International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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MONDAY, JULY 6  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-M220
Organized session / standard talks
Boundaries and levels of biological organization (2)

Jon Umerez (University of the Basque Country, Spain)

This double session will discuss the notion of biological organization from a system-theoretical perspective. In particular it will focus on its intrinsic hierarchical dimension, and on the role organization plays in the understanding of the transition from pre-biotic to minimal living systems and of the evolution towards more complex forms of biological, cognitive and ecological systems. More specifically, it will also address issues regarding individuality and autonomy at cellular and multicellular levels, from developmental and ecological perspectives as well as from genetic and evolutionary ones. Formation of boundaries at prebiotic scenarios and complex interactions at individual versus environment interfaces are also dealt with. The conceptual framework involves clarification of such general concepts as those of organization or level in terms of constraints, the characterization of regulation at its minimal instances or the assessment of diverse attempts to naturalize teleology. The double session is divided into two parts: a more general and conceptual one first, followed by another more specific and field centered.

Extended inheritance and extended organizational boundaries

Gaëlle Pontarotti (IHPST/ Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, France)

In this presentation, I argue that the increasing data about non-genetic inheritance requires the construction of a renewed conceptual framework that should complement the inclusive approaches already discussed in the literature. More precisely, I hold that this framework should be epistemologically relevant for evolutionary biologists: in capturing the limits of extended inheritance and of extended biological systems transmitting traits to their offspring, it should open an alternative way to apprehend the impacts of extended inheritance on evolutionary thinking. I outline the first elements of an organizational account of extended inheritance, based on earlier works on biological organization (Mossio et al., 2009, 2010) and extended physiology (Turner, 2004). In such an account, the category of inherited factors is neither restricted to genes nor extended to ill-defined stable resources related to trans-generational patterns of variation. Instead, it includes multifarious elements whose specific role is to harness flows of matter and energy – and thereby to maintain extended metabolic and functional networks – across generations of clearly delimited extended organized systems. This both inclusive and restrictive framework is therefore tightly associated to the conceptualization of new levels of organization, appearing as various levels at which evolutionary causality can take place.

"Protocell autonomy": Constructing boundaries to organise basic biological processes and interactions

Kepa Ruiz-Mirazo (University of the Basque Country, Spain)

Autonomy does not mean independence. It refers, rather, to the capacity of a system to generate its own rules of operation as such a system, including the rules of interaction with its environment. This applies to biological systems, which are able to build their boundaries (selectively permeable lipid membranes) and other functional components (proteins, sugars, nucleic acids...) through the transformation of externally available material and energetic resources. They manage to do so by putting together and coordinating (both spatially and temporally) a complex network of reaction processes that take place in non-homogeneous, far-from-equilibrium thermo-dynamic conditions. Thus, biological systems, being necessarily open systems, constitute a dynamic organisa-tion of processes that becomes clearly distinct from the inert environment that nurtures them and, at the same time, collects the products of their ongoing activity. In this contribution, I will argue that autonomy, in its most basic and minimal sense, had to be developed quite early in the sequence of transitions that led from complex physical-chemical systems to the simplest biological ones. Apart from relevant experimental evidence provided in present days by several labs, a theoretical model will be introduced to show how this could be achieved: namely, through the coupling of autocatalytic chemical reaction networks with processes of lipid self-assem-bly forming the membrane of the system. This marks an important transition, in which “vesicles” (closed lipid bilayers) transform into “protocells”, for they gain control on the production of their own boundaries, a crucial step for autonomous individuation and system-level coordination. In this context, autonomy will be claimed as a necessary but not sufficient theoretical construct to account for living phenomena, whose evolutionary-historic-al-collective dimensions also need to be taken specifically into account.

Boundaries and levels of biological organization. General discussion with all speakers.

Jon Umerez (University of the Basque Country, Spain)

General discussion with all speakers