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Cell Types as Natural Kinds

Abstract

Talk of different types of cells is commonplace in the biological sciences. We know a great deal, for example, about human muscle cells by studying the same type of cells in mice. Information about cell type is apparently largely projectible across species boundaries. But what defines cell type? Do cells come pre-packaged into different natural kinds? Philosophical attention to these questions has been extremely limited [see e.g., Wilson (Species: New Interdisciplinary Essays, pp 187–207, 1999; Genes and the Agents of Life, 2005; Wilson et al. Philos Top 35(1/2):189–215, 2007)]. On the face of it, the problems we face in individuating cellular kinds resemble those biologists and philosophers of biology encountered in thinking about species: there are apparently many different (and interconnected) bases on which we might legitimately classify cells. We could, for example, focus on their developmental history (a sort of analogue to a species’ evolutionary history); or we might divide on the basis of certain structural features, functional role, location within larger systems, and so on. In this paper, I sketch an approach to cellular kinds inspired by Boyd’s Homeostatic Property Cluster Theory, applying some lessons from this application back to general questions about the nature of natural kinds.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. See Mumford (2005) for a useful discussion of these issues.

  2. Just how few is controversial.

  3. Subject, of course, to variations due to cell cycle, context, stimuli, and so on.

  4. One important question that I will not address in much detail here: what is connoted by “natural” as a modifier of “kind”? I persist in using the phrase “natural kind” to signal my acceptance of the continuity between the account of kinds I offer and more traditional accounts. As will become clear in the final two sections, though, “naturalness” will take on a somewhat different cast on my account.

  5. We will take a more critical look at this supposition in the final two sections.

  6. Certain aspects of biological practice—to wit, a broadly historical orientation in biological systematics—also tell against (1). I will circle back to this issue shortly.

  7. In fact, this explanandum (permanence) turns out to have been overemphasized. In eukaryotes, cells maintain their differentiated status only in particular contexts—say, in certain tissue types or in the company of other cells of that type. Outside those contexts, they tend to de-differentiate.

  8. As Maureen O’Malley reminds me, this does not mean that they no longer engage in transcriptional regulation. And indeed, while their transcriptional activities are quite low (below normal detection limits), recent studies suggest that mature erythrocytes contain “diverse and abundant microRNAs” that play important roles in signaling and other maintenance functions (Chen et al. 2008, p. 2).

  9. For further discussion of the difficulties with this approach, see Wilson (2005, pp. 104–107).

  10. Of course, in some corners of biology this is a contentious thesis about species too; for entry into the debate see e.g., Doolittle (1999) and O'Malley et al. (2010).

  11. Some have their origin in the neural crest, some in the mesoderm. I thank Brian Hall for suggesting this example.

  12. I think that matters are somewhat more complex that this brief look allows. For example, our knowledge of cellular diversity in different species—what cells appear grouped across distant evolutionary spans—may well feed back on our classificatory practices in our own species. Trait identification need not be strictly prior to homologue identification.

  13. Though this train of thought is rarely explicitly mentioned, it seems implicit in many late-20th century discussions of natural kinds; it is beyond the scope of this article to attend to its justification.

  14. This is a similarity also noted by Häggqvist (2005), §5), with whose views on HPC kinds I find myself in broad agreement.

  15. I use the idiom of “clusters being instantiated by an object” as a shorthand way of saying that (sufficiently many) properties in the relevant cluster are instantiated by that object (for the relevant purposes). I will address the issue of these qualifications shortly.

  16. I offer a more precise characterization of what I call “cliquish stability” in §5.2 of my ms.

  17. This possibility may depend on two further possibilities: (1) that the same properties can instantiate distinct mechanisms; or (2) that some mechanisms may be exogenous to the cluster (as, e.g., Boyd 1999 seems to allow).

  18. We can go further in pointing out that even adding causal mechanisms doesn’t clearly avoid accidentality: for such mechanisms might only operate on highly contingent bases. See §4.1 of my ms. for more discussion of this point.

  19. See my aforementioned ms., particularly §§5–6, for the full story.

  20. In the full account, I make use of the theoretical apparatus at work in Lange’s (2000, 2009) account of natural laws and the interesting way in which he attenuates this construction in making room for laws in the so-called special sciences (Lange 1995).

  21. The most common histological preparation is rather involved and manipulative: one first dehydrates and fixes cells with formalin, then embeds them in paraffin, slices them with a microtome, mounts the slice on a slide, staining it first with hematoxylin and then eosin (“H&E staining”); see Ross and Pawlina (2011, p. 2) for a significantly more detailed description. Other techniques involve different stains (including antibody-linked fluorescent stains) and sectioning strategies.

  22. That is not to say, of course, that such cells are not epistemically useful in vitro—doubtless, much of our understanding of the structure and function of different cells comes from careful histological work in contexts where the specific cells have lost many of their characteristic functions (being fixed, stained, frozen, metal-coated, or what have you). But the target of these studies is typically the physiological role these cells play in the their “native environments.”

  23. This is one of the reasons I am reluctant to go in the direction of Häggqvist’s “bare projectibilism.”

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Acknowledgments

Ancestors of this paper were presented at the meeting of the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB) in Salt Lake City, Utah and the Granada-KLI Workshop on Natural Kinds in Granada, Spain in 2011. I thank the organizers of my session at ISHPSSB (Andrew Reynolds and Hannah Landecker) and the organizers of the Granada Workshop (Thomas Reydon and Miles MacLeod) for the opportunity to present in those fora. I am also very grateful to Ronald Amundson, Jessica Bolker, Werner Callebaut, Marion Godman, Brian K. Hall, Miles MacLeod, Maureen O’Malley, Thomas Reydon, Andrew Reynolds, and two anonymous referees for their questions, comments, and suggestions; any remaining mistakes are of course my own fault. Research support for this paper was provided by a Scholar’s Award from the U.S. National Science Foundation (SES-0924376), for which I am very grateful.

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Slater, M.H. Cell Types as Natural Kinds. Biol Theory 7, 170–179 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13752-012-0084-9

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Keywords

  • Cell types
  • Homeostatic property cluster kinds
  • Natural kinds
  • Stable property cluster kinds