Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 31, Issue 6, pp 839–853 | Cite as

Rethinking individuality: the dialectics of the holobiont

  • Scott F. Gilbert
  • Alfred I. Tauber


Given immunity’s general role in the organism’s economy—both in terms of its internal environment as well as mediating its external relations—immune theory has expanded its traditional formulation of preserving individual autonomy to one that includes accounting for nutritional processes and symbiotic relationships that require immune tolerance. When such a full ecological alignment is adopted, the immune system becomes the mediator of both defensive and assimilative environmental intercourse, where a balance of immune rejection and tolerance governs the complex interactions of the organism’s ecological relationships. Accordingly, immunology, which historically had affiliated with the biology of individuals, now becomes a science concerned with the biology of communities. With this translocation, the ontological basis of the organism is undergoing a profound change. Indeed, the recent recognition of the ubiquity of symbiosis has challenged the traditional notions of biological individuality and requires a shift in the metaphysics undergirding biology, in which a philosophy of the organism must be characterized by ecological dialectics “all-the-way-down.”


Immunity Individuality Holobiont Organism Symbiosis Ecosystem 



SFG is funded by Swarthmore College and the National Science Foundation, and he wishes to thank Dr. Heather Davis and Sarah R. Gilbert for constructive conversations on these issues. We also thank the editor for his assistance in these revisions.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologySwarthmore CollegeSwarthmoreUSA
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyBoston UniversityBostonUSA

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