Pierrick Bourrat has reviewed Scott Lidgard and Lynn Nyhart’s book Biological Individuality: Integrating Scientific, Philosophical, and Historical Perspectives for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.
Derek Skillings from University of Bordeaux/CNRS has a new article at Aeon about biological individuality:
For millennia, naturalists and philosophers have struggled to define the most fundamental units of living systems and to delimit the precise boundaries of the organisms that inhabit our planet. This difficulty is partly a product of the search for a singular theory that can be used to carve up all of the living world at its joints.
Skillings reviews the deep historical roots of the question, touching on the views of Charles Darwin and his grandfather, both Huxleys (T. H. and Julian), Herbert Spencer, and other 19th and early 20th century thinkers, as well as some more recent authors, including Daniel Janzen and Peter Godfrey Smith.
A couple of weeks ago, I indulged in a little shameless self-promotion, writing about my new chapter on volvocine individuality in Biological Individuality, Integrating Scientific, Philosophical, and Historical Perspectives. Now two graduate students in the Michod lab at the University of Arizona, Erik Hanschen and Dinah Davison, have published their own take on volvocine individuality in Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology (“Evolution of individuality: a case study in the volvocine green algae“). The article is open-access, and Hanschen and Davison are listed as equal contributors.
As I mentioned previously, I have a chapter in the newly published book Biological Individuality, Integrating Scientific, Philosophical, and Historical Perspectives. The chapter was actually written nearly five years ago, but things move more slowly in the philosophy world than that of biology. Finally, though, both the print and electronic versions are now available; here is the electronic version of my chapter. The book currently has no reviews on Amazon, so if you want to give it a read, yours could be the first. If you’re interested in current and historical views on individuality, there is a lot of good stuff in here, including contributions by Scott Lidgard & Lynn Nyhart, Beckett Sterner, Andrew Reynolds, Snait Gissis, Olivier Rieppel, Michael Osborne, Hannah Landecker, Ingo Brigandt, James Elwick, Scott Gilbert, and Alan Love & Ingo Brigandt.
A project started five years ago has finally borne fruit. In May, 2012 I joined a group of philosophers, historians, and biologists in Philadelphia for the Cain Conference “E pluribus unum: Bringing biological parts and wholes into historical and philosophical perspective.” The meeting was organized by Lynn Nyhart and Scott Lidgard, with the goal
…to pursue the question: How can historians, philosophers, and biologists help each other to understand part-whole relationships in biology, both today and in the past?
One of the discussions I find most interesting in the philosophy of science is about what exactly constitutes a biological individual (or organism). The discussion would be a lot less interesting if everything were a vertebrate. Vertebrates (nearly always) develop from a single fertilized egg, so the (mostly) genetically homogeneous and (usually) genetically unique unit is the same as the spatially bounded, contiguous and physiologically integrated unit (this doesn’t even cover all the proposed criteria; see Clarke 2010 for a fairly comprehensive list with citations). But when we look outside of the vertebrates, what we often find is that some biological units have some of these properties and either groups or parts of those units have others.
In a recent series of posts, I reviewed Maureen O’Malley and Russell Powell’s paper in Biology and Philosophy, “Major Problems in Evolutionary Transitions: How a Metabolic Perspective Can Enrich our Understanding of Macroevolution.” Although they made several good points, I thought that some of their criticisms were off the mark and that their proposed solution to the real and perceived problems with the major transitions framework was unsatisfying.
Drs. O’Malley and Powell are both heavy hitters in the philosophy of biology, and as I usually do when I dig deeply into someone else’s paper, I invited them to respond to my criticisms. They kindly provided a thoughtful rebuttal and permitted me to post it here. I’ll have more to say later, but for now I’ll just say that they make some good points and (most importantly) fairly represent my arguments. As usual for guest posts, I have made no edits to the content of their response, only formatted and added links:
Maureen O’Malley and Russell Powell say that the major transitions framework is in need of repair. They have a point, or rather several good points. I have looked at their criticisms of three different versions (the original framework as laid out in the book by John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry, Rick Michod’s ‘evolutionary transitions in individuality‘ framework, and Szathmáry’s revised ‘Major Transitions 2.0‘). But what is their proposed fix, and will it have the intended effect?
One of the cool things about studying the so-called major transitions is that they are as interesting to philosophers of science as to biologists. So you really can’t help being exposed to the philosophy of science literature, and many (maybe most) biologists in the field cross the lines at least occasionally. I’ve been to both, and I’m here to tell you that philosophy conferences are more fun than biology conferences.
Last time, I briefly summarized the various forms of the major transitions framework and addressed one of O’Malley and Powell‘s criticisms, that the framework is progressivist. Now I’d like to look at their other two problems: lack of unity and missing events. By and large, I agree with these points, although there are some caveats I’d like to point out. Next time, I’ll consider their proposed solution, which I’m afraid I don’t find helpful.
Disunity is actually O’Malley and Powell’s first criticism, but it will be a bit more complicated than progressivism to address, and I was short on time on part 1. Essentially, they are arguing that the major transitions are not a natural kind, philosophese for groupings that belong together because of some fundamental commonality, as opposed to more arbitrary groupings whose members are only superficially similar. So what are the transitions? Here’s the list from the book:
The question of what constitutes a biological individual is intimately entangled with questions about levels of selection. Many authors implicitly or explicitly treat individuals as units of evolution or some variation on this theme. A recent appreciation for the complexity of bacterial biofilms has led to comparisons with multicellular organisms. A recent paper by Ellen Clarke bucks this trend by claiming that multispecies biofilms are not evolutionary individuals.