26 June – 3 July 2022

Living Relations

Course organizers

Janet Browne (Harvard University), Christiane Groeben (Naples, local organiser), Nick Hopwood (University of Cambridge), Staffan Müller-Wille (University of Exeter), and the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn

Confirmed faculty

Jenny Bangham (QMU London, UK), Maaike van der Lugt (Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin, Paris Saclay, France), Terence Keel (University of California LA, USA), Noémie Merleau-Ponty (CNRS/IRIS Aubervilliers, France), Erika Milam (Princeton University, USA), Justin E.H. Smith (Université Paris 7 - Denis Diderot, France), Marianne Sommer (Universität Luzern, Switzerland), Banu Subramaniam (Amherst College, USA), Emily Varto (Dalhousie University, Canada)

Introduction to the theme

“Relations” in the life and medical sciences have a richly varied history, including genealogy and notions of kinship, heredity, systematics and phylogenetics, ecology and human-animal relations, and cultures and environments of disease, health care and healing. This summer school will chart the metaphorical traffic between these domains, and the manifold ways in which living relations have been visualized. Genus and species, the key concepts of ancient Greek metaphysics and logic, had genealogical connotations, and there is evidence of diagrammatic and even gestural representations of genealogy for other ancient cultures, such as the Lao and Ming China. Late medieval and early modern Europe was a hotbed of genealogical visualisations, with tables of consanguinity and affinity regulating incest prohibition and inheritance in law, trees of Jesse recounting Christ’s lineal descent, and family trees and genealogical tables being deployed to prove nobility or, within the Iberian empire, “purity of blood.”

Though such systems of social, religious and racial discrimination were firmly rooted in concepts of filiation, they did not immediately translate into relations among plant and animal species. For a long time, these were rather allocated fixed positions on a hierarchical “chain of being” that reflected timeless relations of perfection and privation, betrayed to this day by a language of “higher” and “lower” that connotes relations of dominance and servitude. Only in the decades around 1700 did naturalists first debate whether bifurcating diagrams, which by then were in routine use to classify living beings along a linear series of progressive differentiation, could reflect the “natural affinities” observable among plants and animals.

Paradoxically, in the long run, the eighteenth century seems to have concluded that it was neither the scale nor the tree, but rather the network that best described relationships among species within a complex but balanced economy of nature in which each organism, whether “low” or “high,” had a crucial role to play. It took a further century to separate “true” affinities or “homologies” from “analogies.” Homologies reflected a common history of evolutionary descent retrievable through painstaking morphological, palaeontological, embryological and cytological investigations. Analogies became the similarities, associations and often surprisingly intimate symbioses that emerge from the “striving,” as Charles Darwin called it, of “all organic beings … to seize on each place in the economy of nature.”

As a consequence, and promoted above all by the German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel, the “tree of life” became the “canonical icon” (Stephen Jay Gould) for visualizing phylogeny. Evolutionary affinities, like parasitism and commensality, now reflected the temporary outcome of adaptations and shifting power relations throughout the history of life. Especially in racial anthropology, the construction of lineages and phylogenies based on linguistic, cultural and physical features, such as minute anatomical details of the skull, made it possible to emphasize either closeness in terms of a shared evolutionary history or separation in terms of linear, progressive evolution towards “higher” forms of humanity. That racist and anti-racist discourses have tended to play on this register of possibilities offered by tree diagrams explains to some extent its dominance in representations of human phylogeny.

The picture of an inexorable rise of “tree thinking” is complicated, however, by the fact that, in parallel, kinship itself became a subject of explicit analysis or “literalization” (Marilyn Strathern) in research initiatives that crossed between sciences and humanities. Francis Galton and Henry Lewis Morgan independently built on a long-standing juridical tradition to propose analytical schemes allowing for the exact investigation of pedigrees and kinship terminologies. Kinship became measurable in terms of distances spanning a network of relations connecting any individual with any other in a potentially infinite population.

These innovations fed into major disciplinary strands of the study of natural and cultural inheritance in the twentieth century: research on “kinship systems” in anthropology, on the one hand, and eugenics, genetics and population genetics, on the other. Though pursued largely apart, in both areas the study of genetic relations held the promise to reveal deep structures underlying the evolution of organic and social systems. Phylogenetics in particular received major innovative impulses following the “modern synthesis,” which brought together population genetics with ecology, systematics and palaeontology. With the advent of the computer, numerical taxonomy, cladistics and molecular clocks placed the study of organismic affinities onto a quantitative, seemingly objective basis, which still informs the life and human sciences, including commercial technologies of ancestry testing.

The assumption that “blood is thicker than water” (David M. Schneider) may have motivated much of this research, as is evident in the study of human blood-group distributions and in the theory of “kin selection.” But genetically construed kinship follows a combinatorial rather than a dichotomous logic. Genetic kinship never strictly implies closeness because the combinatorial processes from which it arises can always surprisingly distant relations. In conjunction with new reproductive technologies, genetics has thus resulted in an upheaval of traditional notions that anthropologists and sociologists targeted in “new kinship studies” from the 1990s.

Such upheavals were not in applications of reproductive technologies alone. Work on the so-called “tree of life” has brought to light surprising evolutionary affinities as well. Horizontal gene transfer through hybridization and other vectors like viruses is revealing an undergrowth of crosslinks between distantly related organisms. New understandings of symbiosis, especially of microbiomes within their macrobial hosts, are casting fresh light on inter-organismic dependencies. Echoing François Jacob’s (and ultimately Claude Lévi-Strauss’) notion of evolutionary “tinkering,” modern geneticists seem to imply that the tree of life was always really a net, because “nature was always a genetic engineer” (Stefan Helmreich). Current debates – within anthropology with its new materialism and more-than-human approach, and within the life sciences with their emphasis on transgenics and systemic interactions – could therefore highlight forms of relatedness beyond the tree. These are furthering ecosystem-oriented thinking along the lines of coalitions and shared environmental risks.

“The secret of aristocracy is zoology,” Karl Marx proclaimed in his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1843), while Darwin, in his On the Origin of Species (1859), held that “all true classification is genealogical” and that “community of descent is the hidden bond which naturalists have been unconsciously seeking.” Such statements not only reference the long-standing practice of using kinship and descent to define and articulate social relations, often involving projections onto the natural world. They also point to the ideological functions of such biocultural concepts in the western tradition. Today, evolutionary theory and genomics together elucidate the multifarious “affinities” between living beings; that “we” – humans, animals, plants, and also “lower” organisms like fungi, bacilli and viruses – are all “related” and rely on our “entanglement” with others appears once again to be indisputable. Yet at the same time, technologies of associating diseases, behaviours and even political inclinations with genomic markers, or tracing one’s descent back to hypothetical ancestors in the Pleistocene, betray a continuing obsession with social, cultural and racial distinctions that feed into an overwhelming concern, at the present moment, with global identity politics of exclusion and inclusion.


The 2022 School is financially supported by the Thyssen Foundation, the National Science Foundation (grant ID 1921617), the journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, and the collector George Loudon.

The theme for the 2022 Ischia Summer School partly draws on ideas developed in the context of the project “In the Shadow of Trees: The Diagrammatic of Relatedness as Scientific, Scholarly, and Popular Practice” funded by a Sinergeia grant by the Swiss National Foundation (CRSII5_183567).

Structure and resources

Lectures last for up to 30 minutes in one-hour slots, leaving at least 30 minutes for discussion.

Seminars focus on pre-circulated readings. Students are allocated to individual seminar groups and prepare the seminar in consultation with the seminar leader. Often these have an introduction by the seminar leader (5–10 mins), then short informal contributions (2–3 mins) in which the student presenters table questions, followed by discussion in smaller groups and reporting back led by the presenters; but other collective and interactive ways of engaging with the reading materials can be used as well, with some students drawing on their own projects to shape the discussion.

The online discussion forum hosts school announcements and facilitated discussion, including preparation for the seminars in advance of the School.


The School starts with registration and a reception on Sunday afternoon, and ends after dinner on Saturday night. Given ferry times, this means faculty and students leave throughout Sunday 3 July to catch various planes or trains.

Until a preliminary timetable is available here, look at the previous schools for a general timetable.

List of readings

The list of readings will be publicly available. The files themselves, however, are protected by copyright laws; so the participants will be given a login to downloadable archive of PDFs (typically 80MB).


There is a charge for students of €300 each, covering hotel accommodation and all meals; students also need to pay for their own travel to Ischia.

The directors will consider requests to waive the charge for qualified students unable to raise the money themselves, when supported by a detailed financial statement and a letter from their institution’s head.


Applications should include:

  1. a statement specifying academic experience and interest in the course topic (max. 300 words),
  2. a brief cv,
  3. a letter of recommendation.

Application timetable:

1 April 2022
Deadline for applications – applications must have been received by Midnight CET,
14 April 2022
Students notified of application outcome,
27 May 2022
Registration fees and/or registration forms due.

Application procedure:

Applications have to be sent by email to the following address:

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The body of the email should start with the applicant’s full name (surname, first name, and middle names or initials if desired). The 300-word application, the CV and the recommendation letter should be attached as files (preferably PDF format), named with your surname+firstname and indicating whether it’s your application (‘app’), CV (‘cv’), or recommendation (‘rec’).

Example: Applicant Alfred E. Neumann attaches to an email (1) their 300-word statement of interest named NeumannAlfred-app.pdf, (2) their brief CV named NeumannAlfred-cv.pdf, as well as (3) their supervisor’s recommendation letter named NeumannAlfred-rec.pdf.

After submitting, you should have received confirmation within 24 hours that your attachments arrived in readable form.

Alternatively, the candidate might send only their application and CV as above, with the recommendation emailed separately by the recommending 'sponsor'. In that case, confirmation was be emailed both to the candidate and the sponsor.

Please contact the website administrator for any technical problems.

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The summer school is funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, the US National Science Foundation, the collector George Loudon, and the journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences.

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