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

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THURSDAY, JULY 9  /  15:30 - 17:00  /  DS-M320
Individual papers
Individuals, Species and Hierarchies

Grounding individuals in hierarchical processes

James DiFrisco (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium)

Dupré (2012) argues that apparently substantial biological entities (genes, organisms, populations, etc.) are best conceived as abstractions from biological processes, and that processes should be the fundamental units of an ontology of the life sciences. Assuming this is biologically well-motivated, I explore some of the philosophical consequences for conceptions of individuals and hierarchy. Instead of rejecting biological continuant-individuals altogether, I attempt to show how the appearance of stable continuants and the apparent truth of substance-talk can be generated out of a process-based perspective. Following Simons (2000), continuants are construed as abstractions based on equivalence classes which pick-out invariant properties among the successive states of the relevant biological processes. The relation between a continuant and its corresponding processes is accounted for as a type of grounding relation. Accordingly, I argue, the truth of propositions referring to continuants can be grounded in truth-makers which are just processes. One revisionary consequence follows, however. If biological continuants (genes, organisms, populations, etc.) are abstract entities then they lack causal efficacy. Arguably, scientific realism about biology requires that biological entities have causal efficacy, and therefore, that we be realist only about the hierarchy of biological processes. I conclude by examining the important ways in which this hierarchy of processes differs from the traditional levels of organization hierarchy of continuants.

After interaction: Why interdependence is difficult to think about, and why to do it anyways

Kriti Sharma (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, United States)

In the early 21st century – a time when the terms “networks”, “connections”, and “complexity" are in high circulation – the theme of interdependence is in the air. Nowhere, perhaps, is interdependence evoked as vividly and often as in the biological sciences. Yet the ascendant view of interdependence at play in biology (as in popular culture) is not, I argue, a view of interdependence at all. It remains a view of independence. By and large, we think that interdependence just means “independent objects interacting.” We say that things interact strongly, weakly, reciprocally, sequentially, and so on, but their ultimate independence from one another remains intact. As long as the ascendant view of interdependence continues to collapse implicitly to a view of independence, I believe that we continue to miss important implications of our own biological findings. I demonstrate how a coherent theory of interdependence – that is, a theory of causation that takes seriously the claim that things themselves do not exist except in dependence on other things – can help us make sense of disparate biological phenomena, from signal transduction, to symbiosis, to the nature-nurture complex.

Why do scientific laws tend to ignore species?

Sinan Sencan (University of Calgary, Canada)

Whether there are natural kinds and scientific laws in biology is controversial. In particular, some philosophers of biology argue that biological species are not natural kinds, rather they are individuals (e.g. Hull, 1978; Ghiselin, 1989). Their reasoning assumes that scientific laws should be generalizations about classes of individuals and not about individuals. Yet, some others argue that there can be scientific laws concerning particular species (e.g. Lange, 1995). Lange thinks that statements of the form ‘The S is a T’ (S is a species and T is a biological property) can be dubbed as scientific laws because these statements can perform the function of scientific laws in scientific practice. This paper critically evaluates the relationship between the concept of scientific laws and the concept of biological species. I agree with Lange that scientific practice must have priority to evaluate the status of scientific statements. Yet, I do not agree with Lange that biological practice offers a plausible reason to defend the idea that there are biological laws concerning biological species. This paper’s thesis is that if there are statements which express scientific laws in biology, these statements will not refer to species because of two reasons. The first reason is that statements concerning species are usually merely descriptive or informative, i.e. they are not explanatory. The second reason is that causal biological statements in biology usually refer to properties of species but not to species directly. From these reasons, I argue that there are no strong reasons to think that there are scientific laws concerning particular species.