The words symbiosis was first used in 1876. This was 6 years before Darwin's death.

Did he know about the concept of symbiosis? Did he mention it in his book?

  • $\begingroup$ Are you referring to a book in particular (which one?), or any published work of his will do? $\endgroup$
    – Gae. S.
    Jul 19, 2023 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Gae.S. Any book will do. I'm trying to find if he knew about the concept. $\endgroup$
    – zeynel
    Jul 19, 2023 at 18:14

1 Answer 1


It is useful to distinguish between the origins of the word symbiosis and the underlying concept. The following publication provides a useful overview of the genesis of the concept. Much of the early work was focused on establishing the exact nature of lichens and later extended to understanding the nature of certain chlorophyll particles found in some lower animals.

Olivier Perru, "Aux origines des recherches sur la symbiose vers 1868-1883." Revue d’histoire des sciences, Vol. 59, No. 1, Jan.-Jun. 2006, pp. 5-27 (online)

The origin of both the concept and the word is found in German literature, with the concept dating to 1876 and the word dating to 1878. I have found no evidence of the word symbiosis in English prior to January of 1882. A first citation in the OED2 dated to 1877 appears to be in error (it seems an occurrence in the 1885 edition of a textbook translated from German was ascribed to the first edition of 1877, although the word did not actually appear in that edition).

Albert-Bernhardt Frank, "Über die biologischen Verhältnisse des Thallus einiger Krustenflechten." Beiträge zur Biologie der Pflanzen, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1876, pp. 123-200

provides an extensive overview of the then current hypotheses on the nature of lichens and provides equally extensive new evidence as to the veracity of these. On p. 195 he concludes that a new generalized concept regarding the close conglomeration of two species is needed, one that abstracts from the specifics of their interaction. For this he proposes the name symbiotism:

Wir müssen sämmtliche Fälle, wo überhaupt ein Auf- oder Ineinanderwohnen zweier verschiedener Species stattfindet, unter einen weitesten Begriff bringen, welcher die Rolle, die beide Wesen dabei spielen, noch nicht berücksichtigt, also auf das blosse Zusammenleben begründet ist, und wofür sich die Bezeichnung Symbiotismus empfehlen dürfte.

Also in 1876, a Hungarian professor in Klausenburg (now Cluj in Romania) who was looking into the nature of chlorophyll particles in invertebrates concluded that these must be single cell algae, and presented his findings in a talk (in Hungarian) in February 1876. However, he did not publish this in a more widely accessible form until six years later:

Geza Entz, "Ueber die Natur der „Chlorophyllkörperchen“ niederer Tiere." Biologisches Centralblatt, Vol. 1, No. 21, Jan. 1882, pp. 646-650

He did so in response to a paper published a few weeks earlier by the German zoologist Karl Brandt who looked into the same issue:

Karl Brandt, "Ueber das Zusammenleben von Algen und Tieren." Biologisches Centralblatt, Vol. 1, No. 17, Dec. 1881, pp. 524-527

The term "Symbiose" in reference to a generalized concept of close conglomeration between two different species was coined by the German botanist Anton de Bary who also researched lichens. He gave a talk on this in Kassel at the 51st Congress of German Naturalists and Physicians, September 10-17, 1878, and subsequently published it as a monograph (The Phenomenon of Symbiosis) the following year: A. de Bary, Die Erscheinung der Symbiose, Strasbourg: Trübner 1879 (Google scan). On p. 21

Parasitismus, Mutualismus, Lichenismus, v.s.v. sind eben jeweils bestimmte Specialfälle jener allgemeinen Associationseinrichtung für welche der vorangestellte Ausdruck Symbiose als Collectivbezeichnung dienen mag.

[My translation] "Parasitism, mutualism, lichenism ... are particular special cases of a general mechanism of association for which the term symbiosis may serve as a collective term."

The first instance of the English word symbiosis that I could locate is in communication by the British biologist Patrick Geddes read in January of 1882:

Patrick Geddes, 'On the Nature and Functions of the "Yellow Cells" of Radiolarians and Coelenterates.' In Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Vol. 11, pp. 377-396 (scan online). In reference to the paper by Karl Brandt cited above, he writes:

These statements are all doubtless true, but they constitute an extraordinarily slender foundation for the doctrine of "symbiosis."

Given this timeline, and considering that Darwin passed away in April of 1882 after having been diagnosed with a serious heart condition earlier in the year, it seems unlikely to me that he learned of the new concept of symbiosis from an English language publication. He may have read about it earlier in some German publication, but given his poor command of German as noted by his son, that does not seem all that likely.

Francis Darwin, Charles Darwin: His life told in an autobiographical chapter, and in a selected series of his published letters. London: John Murray 1908, p. 79:

He himself learnt German simply by hammering away with a dictionary; he would say that his only way was to read a sentence a great many times over, and at last the meaning occurred to him.

Of course there is a possibility Darwin may have learned about symbiosis through personal communication. It is not trivial to determine whether Darwin ever mentioned symbiosis in any of his writing, because he was a prolific writer. Going through his list of publications, and examining his output after 1876 in some (but not full) detail, I could not find any mention of symbiosis. There are four books that fall into that time interval:

The different forms of flowers on plants of the same species (1877)
The effects of cross and self fertilisation in the vegetable kingdom, 2nd ed. (1878)
The power of movement in plants (1880)
The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms, with observations on their habits (1881)


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