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

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THURSDAY, JULY 9  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-R520
Organized session / standard talks
Worlds apart? Aristotelian and contemporary biological explanation and the primacy of the organism

Anne Peterson (University of Utah, United States)

Aristotelian biology is often described as “essentialist” in a way that over-emphasizes the role of the species form and under-emphasizes the role of the individual organism in biological explanation. This focus on form at the expense of the organism leads to a devaluation of the emphasis Aristotle placed on the organism, both with respect to the developmental process and with respect to the reproductive process. Restoring the organism to its rightful place in biological explanation for Aristotle leads to promising points of connection with contemporary evolutionary developmental biology and evolutionary theory more generally. It also supports a view of Aristotelian form that underscores form’s dependence upon the way of life of a certain group of organisms, along with form’s teleological connection to matter. In general, the priority Aristotle accorded to the role of individual organisms in answering biological questions about generation, development, and being is a clear point of contact with contemporary biology. Where do the points of conflict between contemporary and Aristotelian biological explanation lie, and can Aristotelian models, including concepts such as matter and form, potentiality and actuality, still be helpful for answering questions that arise on the contemporary scene?

Aristotle on bodies, souls and ways of life

James Lennox (University of Pittsburgh, United States)

There seems to be a rather fundamental tension in Aristotle’s De anima. It begins by arguing that organisms' organic body is their matter and their soul is their form—form understood as the perfected capacity of an organic body. But it also argues that there are many distinct soul capacities, and different organisms may have organ systems capable of expressing one or more of these capacities. How then are we to understand the unity of an organism—is an organism simply the sum total of its organs and organic capacities, or is there an account of why different organisms have the particular set of structures and capacities they do? In this paper I argue that an overlooked concept that is central to his biological enterprise, the concept of βίος (way of life) is the key to answering this question. This concept plays a central role both in Aristotle’s systematics and in his explanatory theory, in accounting for why different kinds of animals have the distinctive structures and capacities they do; but it also explains the coordinated nature of an organism’s parts and behaviors—what Cuvier, an attentive reader of Aristotle, referred to as the “correlation of parts”. In order to drive this point home I look carefully at the closing paragraphs of his philosophical introduction to zoology, Parts of Animals I.5, and then examine his account of the different adaptations of birds to their different ways of life, especially in PA IV.12. Implicit in his theory and practice is the view that the unified organism, adapted to a particular way of life, explains the particular organization of organ systems and living activities that different kinds of organisms have, rather than the other way around.

Mechanism or hylomorphism? A plea for organisms

Denis Walsh (University of Toronto, Canada)

One of the impediments to a thoroughgoing organicism is methodological. The properties of organisms that influence evolution—their plasticity, their self-synthesising, self-regulating, goal-directedness—are emergent properties. But the very idea of emergence is thought to have been rendered incoherent by reductive mechanism. Everything that wholes can explain can be explained by parts. Contemporary ‘anti-emergence’ is predicated on two implicit metaphysical assumptions about causal powers: intrinsicality and foundationalism. Together they entail that the causal properties of a complex entity are fixed exclusively by the causal properties of the parts. There has been recent interest in exploring an updated version of Aristotelian essentialism for evolutionary biology. The leading idea, deriving from recent work by Lennox, is that an organism’s βίος—‘way of life’—is an explanatorily basic teleological property, a ‘nature’. An organism’s nature in turn, according to Aristotle, is the consequence of the reciprocal constraints of its form and matter. Form consists in an organism’s purposive capacity to organise matter in ways conducive to its pursuit of its way of life; matter consists in the range of possibilities for an organism’s pursuit of a way of life. One unappreciated virtue of biological neo-Aristotelianism is that it offers an argument against anti-emergentism (and a fortiori for organicism). There is a reciprocity between the capacities of organisms and their parts that reflects the reciprocity between Aristotelian form and matter. The explanatorily salient properties of organisms—as manifested in their goal-directedness—are fixed by the causal properties of their parts. Yet, reciprocally, the salient properties of organisms’ parts are fixed by organismal goal-directedness. Where causal (material) properties are allowed to be relational and contextual (rather than intrinsic and foundational) the kind of part/whole reciprocity that is characteristic of emergence is entirely coherent. Neo-Aristotelianism about organisms is a form of emergence.

Reproduction, form, and organism in Aristotle's metaphysics and biology

Anne Peterson (University of Utah, United States)

Passages from Aristotle’s metaphysical and biological writings alike suggest that an organism’s father, rather than its species form, is (if all goes well) the primary or fundamental cause of that organism’s generation and of its characteristic features. Understanding a father’s role in reproduction primarily in terms of a vehicle for transmitting the species form is therefore misleading because it glosses over the Aristotelian priority of organism over form. Generalizing from “father” to “parents,” it is better to say that Aristotelian biology agrees with contemporary evolutionary theory in maintaining that an organism’s parents are the fundamental locus of explanation for the generation of that organism with its characteristic features. How, then, should we understand the role of form in reproduction? The explanatory priority of organism over form suggests that for Aristotle, a species form corresponds to generalized capacities that are dependent upon fully determinate capacities within individual organisms of that species. It is these fully determinate features and processes that are, per se, transmitted from generation to generation, with this transmission being caused by the parents; the species form is carried along for the ride. However, Aristotle’s view that the explanatory role of form in reproduction is posterior to that of the organism does not divest form of its metaphysical status as a genuine component of organisms. Moreover, the way in which Aristotle privileges the explanatory role of the organism over that of form in the reproductive process means that on his view there is no metaphysical barrier (though there may be other sorts of barriers) to the generation of new forms and hence of new species. I will end by suggesting some consequences of this Aristotelian priority of organism over form for the relevance of Aristotelian metaphysical concepts within contemporary biology.