Karen Kovaka on biological individuality


At the Philosophy of Science Association meeting in Chicago, I attended an interesting talk by Karen Kovaka, “Biological Individuality and Scientific Practice” (the abstract of her talk is here). Now the paper arising from that talk is out in the journal Philosophy of Science. It argues that biologists do not need to resolve the question of what constitutes an individual in order to do good empirical work, with which I agree. She contrasts two views of the relationship between individuality and scientific practice, the “quality dependence” account and the “content sensitivity” account:

Quality dependence: the quality of empirical work in biology depends in part on the resolution of the debate about biological individuality…

Content sensitivity: Biologists’ understanding of biological processes is sensitive to the individuals they take to be participants in those processes.

Although she lists Pepper & Herron 2008 as an example of the quality dependence account, along with Ruiz-Mirazo et al. 2000 and Clarke 2013, I think our paper is much closer to the content sensitivity account. For example, as evidence of our advocacy of quality dependence, she quotes our claim that some research questions

…cannot be addressed effectively without confronting the question of what is, and is not, an organism.

But “confronting” is not the same as “resolving.” Our paper is very much at odds with the idea that there even is a single resolution to the question of biological individuality:

…when biologists pose questions requiring the recognition of organisms, they should be explicit about what criteria they are using and why. This does not, however, require that we use only one operational definition for all purposes. Instead, we suggest taking a cue from systematic biology, where multiple species concepts now coexist harmoniously. As we have illustrated in the examples discussed above, the diversity of life is so great that a single organism concept cannot usefully be applied to all forms for all purposes. If we allow multiple organism concepts, however, we must be explicit about which concept we are using and why.

Nowhere do we suggest that resolution is required for good empirical research, only that researchers should think carefully and write explicitly about what criteria (“operational definition”) they are using. I consider this consistent with Kovaka’s view that

…[scientists’] understanding of and approach to biological processes is sensitive to the things they take to be biological individuals.

Kovaka goes on to consider three defenses of the quality dependence account and concludes that

…none of them succeed. Their failure suggests that the prospects for developing a successful defense are dim.

The first, “Inferring Dependence from Sensitivity,” is not attributed, but is described as follows:

…if the ways biologists study biological processes are sensitive to what they consider to be individuals, then being correct about which objects are individuals will make for better ways of studying biological processes. Likewise, being wrong about which objects are individuals will make for worse ways of studying biological processes. Resolving the individuality debate is the path to being correct about which objects are individuals.

If “correct” is replaced with “explicit” and “wrong” with “imprecise,” this (minus the concluding sentence) is not too far from our account, but these are crucial differences. I think this argument is a bit of a straw man; I don’t know who would defend it as stated.

The second defense, “Inadequacy of Particular Conceptions of Individuality,” is also not attributed, but I think it’s fair to say that many papers on the topic (ours included) include versions of at least the first part of the argument:

It points out that some conceptions of biological individuality are bad and would lead biologists to draw faulty conclusions if widely used.

This is so common in papers on biological individuality that it’s almost a template: when criterion x is applied to taxon y, it leads to false conclusions/ambiguity/no answer at all. Some version of this argument, or list of similar arguments, is quite often part of the justification for why it is important to consider what constitutes an individual. What is less common is the conclusion Kovaka imposes on this observation:

Therefore, we need to weed out all such bad conceptions by resolving the individuality debate.

Strangely, and seemingly unnecessarily, Kovaka concedes that

The quality dependence claim is true of certain conceptions of individuality, but it does not follow that the claim is true of the entire individuality debate.

I’m not sure I even agree with the first part of that. If we want to use spatial boundedness as our criteria for individuality, can we not design studies and draw conclusions about spatially bounded entities? If the first part were true (i.e. some conceptions of individuality will lead to bad scientific research), it seems to me that Kovaka’s central premise would be seriously weakened. If bad conceptions of individuality lead to bad research, I think it does follow that the individuality debate requires resolution. This has the feeling of something that was reluctantly added in response to a reviewer’s criticisms. It seems more reasonable to me to say that accepting “bad” conceptions of individuality still allows us to carry out good research, but that we might be studying biological processes that aren’t all that important, consistent with the content sensitivity view.

Finally, there is the “Conflation of Practical and Theoretical Problems.” The first example given is Ellen Clarke’s “counting problem”

Uncertainty about biological individuality can lead biologists to count the wrong individuals, which can produce inaccurate measurements of evolutionary change.

In Clarke’s case, Kovaka argues that the problems identified can be circumvented

If biologists are clear about what counting methods they use and why, it will not cause problems if other scientists in other labs use different counting methods.

In other words (from Pepper & Herron 2008), biologists

…should be explicit about what criteria they are using and why.

The second example is Matthew Haber’s “problem of the paradigm.”

…until we have the right conception of individuality, biologists will be guided by their pretheoretical, organism-based view of individuality even though it does not accurately represent the biological world. If they work from this misleading theoretical perspective, biologists are liable to overlook important questions and phenomena.

In the case of social insects,

When we say that social insect colonies are superorganisms, we are recognizing that they, no less than single ants or humans, possess features that make them biological individuals in their own right. Unfortunately, we are often also claiming that the features that make colonies individuals are the same features that make organisms individuals.

Kovaka argues that this does not actually lead to bad research as long as we don’t start by

…assuming that colonies have organismal features, but rather by identifying questions that have been fruitful when asked about organisms and then asking these same questions about colonies.

This is, I think, a fair point. Ant colonies have some things in common with “paradigm” organisms, and they have some important differences. Not only is it an interesting question which features are similar and which are importantly different, but we can draw interesting conclusions from comparisons of paradigm organisms with both ants and ant colonies.

All in all, I agree with Kovaka that we should prefer the content sensitivity account to the quality dependence account, at least as she has stated them. A recurring theme throughout the paper is that theoretical questions should not take priority over empirical ones. This is a bigger philosophical question than I’m even prepared to weigh in on.

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