, Volume 76, Issue 2, pp 77–96 | Cite as

‘The importance of symbiosis in philosophy of biology: an analysis of the current debate on biological individuality and its historical roots’

  • Javier SuárezEmail author


Symbiosis plays a fundamental role in contemporary biology, as well as in recent thinking in philosophy of biology. The discovery of the importance and universality of symbiotic associations has brought new light to old debates in the field, including issues about the concept of biological individuality. An important aspect of these debates has been the formulation of the hologenome concept of evolution, the notion that holobionts are units of natural selection in evolution. This review examines the philosophical assumptions that underlie recent proposal of the hologenome concept of evolution, and traces those debates back in time to their historical origins, to the moment when the connection between the topics of symbiosis and biological individuality first caught the attention of biologists. The review is divided in two parts. The first part explores the historical origins of the connection between the notion of symbiosis and the concept of biological individuality, and emphasizes the role of A. de Bary, R. Pound, A. Schneider and C. Merezhkowsky in framing the debate. The second part examines the hologenome concept of evolution and explores four parallelisms between contemporary debates and the debates presented in the first part of the essay, arguing that the different debates raised by the hologenome concept were already present in the literature. I suggest that the novelty of the hologenome concept of evolution lies in the wider appreciation of the importance of symbiosis for maintaining life on Earth as we know it. Finally, I conclude by suggesting the importance of exploring the connections among contemporary biology, philosophy of biology and history of biology in order to gain a better understanding of contemporary biology.


Symbiosis History of biology Philosophy of biology Biological individuality Hologenome Holobiont Units of selection 



I would like to thank Staffan Müller-Wille, Sabina Leonelli, Caglar Karaca, John Dupré, José Díez, who read previous versions of this manuscript and made helpful comment. Benjamin Smart is especially acknowledged for all his help and detailed comments in the final version of the manuscript. Finally, I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their comments, which clearly helped in improving the content and structure of the paper. This work was economically supported by the Spanish Ministry of Education (FFU16/02570) and the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (FFI2016-76799-P).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversitat de BarcelonaBarcelonaSpain

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