopolitical context into which it is introduced (or by which it is given birth), as it is of the theory’s actual content[6].  Major conflicts arose between the early evolutionary theory and church dogma, but these mostly gave way by the end of the century, having only recently resurfaced after points of disagreement fell out of favour even among theologians and other church scholars (as in the case of Christian fundamentalism in the United States, which has embraced anew Ussher’s infamous date for the creation of the Earth in 4004 B.C.)  Interestingly, this resurgence resembles an ideological counterrevolution from the fundamentalist Christian Right, against the ideologically bourgeois revolutions whose avatars are Copernicus and Darwin.  Who knows the essence of life, controls it.

In the modern theatre of biopolitics, life continues to be imagined on the basis of oppressive ideology: of “freedom” expressed only through individualism.  The “Modern Synthesis” of the Neo-Darwinists between evolutionary laws operating at the level of populations and the laws of classical genetics has gone so far as to reduce evolutionary histories to the competitive instincts of autonomous selfish genes.  But,

What of the autonomous individual organism, often the conceptual target of attempts to define life, and the thing that is assumed by models of evolution through competition and selection? To the extent that such individual autonomy requires just an individual life or life history, then it surely applies much more broadly than is generally intended by biological theorists. Countless non-cellular entities have individual life-histories, which they achieve through contributing to the lives and life-histories of the larger entities in which they collaborate, and this collaboration constitutes their claim to life. But – and this is our central point – no more and no less could be said of the claims of individual life histories of paradigmatic organisms such as animals or plants; unless, that is, we think of these as the collaborative focus of communities of entities from many different reproductive lineages. In much the same way, whatever sense we might try to make of the Dawkinsian idea of selfish genes, molecular replication is always, and has always been from the pre-cellular molecular community to the present, the achievement of ensembles of molecules, not of individual molecules…[7]

Prions, archaeal viruses, organelles and symbionts, parasitic wasps and mutant moths: these all challenge our notion of the evolutionary tree, of the reduction of life and lineage to individual life histories, and of the characterization of evolutionary progress as through competition instead (and to the exclusion) of collaboration.  What if the Tree of Life, instead of revealing the ultimate elucidation of the ascendancy of (some) humans towards freedom and progress, resembled another outmoded Enlightenment model?

Petrus Camper's Racist Model of Human Intelligence

Petrus Camper, in the late 18th century, studied the various human races and placed them in a hierarchy, with whites at the top, in his model of a correlation between the angles created by certain facial features with intelligence (whites were held to be closest to the ideal, represented by classical Greek statues, while blacks were seen as barely distinct from apes.)  Racist science, although in decline, has existed and will continue to exist in real contexts of racial oppression.  Classist science has also existed and will continue to exist in the context of class struggle, but it is reinforced by the neoliberal management of research institutions in advanced capitalist countries, where scientific knowledge is itself transformed into a commodity.

The fetishism of biotechnology, genetic determinism, no doubt, is one of the most important ideologies of biocapitalism. It declares the omnipotence of the gene, which not only prescribes the fundamental vital movement, but also internally determines the evolution of culture, so any physical and mental purpose can be achieved through the intervention on the “blueprint of life” and the subjugations of bodies. Ultimately, “life” is equated to “gene,” then reduced to the carrier and slave of gene.[8]

Biology is not merely the stage of the discovery of life.  Biopolitics invites us to consider biology as a space of Becoming, as a space where the human being is free to define her living as a social organism.  We can also treat this space as a space of Becoming into the Being of living ecologies that transcend the immediate experience of our spatiotemporal bondage.  Furthermore, this space can be seen as freely imagining the functioning of organisms within a body politic: be their vital force competitive, collaborative, or perhaps a sublation of the two.

The current age of biocapitalism has sought to restructure political rationality through the hegemony of western reductive science over the imagination of life and livelihood.  Perhaps the sublation of the dialectic between competition and collaboration is one which invites us to understand more complex forms of life, such as diverse ecologies or even sociopolitical organisms, in terms of the complex reciprocal relations between parts and wholes; where each is understood as the negation of the other and neither is monopolized through the exertion of biotechnological extensions of the power of capital over all social and political forms of life.

[1] See “Recurrent Domestication by Lepidoptera of Genes from Their Parasites Mediated by Bracoviruses” (Multiple Authors) in PLoS Genet 11(9): e1005470. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1005470.

[2] See “Synthesis of phylogeny and taxonomy into a comprehensive tree of life” (Multiple Authors) in PNAS 2015 : 1423041112v1-201423041 (

[3] Rivera & Lake, “The ring of life provides evidence for a genome fusion origin of eukaryotes” in Nature, 431, 2004.

[4] Lucio Florio, “The Tree of Life: Philosophical and Theological Considerations” in Studia Aloisiana, 4(1), 2013.

[5] Levins & Lewontin, “The Commoditization of Science” in The Dialectical Biologist (1985).

[6] See, for example, Peter J. Bowler’s Evolution: The History of an Idea (3rd ed. 2003).

[7] Dupré & O’Malley, “Varieties of Living Things: Life at the Intersection of Lineage and Metabolism” in Philosophy and Theory in Biology 1:e003, 2009.

[8] Yu & Liu, “The New Biopolitics” in Journal of Academic Ethics 7, 2009.