Levels of selection in biofilms: Ellen Clarke on individuality

Pseudomonas biofilm. From Spiers et al. 2013.

Pseudomonas biofilm. From Spiers et al. 2013.

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.

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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.

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Pathways to pluralism: Beckett Sterner on biological individuality, part 2

Aphids on dandelion

Aphids on dandelion. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Previously, I introduced Beckett Sterner’s new paper comparing and critically evaluating the views of Ellen Clarke and Peter Godfrey-Smith on biological individuality. For Clarke, individuality is recognized by the presence of ‘individuating mechanisms’: traits that increase the capacity for among-unit selection or decrease the capacity for within-unit selection. Godfrey-Smith recognizes different kinds of individuals, but at a minimum, populations of individuals must have Lewontin’s criteria of phenotypic variation, differential fitness, and heritability of fitness, i.e. be capable of adaptive change.

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Pathways to pluralism: Beckett Sterner on biological individuality, part 1

In grad school I wound up hanging around with John Pepper (yeah, Dr. Pepper) a good bit. I think I disagreed with him more than I agreed with him, sometimes to the point of exasperation, but conversations with him were never boring.


One of John’s most annoying refrains was “is it an organism?” I was studying (and still study) a group of algae for which this question can be genuinely confusing. Most people would say a Chlamydomonas cell is a single-celled organism, and most would agree that Volvox is a multicellular organism, but what about the four-celled species Tetrabaena? A four-celled organism or a collection of four single-celled organisms? What about an undifferentiated colony of 32 cells, such as Eudorina? Or Pleodorina, which is around the same size but with two cell types? Somewhere between a unicellular ancestor and Volvox, a new kind of individual emerged. Among the extant species*, where do we draw the line between organisms and groups of organisms, or can we (or should we) draw a line at all?

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