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Pathways to pluralism about biological individuality

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What are the prospects for a monistic view of biological individuality given the multiple epistemic roles the concept must satisfy? In this paper, I examine the epistemic adequacy of two recent accounts based on the capacity to undergo natural selection. One is from Ellen Clarke, and the other is by Peter Godfrey-Smith. Clarke’s position reflects a strong monism, in that she aims to characterize individuality in purely functional terms and refrains from privileging any specific material properties as important in their own right. I argue that Clarke’s functionalism impairs the epistemic adequacy of her account compared to a middle-ground position taken by Godfrey-Smith. In comparing Clarke and Godfrey-Smith’s account, two pathways emerge to pluralism about biological individuality. The first develops from the contrast between functionalist and materialist approaches, and the second from an underlying temporal structure involved in using evolutionary processes to define individuality.

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  1. Additionally, Clarke equates organisms and biological individuals in her account, but Godfrey-Smith treats the two as intersecting but not identical. He therefore allows a global pluralism about the units of biology in a way that Clarke does not.

  2. The universality of functionalist approaches partly derives from introducing ambiguities in the meaning of evolution by natural selection (ENS) that can only be removed by adding back in material details, e.g. about life cycle structure. Godfrey-Smith has argued that our most general definitions of ENS, such as Lewontin’s criteria above, fall short of giving necessary and sufficient conditions (Godfrey-Smith 2007, 2009). Instead, we should understand the different formulations of ENS as providing models whose explanatory and predictive value depends on various idealizations and approximations. For example, some popular formulations of ENS depend on the idealization of synchronized generations, but this rules out a case where differences in generation time drive population change even when every parent has the same number of offspring (Godfrey-Smith 2007, 495–496). As a result, the material details of reproduction lead us to apply different formulations of ENS across contexts and thereby exert influence on its overall meaning rather than simply factoring into the capacity for selection once a formulation has already been selected. Failing to be precise about these material aspects of a case may lead us to mischaracterize the effects of individuating mechanisms, e.g. by focusing solely on the number of offspring per generation and overlooking generation time.

  3. I should note that Godfrey-Smith has developed other resources for guiding modeling practice in collaboration with Benjamin Kerr that do not rely on the concept of individuality (Godfrey-Smith and Kerr 2013).

  4. Note that Clarke simply equates organisms and individuals in her account (Clarke 2013).


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Many thanks to Scott Lidgard, Joyce Havstad, and Jim Griesemer for their helpful comments. My thanks also to Erin Barringer-Sterner for her support in polishing this paper and a healthy perspective on all things academic. This research was funded in part by National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship SES-1153114.

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Correspondence to Beckett Sterner.

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Sterner, B. Pathways to pluralism about biological individuality. Biol Philos 30, 609–628 (2015).

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