Ectosymbiotic Theory

This article is intended mostly primarily for people with an evolution, biology or otherwise similar background. It is a proposed tool to understand the relationships that define coherent systems in general, but more specifically biology, with a little more clarity. It looks at biological life through a relational lens, rather than one based on genetics or membranes such as skin (in the traditional sense) and so on. The intention is to lay the foundation to be better prepared to make good choices about how to cultivate fruitful biological relationships in intentional directions. It is not a light read. Feedback is both welcomed and sought after; how to articulate the idea better, where to take it so it can be of most value, or identify the reasons it should be trashed as bunk, altered, etc. Although I tried somewhat to make it understandable to people familiar basic biology, to those who dive in and get caught in the quagmire of a  partially formed idea that is not articulated as well as it could be, I apologize in advance.


We are not alone. Without the plants, animals and chemicals like H2O and O2 we could not survive. Many of the microbes that live in and on us are also essential to the coherent system of relationships that establishes and maintains our biological integrity. Without these relationships we would disintegrate. The same way our organs deliver nourishing value to each other, communicating through their semi porous membranes in a community fashion, we live in the context of a greater body of life – a vast web of relationships that collectively establish and defend their mutual integrity and continuation over time. This greater field of relationships, bound together by the mutualistic dependency they share for continuing existence in the context of a sometimes antagonistic environment is what is being proposed here as ectosymbiotic theory.

Ectosymbiosis establishes the boundaries of an organism by relationship and not by such things as a cell membrane, skin, the capacity to interbreed, or shared DNA. To understand this concept we can start with the fact that many of the organelles (tiny organs) inside eukaryotic cells (the kind we’re made of) were once separate prokaryotic creatures (with a single membrane) that came together to work as a single unit. This coming together of separate life forms as one inside a single membrane is called endosymbiosis. We humans are multicellular eukaryotic organisms. The same community of relationships that make up our cells is echoed in the way our organs relate to each other. The theory proposed here, ectosymbiosis,  suggests that organisms are also built on the same principle of community, working together as a single body even though they are separated by DNA, membranes and the like. The key binder is a mutual role in each other’s survival.

Ectosymbiotic organisms are defined here as any coherent collection of structures that as operate as an interdependent dynamic body of relationships with self-sustaining properties, that have relational systems that can perceive and respond to the environment, that can differentiate between relationships that contribute to or destroy the cooperative integrity it depends on, that actively acts to defend against antagonists while cultivating the relationships that contribute to the strength of the entire system and sustaining the collective community, that can extract, transform and use various forms of energy from the environment toward this collective end, that have the capacity for dynamic self-replication and self-assembly as part of the drive for self sustenance and to saturate the environment to is maximal point to carry the collective relationship field, that does this through a collection of functional structures with separate individual capacities, but collectively aligned on a unified purpose growing to the maximal carrying capacity of the environment while simultaneously sustaining the integrity of the system, that seeks out, establishes and integrates new relationships that contribute to these ends and does so with some apparent measure of awareness.

If we use this ectosymbiotic lens to look at the various biological relationship fields we see peppered throughout the Earth, we can see at the foundation the photosynthetic and chemosynthetic organisms, (autotrophs and chemoautotrophs) which organize and channel energy from the raw materials of the cosmos and translate these using an energy source from inorganic to organic. These organisms, in effect, translate raw cosmos to biology. Further into the collective field of relationships we see heterotrophic organisms that live off the nutritional “milk” supplied by the auto and chemoautotrophic organisms. We can trace the entire biological web to this basic relational dynamic beginning with the cosmos, crossing the biological divide with autotrophs, and culminating in heterotrophs. Biological integrity from an ectosymbiotic perspective is not based on one organism’s relationship with another, but on the value of the relationship field that is threaded through multiple organisms, that operate as a whole to dynamically establish and maintain the entire system from the non biological environment. This means parts and pieces of the systems of one organism can be part of much larger ectosymbiotic body.

In biological terms ectosymbiotic organisms are dominated by mutualistic and commensal relationship dynamics that are both necessary and sufficient to nourish and perpetuate the ectosymbiotic organism. In contrast to the typical method of biological cartography where organisms are defined along genetic or as contained within a singular membrane such as a skin, ectosymbiotic organisms are defined by the collection of functions that mutually serve the entire community and are a necessary element of that body of relationships to nourish and sustain the collective body over time.[1] In biological cartography terms, with ectosymbiosis as the axiom to establish geographic boundaries of an organism we would group all the relationship systems like biosynthesis, metabolic pathways, as well as carbon oxygen and nitrogen fixing as part of the same ectosymbiotic organism without respect to geno-specific lines or those between organic and inorganic.[2] An ectosymbiotic membrane may encompass only a subset of the relationship functions in a specific species and the rest of the functions associated with that same species might be part of a completely different ectosymbiotic organism. It can also mean that a species or set of functional outcomes in one location is part of an ectosymbiotic organism where in another location it is not. Another way to look at ectosymbiosis is to identify the essential biodiversity to the point where it functions as a singular self sustaining body.

The following chart categorizes the relationships present in biological systems by their effect within the system and assigns a number based on whether the relationship produces strength or weakness in the overall integrity of the system. This model is designed to serve as a crude lens to better understand the general workings of biological systems, not as a precise metric to understand systemic thresholds of integrity and the like. These systemic effects are meant as a means to characterize the nature of relationships within systems such as mechanical and biology:


The positive and negative values associated with each effect in the chart are intended as a method to give an approximate measure the relative strength of a system. The idea being if the relationship dynamics within the system and the environment were plotted based on the type of relationships and the context of a system and its environment it would demonstrate strengths and weaknesses. The primary purpose of this matrix is serve as a lens through which systems can be assessed from a macro perspective. The weakness of this crude type of lens is that would not identify micro vulnerabilities that could exist that might be exploited using relatively minor negativistic effects at a specific critical points in the system.

The same way microscopic lenses inherently reveal micro scale structures while obscuring macro scale ones, and telescopic lenses do the opposite, this abstract relational lens is meant as a telescopic view of systems. The value would be attained by measuring the strength of the ectosymbiotic organism in the context of the other relational factors, including other ectosymbiotic organisms in relationship with each other.

Ectosymbiotic organisms include all relationships necessary to sustain a body of life, whether organic or not, therefore an ectosymbiotic body is not bounded by genetic lines, but is instead defined by functional lines. The outside membrane of an ectosymbiotic organism can be drawn where antagonistic, amensalistic and competitive relationship dynamics that threaten the function of the internal workings exist.[3] Any relational element, no matter whether organic, inorganic, energetic, spatial, temporal or otherwise that does not strengthen the relational field of an ectosymbiotic organism body is considered “other”. Any neutral relationships in contact with the ectosymbiotic organism either internally or externally are just that; neutral.

What is the value of categorizing relationships through an ectosymbiotic lens?

Here are a couple key elements that would be made visible using an ectosymbiotic lens: The same way understanding the physics of erosion led to contour farming and subsequently no till farming in agriculture, we would be better positioned to understand and cultivate strength in biological relational systems that provide strength to the nourishing foundations on which we both stand and depend. We would be better positioned to understand how tampering with segments in the chain can have a cascade effect on the entire system as well as what that cascade effect might be. This could lead to better planning and execution of strategies that cultivate growth. It would help differentiate what is a “botanical weed”[4] in the context of a given ectosymbiotic system vs. what is perhaps an unpleasant but necessary element in the ectosymbiotic body.

We would be able to identify the global properties that emerge at different layers of organization; i.e. cell, organ, body and ecosystem and understand the value of cultivating mutually beneficial relationships as the key to strengthening the overall integrity of the body of life. Traditionally ecosystems have been defined by what is there, not by what would happen if the ecosystem was specifically cultivated as part of the same interconnected system.

Predictions if the hypothetical model is true:

We would expect to see the same differentiated morphological profiles in ectosymbiotic body that we see in other biological entities with differing germ layer profiles. This means we would expect to see some ectosymbiotic bodies would be monoblastic in nature like sponges,[5] diploblastic in nature like jellyfish and triploblastic morphologies such as we see in placental mammals. Extremophiles would probably fit in the monoblastic ectosymbiotic profile because of their autotrophic nature at the edge of the biological membrane. We would see some forms of radial symmetry with a differentiated top to bottom in diploblastic ectosymbiotic organism groupings as well as top down differentiations. We would also expect to see bilateral symmetry, differentiated front to back and top and bottom in triploblastic ectosymbiotic organisms.[6]

Within the triploblastic ectosymbiotic organism we would expect to see the same systems we see in a singular speciated organism of a triploblastic morphology. This would include the following:

  • A nervous system – Enables communication to send, receive, and process nerve and sensory impulses.
    • This would include a central nervous system as in a brain and spinal cord
    • a peripheral nervous system that branches off of the brain and spinal cord model carrying signals to the muscle and gland portions of the ectosymbiotic organism
    • an autonomic nervous system to controls involuntary actions such as heartbeat and digestion, regulation of certain systems.
  • A circulatory system enabling systemic transport and deploy nutrition, and certain elements that need system wide transport such as immune components through structures that mimic the arteries, veins, and capillaries.
  • A respiratory system that brings breath into the system and releases waste back out. (There may be multiple systems)
  • A lymphatic system that filters out disease-causing organisms and helps to drain waste in and around tissues and plays a role in defense against infectious intruders.
  • An endocrine system producing hormones histamines and other chemical communicators to control or influence various body functions such as metabolism, growth, and reproduction.
  • A urinary system that enables the processing and excretion of waste fluids as well as a role in regulating the flow of hydration.
  • A muscular system that enables movement as a function of activities and adaptation including involuntary such as would control the stomach and intestine cardiac etc. and voluntary which could carry out acts of volition.
  • A digestive system to break down food and obtain energy. This would include any necessary non-organic as well as organic sources in the ectosymbiotic body.
  • An integumentary system or a membrane to protect the rest of the body from various kinds of damage, define the boundary of the body and to play roles in regulating internal systems, aid the immune system elimination of waste, play a role in regulating homeostasis etc.
  • An Immune system – The immune system protects against infection and disease.
  • A skeletal or support system to aid in internal and or external support such tubules, skeleton, exoskeleton or shell.

Since commensal and mutualistic symbiotic relationships are the synaptic connections in an ectosymbiotic body, we would expect pathogenic attacks on an ectosymbiotic body to be responded to by specific species or groups of species within that body that play the immune defense system roles. The idea being we would look for same types of relational dynamics we see in organs and systems in our bodies to be mirrored in an ectosymbiotic relational body. The same way organelles are part of cells, cells are part of organs and organs are part of a body, we would expect to see a species as an organ or tissue in an ectosymbiotic body performing a specific task in the context of a community.

The immune defense system in an ectosymbiotic organism might take the form of specific bacteria attacking a pathogenic organism that destructively feeds on its relational web, or perhaps the immune response would be carried out by developing a destructive mechanism such as a strand of viral RNA capsid and organelle mechanisms to work in concert to attack the offending pathogenic host as we see in the case of HIV. The idea being one ectosymbiotic body is immunologically responding to disrupt the commensal and mutualistic symbiotic relationships that characterize the attacking ectosymbiotic organism’s attempts at homeostasis. This might take the form of destroying a critical primary producer in the ectosymbiotic matrix, or a key element in the bio-relational chain that attempts to disrupt the dependencies on nourishing flows within the ectosymbiotic body of the pathogenic vector. The fact that humans destroy the host of certain bacteria that live in avian esophageal tracts may in fact be the reason we get the flu. A bacterium that has an ectosymbiotic relationship may be producing a viral strand of RNA as a defense mechanism of its ectosymbiotic body. Plants and bacteria may adapt methodologies from their normal biochemical behaviors such as transformation, transduction and bacterial conjugation as vectors for functions like breathing, vision and so on.

Organ elements such as vision and brain functions within an ectosymbiotic organism would not necessarily be apparent if we are too parochial in our view of organs and tissues. Conventional understanding of organs must be viewed through a relationship lens and not a morphological one in order for the organ and tissue functions of an ectosymbiotic organism to appear. Vision and cognitive functions might involve one species within the ectosymbiotic organism reading the histamine profile of another organism within its body as a signal that necessitates an adaptive or homeostatic behavioral expression. In essence this is the method for stimulus response mechanisms within the ectosymbiotic organism as well as cognition. We would expect to see a hierarchy of concentric awareness the same as we do in triploblastic organisms. In other words; the same way our body functions as an organ or a cell we would expect to see this concentric representation on the ectosymbiotic organism level.

We must not limit ourselves to expecting nonporous membranes in ectosymbiotic organisms. There would be a biodiversity of ectosymbiotic organisms the same as we see it on a species level.

Since this is a relational lens and not a genetic one, we would not necessarily want to limit our lens to genetic similarity either. Male and female splitting would be an expression of ectosymbiotic nature within a species. Differentiated tasks aligned around a singular purpose is the relational axiom. The male female aspect of many organisms is just such an expression. We would be able to trace male female aspect this back to the split that happened after autotrophic organisms almost drown in their own feces (O2) that forged that first ectosymbiotic split in the form of heterotrophs. This ectosymbiotic organism lens could further clarify everything from evolution to current bio-relational dynamics.

A Venn diagram model might be best to visualize these morphological connections in ectosymbiotic bodies. Were an ectosymbiotic organism or web to be drawn out it would look like a rhizomatic Venn diagram – a network of intertwined symbiotic relationships. It may also be that a singular self-correcting ectosymbiotic body exists and parasitic and predatory mechanisms within it are methodologies for self-correction.

Should the ectosymbiotic organism hypothesis prove true its usefulness would become apparent in terms of tracing the vectors of pathology between organisms to manipulate, leverage and or cut off vector pathways – the same way antiseptics or probiotics can cut off vector pathways or facilitate health of certain pathogens in human relational environments.

Hint: We might see primary producer organisms as part of the lung digestive function in ectosymbiotic organisms. A profound possibility might be that discover there is a fully functioning cognitive creature or creatures woven into the body of life that we have been missing because our focus is on reductive abstractions instead of a system biased rhizomatic lens. The same way we see a much more revealing image of the cosmos using radio telescopes and the like, using an ectosymbiotic organism lens may help us see our own nature with more depth and understanding.

[1] It should be noted that “nourish” is used here in the sense of developing to saturate an environment to the fullest extent and “sustain” is used in a broad sense to include behaviors such as renewal in the form of reproduction when this is a necessary means of sustaining the system.

[2] One example of this would be how lightning and atmospheric nitrogen participate in nitrogen fixing which is necessary for plant metabolism.

[3] This is not to imply that ectosymbiotic bodies do not have to deal with negative relational aspects, just that these negative relationship aspects are not part of the ectosymbiotic body. (There may be necessary exceptions to this)

[4] A botanical weed is defined here as any life form seated in the context of an ectosymbiotic body that exhibits antagonistic, amensalistic or competitive relational dynamic.

[5] porifera

[6] It would not be unusual to see these same characteristic groupings mirrored in social bodies, linguistics, behavior profiles, thinking capacities, personality profiles etc. For instance a person exposed to extreme stresses might have a monoblastic personality profile, unable to connect with mutual beneficial lines across a pluralistic social landscape.

8 responses to “Ectosymbiotic Theory

  1. I have to admit I didn’t make it to the end. As a card-carrying biologist, I’m not sure we need this concept because we have the concept of the ecosystem, which relates organisms to each other. Biologists are aware that relationships between and among organisms can be complex – that pulling on one thread in an ecosystem can have far-reaching and unexpected consequences. Relationships between species aren’t always strictly positive or negative. The most obvious being the predator-prey relationship. Cougars eat deer.That’s bad for the individual deer, but the deer species can collectively tolerate a certain amount of predation. If there are too many cougars, however, they could over-hunt the deer and threaten the species’ survival. Take away the cougars, however, and the deer population will explode until they exhaust the forage and begin to die of starvation. The whole idea of the ecosystem is that a “healthy” one is in balance. (Forgive my getting pedantic. You probably know all this already, and I would want to discourage you from thinking and questioning and tossing out ideas.)

    • I appreciate your thoughts and my ego is quite irrelevant, so please never hesitate to share without fear of offending me at all.

      My thought on the value of ectosymbiosis was centered on framing the nature of biological relational systems in such a way to bring clarity and focus to coherent bodies that exist as a subset within ecosystems, but that are greater in scope than the membranes that shroud a specific genome. The idea being many creatures bound in community as a sustainable unit. The value of this recognition might enable the same kinds of benefits we have seen by our ability to differentiate and identify the functions of things like organelles. It might also be useful by enabling some crucial cross disciplinary pollination of academic ideas to occur with all their corresponding benefits. To essentially call attention to the fact that coherent bodies that transcend genetic lines exist as a subset within ecosystems and operate as coherent bodies in and of themselves. Once recognized we can see how they do things like establish and maintain homeostasis, defend against pathogens and the like as well as relate to other ectosymbiotic bodies.

      The reason I think it may have value is that it would call attention to a number of useful things that are currently missed. For instance; medical disciplines have a grossly inadequate understanding of the necessity of the microbiome which, in many respects, is part of the human ecosymbiotic body. We tamper with it using antibiotics that are an essentially “kill ’em all let god sort ’em out” strategy and then primitively suggest yogurt as a means of repopulating gut microbes. One of the destructive consequences of this is that so-called “health and hygiene” products that harshly strip the acid mantle on our skin are regularly introduced to market without any concept of how they make us more prone to disease. With a proper understanding of ectosymbiotic bodies we would be able to recognize that many zoonotic diseases are an immune response from another ectosymbiotic body that perceives our behaviors as a threat. We could then assess how we can potentially change our relationship with that body to reduce and eliminate the pathogenic vectors. We would be able to investigate how to assimilate and channel once destructive biological expressions so that they serve a constructive purpose. We might also begin to see the role of cooperation in the progression of biology and evolution more clearly. We would recognize that diseases as far reaching as crohn’s, IBS, and certain psychoses are a result of imbalances in the local ectosymbiotic body.

      I think we have a general misunderstanding in many fields of the notion of survival in biology as a win-loss competition model when in fact cooperation plays a far more prominent role in establishing adaptive progression than competition does. What we recognize as advances in evolution are far more a story of cooperative relationships than they are of competitive ones. (Not to discount the necessary role of competition, just to provide a contextually proportionate model of the role of both.)

      Abstract mechanisms like the division of biological systems into functional units like proteins, membranes, organelles and the like have brought about many benefits. I think ectosymbiotic theory might be one such useful abstraction that brings the concentric layers of interconnectedness in biological systems into better clarity, and thus provide important and valuable clues on how we can better adapt and reasonably control environmental factors that make life a better experience. The same way we no longer perceive cells as undifferentiated blobs of cytoplasm as Antony van Leeuwenhoek called them; “little animalcules” we have gained many insights and capacities to adapt and control by the levels of clarity brought to bear over the years. Finally, I think that ectosymbiotic theory might have uses if properly applied to such diverse disciplines as business and social sciences and the like to uncover the role that cooperation plays in what we call wealth and healthy relationships. Then again, it might be useless. Who knows? If I were a record producer, I might have sent Elvis packing…

      Again thanks for the feedback. I truly appreciate it.

  2. You’re certainly correct that the microbiome is under-appreciated, and not just by the medical profession. All those add campaigns based on the perceived need to “kill germs” are contributing to the public perception that the only good bacterium is a dead bacterium, when most are harmless and many are beneficial. This also leads to promotion of “antibacterial” this and that – cleaning and hygiene products, that are often unnecessary, or even harmful. Witness the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant strains of pathogenic bacteria.

    And whether or not I see any value in trying to make a biological connection, I’m definitely in favor of cooperation over competition in human interactions.

  3. Pingback: A Voice in the Choir of Life | The Wisdom Of Life

    • Thank you for sharing that. I think that the reason competition became the unspoken assumption in evolution was in part because the public dispensation of the Natural Selection wing of the broader theory of evolution happened during a time in history when a shallow and unsustainable view of wealth and sustainability was based on an unsustainable model of dominance as a means to the top of the food chain. There were certainly lots of localized feedback from the European culture to make thinking that was an understandable outcome. The original title of Darwin’s book was also an implication of the thought at the time. It was; “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”.

      This cultural context, along with the fact that ideas, once established, become hard to root out for various reasons from emotional and professional investments, to our penchant to not question the confident delivery of whatever the status quo is to each new generation probably made this idea of competition persist long past its shelf life.

      Again, thanks for sharing the article.

  4. Marije Mulder

    Thank you for sharing your ideas, I find them very interesting. I just came across this blog while trying to get into the subject of ectosymbiosis, as I have been thinking a bit about gut microbiome, food and evolution. I am not more educated in biology than highschool A-level, had some lessons in ecology, did a permaculture design certificate course and have been/ am working on a few projects in the Netherlands where people get more involved in nature.
    Sometimes I like to think about things the other way around, maybe to see if that can lead to a helpful insight. For example that we invertebrates are the farming grounds of our gut microbiome, which even has established a very sophisticated feedback system with our brains.
    Regarding ecology, I feel the more accepted ways of thinking leave explanatory gaps or even work to enhance the single-relationship oriented ways of thinking. Yesterday I read (again) that biodiversity is vital for human survival because we need the honeybees for pollination. Although I understand that was partially meant symbolic (as the writer may know that many sorts of wild flies and bees play a bigger role than honeybees), I found it discomforting that even well-educated environmentalists can not come up with something better.
    In this ‘anthropocene’ it is important to learn to think broader, to make people deeply understand the interconnectedness of life.
    Best, Marije Mulder

    • Thank you for your interest and your kind words Marije. I am hoping that a relationship model can be used to recognize the difference between cultivation and domination, one of which yields fruit, and the other (while sometimes necessary in the short term) is a recipe to weaken the foundation on which our sustainability and potential stands.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s