Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 25, Issue 4, pp 623–641 | Cite as

Symbiosis, lateral function transfer and the (many) saplings of life

  • Frédéric BouchardEmail author


One of intuitions driving the acceptance of a neat structured tree of life is the assumption that organisms and the lineages they form have somewhat stable spatial and temporal boundaries. The phenomenon of symbiosis shows us that such ‘fixist’ assumptions does not correspond to how the natural world actually works. The implications of lateral gene transfer (LGT) have been discussed elsewhere; I wish to stress a related point. I will focus on lateral function transfer (LFT) and will argue, using examples of what many would call ‘superorganisms’, that the emergence of symbiotic individuals revives the importance of functional and adaptationist thinking in how we conceptualize the lineages of biological individuals. The consequence of the argument is that, if we really want to hold onto tree of life thinking, we had better accept that new saplings appear and disappear all the time.


Evolution Symbiosis Individuality Adaptation Tree of life Web of life 



This paper has greatly benefited from comments from audiences at the Consortium for the History and Philosophy of Biology (Duke University, Université de Paris I, University of Toronto, Université de Montréal) workshop and at the “Perspectives on the Tree of Life” workshop, sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust. Comments from and exchanges with an anonymous reviewer, Eric Bapteste, Yan Boucher, John Dupré, Francesca Merlin and Jan Sapp have improved this paper greatly. Finally I would also like to thank Marie-Claude Lorne (1969–2008) who, as a post-doctoral fellow under my supervision in 2005 and then as a friend, gave me much food for thought on many philosophical issues discussed in this paper. She will be sorely missed.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversité de MontréalMontréalCanada

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