European Journal for Philosophy of Science

, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp 119–131 | Cite as

Emerging sciences and new conceptions of disease; or, beyond the monogenomic differentiated cell lineage

  • John DupréEmail author
Original paper in Philosophy of Biology


This paper will begin with some very broad and general considerations about the kind of biological entities we are. This exercise is motivated by the belief that the view of what we—multicellular eukaryotic organisms—are that is widely assumed by biologists, medical scientists and the general public, is an extremely limited one. It cannot be assumed a priori that a more sophisticated view will make a major difference to the science or practice of medicine, and there are areas of medicine to which it is probably largely irrelevant. However, in this case there are important implications for medicine, or so I shall argue. In particular, it enables us to appreciate fully the potential medical significance of some of the most exciting contemporary advances in general biology, in such fields as epigenetics, metagenomics, and systems biology; and part of this significance is that these advances have raised serious doubts about how we should understand the biological individuals that medicine is generally assumed to aim to treat.


Organism Disease Gut bacteria Symbiosis Epigenetics Metagenomics 



This paper has benefitted from comments from Sabina Leonelli, Pierre-Olivier Méthot, Staffan Müller-Wille, and Maureen O’Malley. I also gratefully acknowledge funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (UK). The research in this paper was part of the programme of the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society (Egenis)


  1. Allen, T. D., Moore, D. R., Wang, X., Casu, V., May, R., Lerner, M. R., et al. (2008). Dichotomous metabolism of Enterococcus faecalis induced by haematin starvation modulates colonic gene expression. Journal of Medical Microbiology, 57, 1193–1204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bollati, V., & Baccarelli, A. (2010). Environmental epigenetics. Heredity, 105, 105–112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Covic, M., Karaca, E., & Lie, D. C. (2010). Epigenetic regulation of neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus. Heredity, 105, 122–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Dupré, J., & O’Malley, M. A. (2007). Metagenomics and biological ontology. Studies in the History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 38, 834–846.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dupré, J., & O’Malley, M. A. (2009). Varieties of living things: Life at the intersection of lineage and metabolism. Philosophy and Theory in Biology, 2009.
  7. Harris, R. N., Brucker, R. M., Walke, J. B., Becker, M. H., Schwantes, C. R., Flaherty, D. C., et al. (2009). Skin microbes on frogs prevent morbidity and mortality caused by a lethal skin fungus. The ISME Journal, 3, 818–824.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Hehemann, J., Correc, G., Barbeyron, T., Helbert, W., Czjzek, M., & Michel, G. (2010). Transfer of carbohydrate-active enzymes from marine bacteria to Japanese gut microbiota. Nature, 464, 908–912.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Heijmans, B. T., Tobi, E. W., Stein, A. D., Putter, H., Blauw, G. J., et al. (2008). Persistent epigenetic differences associated with prenatal exposure to famine in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 105, 17046–17049.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Hill, M. J., Goddard, P., & Williams, R. E. O. (1971). Gut bacteria and aetiology of cancer of the breast. The Lancet, 298, 472–473.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Hirano, S. S., & Upper, C. D. (2000). Bacteria in the leaf ecosystem with emphasis on Pseudomonas syringae: a pathogen, ice nucleus, and epiphyte. Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, 64, 624–653.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Klein, F., Amin Kotb, W. F., & Petersen, I. (2009). Incidence of human papilloma virus in lung cancer. Lung Cancer, 65, 13–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Kripke, S. (1980). Naming and necessity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Lai, Y., Di Nardo, A., Nakatsuji, T., Leichtle, A., Yang, Y., Cogen, A. L., et al. (2009). Commensal bacteria regulate Toll-like receptor 3–dependent inflammation after skin injury. Nature Medicine, 15, 1377–1382.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Méthot, P-O. (forthcoming, 2010). Research traditions and styles of explanation in evolutionary studies of medicine. Journal of Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics. Google Scholar
  16. Morgan, D. K., & Whitelaw, E. (2008). The case for transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in humans. Mammalian Genome, 19, 394–397.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. O’Malley, M. A., & Dupré, J. (2007). Size doesn’t matter: towards a more inclusive philosophy of biology. Biology and Philosophy, 22, 155–191.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Oyama, S., Griffiths, P. E., & Gray, R. D. (Eds.). (2001). Cycles of contingency: Developmental systems and evolution. Cambridge: MIT.Google Scholar
  19. Paxson, H. (2008). Post-Pasteurian cultures: the microbiopolitics of raw-milk cheese in the United States. Cultural Anthropology, 23, 15–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Pradeu, T. (forthcoming). The limits of the self. Immunology and biological identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Rawls, J. F., Samuel, B. S., & Gordon, J. I. (2004). Gnotobiotic zebrafish reveal evolutionarily conserved responses to the gut microbiota. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U S A, 101, 4596–4601.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Venkataraman, S., Reddy, S. P., Loo, J., Idamakanti, N., Hallenbeck, P. L., & Reddy, V. S. (2008). Structure of Seneca Valley Virus-001, an oncolytic picornavirus representing a new genus. Structure, 16, 1555–1561.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Webster, N. S., & Blackall, L. L. (2009). What do we really know about sponge-microbial symbioses? The ISME Journal (2009) 3, 1–3, 2003.Google Scholar
  24. West Eberhard, M. J. (2003). Developmental plasticity and evolution. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.EgenisUniversity of ExeterExeterUK

Personalised recommendations