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

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MONDAY, JULY 6  /  19:00 - 20:30  /  Salle Marie Gérin-Lajoie
History, Integration, and the Biological Character Concept

Shari Monner (University of Western Ontario, Canada)

Characters are the units of change on which evolutionary theory is based. Implicit in concepts like homology, heredity, and adaptation are assumptions about characters; homology is a relationship among characters; heredity is the passing of characters from one generation to another; and adaptation refers to benefits characters afford the organisms to which they belong. However, a single character concept which can capture the many uses of ‘character,’ has not been elaborated. An exemplar case of problems that arise in the absence of a single, unified character concept is the character individuation problem. Assumptions about characters guide analysis of data used to reconstruct evolutionary history; but differing assumptions by researchers result in conflicting conclusions about evolutionary events. I argue that the root of this problem is an inadvertent blending of two conceptions of biological characters. I introduce integrative characters and historical characters as importantly distinct notions of biological character which are both central to the study of evolution. Integrative characters are generally understood in terms of the organism which possess them—as parts or properties of biological entities. Historical characters are understood in terms of their use in classification—as points of comparison among biological entities. Historical characters are used to determine the evolutionary history and interrelations among species while integrative characters are more prevalent in discussions of ontogeny, adaptation, and selection. Proposing a single biological character concept with these two distinct aspects, I show how the character individuation problem results from exclusive focus on the historical aspect of characters; the solution, thus, lies in a qualified re-introduction of the notion that characters are integrated parts of living systems. In this way, I show how my two-pronged character concept can provide solutions to problems like the character individuation problem.