Look what came in the mail yesterday!

Biological Individuality

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 ConferenceE 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?

We discussed each other’s contribution at a followup meeting in Madison, Wisconsin that December and submitted revised versions, well, some time after that. The resulting book, Biological Individuality, Integrating Scientific, Philosophical, and Historical Perspectives, is now available from University of Chicago Press.

My contribution is a consideration of the volvocine algae in the context of debates about what constitutes a biological individual:

After briefly reviewing efforts to define individuality, I introduce the volvocine algae as a model system, review the evolutionary history of developmental changes in this group, and consider how these changes relate to the emergence of a new kind of individual.

This is a topic I’ve written about several times on Fierce Roller, for example What kind of individual do you mean?Pathways to pluralism: Beckett Sterner on biological individuality, part 1 and part 2Karen Kovaka on biological individualityLevels of selection in biofilms: Ellen Clarke on individuality, and David Queller on individuality.

Strangely, I got the physical book before pdf’s of my chapter, which are promised within the next few weeks. Once I have that, you can expect some more shameless self-promotion.

Biological Individuality chapter


  1. Owlmirror says

    Do any chapters in the book discuss rarer phenomena like chimerism and conjoined twins, or are they more concerned with organisms in the more typical state?

    Is there any discussion of species concepts, or would that be “above” the level of the individual that is the focus of the book?

    • Matthew Herron says

      Chimerism is discussed in Chapter 1 (Lidgard & Nyhart), Chapter 11 (James Elwick), and Chapter 13 (Love & Brigandt). I don’t see conjoined twins in the index. As with a lot of these discussions, much of the focus is on the cases that stretch the definitions (I don’t want to say ‘the unusual cases’, since most living things don’t fit the paradigm of unitary individuals).
      Alan Love and Ingo Brigandt’s chapter includes a whole section on species as individuals, and it is mentioned in several other chapters.


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