Alternative patterns of explanation for major transitions

The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited

One reason to study green algae is because they can teach us something about the evolution of multicellularity. A number of related species in the Volvocalean family form a gradation of complexity between single-celled and simple multicellular organisms. The members of this family of algae differ in size, the number of cells they produce, and whether or not there is a split between germline and somatic cells. This split is thought to be central to understanding how a new level of individuality has evolved. — Calcott 2011, p. 39.

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Fuzzy individuals

Nature Alive

I have an interest with the philosophy of biology, but I’m a dilettante. My background is in evolutionary biology; I haven’t had a philosophy class since I was an undergrad at UCF. Nevertheless, if you study the so-called Major Transitions, you’re inevitably going to end up reading some philosophy. Topics such as multilevel selection, emergence, and the nature of biological individuality come up over and over again in this field, and philosophers of biology have made important contributions in all of them.

Among these, I find discussions of the nature of biological individuality fascinating, and I’ve written about it often here. Volvox and its relatives often come up in these discussions, and they have for a long time. A new edited volume, Nature Alive, continues this trend in a chapter by Lukasz Lamza (“Cells, organisms, colonies, communities–the fuzziness of individuality in modern biology”).

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Review of Biological Individuality by Pierrick Bourrat

Biological Individuality

S. Lidgard & L. K. Nyhart, eds. 2017, Biological Individuality: Integrating Scientific, Philosophical, and Historical Perspectives. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Pierrick Bourrat has reviewed Scott Lidgard and Lynn Nyhart’s book Biological Individuality: Integrating Scientific, Philosophical, and Historical Perspectives for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

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Nice Aeon article on biological individuality

Siphonophores by Ernst Haeckel

By Ernst Haeckel – Kunstformen der Natur (1904), plate 17: Siphonophorae (see here, here and here), Public Domain, Link

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.

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Another take on volvocine individuality

Dinah Davison & Erik Hanschen

Dinah Davison and Erik Hanschen.

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.

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Cells, colonies, and clones: individuality in the volvocine algae

Biological Individuality

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.

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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?

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J. S. Huxley part 2: Volvox

Last time, I wrote about Julian Huxley’s 1912 book, The Individual in the Animal Kingdom, and his use of the volvocine algae as an example. I liked most of what he had to say, though I took issue with his assertion that

…all the other members of the family except Volvox…are colonies and nothing more—their members have united together because of certain benefits resulting from mere aggregation, but are not in any way interdependent, so that the wholes are scarcely more than the sum of their parts.

This is, of course, a matter of how we define a multicellular organism, but I think any definition that excludes, for example, Eudorina, is not a very useful one.

This time, I’ll look at the rest of what Huxley had to say about the volvocine algae, most of which is about Volvox:

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J. S. Huxley part 1: Gonium

Julian Huxley was one of the biologists responsible for the merging of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution in the early 20th century, the modern synthesis. His most influential work was Evolution: The Modern Synthesis, published in 1942. Thirty years earlier, though, he published a book on biological individuality, The Individual in the Animal Kingdom. Thankfully, the copyright on this book has expired, so it is now part of the public domain, and a scanned version is available for free in pdf and epub versions from Google.

Huxley Cover

Any book with Volvox on the cover can’t be all bad!

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What kind of individual do you mean?

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.

Aphid on dandelion by Amoceann. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Aphid on dandelion by Amoceann. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

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