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

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THURSDAY, JULY 9  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-M260
Individual papers
Emergence: Agency, Vitalism and Holobionts

The birth of the holobiont: Multi-species birthing through mutual scaffolding and niche construction

Lynn Chiu (University of Missouri, United States)

Holobionts are multicellular eukaryotes with multiple species of persistent symbionts. They are not individuals in the genetic sense— composed of and regulated by the same genome—but they are anatomical, physiological, developmental, immunological, and evolutionary units, evolved from a shared relationship between different species. What are the processes that constitute and maintain the multi-genomic holobiont? I argue for a new perspective: the reciprocal scaffolding of developmental processes and mutual construction of developmental, ecological, and evolutionary niches between humans and the microbiota symbionts. The case study: the human birth process, whereby mother, fetus, and symbiotic microbial communities induce and/or constitute conditions for the development and reproduction of one another. These include the direct induction of maternal or fetus physiological changes, the restructuring of ecological relations between communities, and evolutionary selection against undesirable competitors. The mutual scaffolding and niche constructing processes start early— prior to amniotic rupture. We are evolutionarily, physiologically, and developmentally integrated holobiont systems, strung together through mutual reliance (developmental scaffolding) and mutual construction (niche construction). Bringing the processes of niche construction and developmental scaffolding together to interpret holobiont birth conceptually scaffolds two new directions for research: (1) in niche construction, the evolutionary implications of organisms actively constructing multiple overlapping niches and scaffolds, and (2) in Evolutionary Developmental Biology, evolutionary and ecological processes as developmental causes.

The discreet charm of eighteenth-century vitalism and its avatars

Charles Wolfe (Universiteit Gent, Belgium)

Building on some earlier work on forms of vitalism as relating to biomedical science (not metaphysics; cf. Wolfe and Normandin 2013), here, I try to investigate the still-problematic notion of vitalism, hovering in the realms of the philosophy of biology, the history of medicine, and the scientific background of the Radical Enlightenment (case in point, the influence of vitalist medicine on Diderot). This is a more ‘biologistic’, ‘embodied’, medicalized vitalism than versions of this idea found in recent ‘theory’ discourse, e.g., on materiality. I first distinguish between what I would call ‘substantival’ and ‘functional’ forms of vitalism, as applied to the eighteenth century. Substantival vitalism presupposes the existence of something like a (substantive) vital force which either plays a causal role in the natural world as studied by scientific means, or remains a kind of supernatural, extra-causal entity. Functional vitalism tends to operate ‘post facto’, from the existence of living bodies to the desire to find explanatory models that will do justice to their uniquely ‘vital’ properties in a way that fully mechanistic models (one thinks, e.g., of Cartesian mechanism) cannot. I discuss some representative figures of the Montpellier school as being functional rather than substantival vitalists. A second point concerns the reprisal of vitalism(s) in ‘late modernity’; from Hans Driesch to Georges Canguilhem (who was perhaps the first in the post-war years to provocatively call himself a vitalist, when this was still a ‘bad word’). I suggest that in addition to the substantival and functional varieties, we then encounter a third, more existential form of vitalism, articulated by Canguilhem, in which vitalism is a kind of attitude towards Life. I suggest that distinguishing between these three forms should lead us to revise some of our common judgments about the place of vitalism (Gilbert and Sarkar 2000) in the restructuring of biological theory. (Oyama 2010)

Minimal agency and its discontents

Alex Djedovic (University of Toronto, Canada)

There has been considerable interest at the boundary of philosophy, cognitive science and biology in developing an account of minimal agency, which is roughly the kind of agency that is common to living systems as such. The minimal agency project aims to clarify thinking about the continuity and embeddedness of cognitive processes in the more general class of biological processes (Di Paolo 2005, Thompson 2007, Barandiaran et al 2009, Skewes & Hooker 2009, Christensen 2012). The central claim of this project is that the defining features of minimal agents-—individuality, interactional asymmetry and (minimal) normativity—-are grounded in specific features of complex autonomous systems, namely their (i) organizational closure, (ii) thermodynamic openness and (iii) precariousness (Barandiaran et al 2009). The approach of locating agency in the causal architecture of complex autonomous systems is insufficient to ground minimal agency. I claim that minimal agency is not a systemic phenomenon; rather, it is an ecological phenomenon. The minimal agency project fails because it places too much emphasis on the organizational closure of complex autonomous systems, and too little emphasis on the crucial fact that agents are needfully free. For any agent, need (dependence) and freedom (organizational closure) are caught up in an ineliminable “dialectical” interplay (Jonas 1966). For instance, maintaining organizational closure relies on complex forms of openness to and dependence on the agent’s environment. This constitutes the essential predicament of all agents. An ecological account of minimal agency is better able to accommodate the conceptual nuances inherent this predicament. It also provides an account of the source of natural normativity in agency. I contend that an ecological account of minimal agency can naturalistically accommodate what is right in the minimal agency project while clarifying the difficult conceptual issues it raises.