Institute of Philosophy
Biological Identity Conference
John Dupré and Anne Sophie Meincke
What makes a collection of cells an integrated individuality?
(San Sebastián, The Basque Country)
I will first analyze the origins of biological individuality, showing that in the prebiotic evolution the emergence of individualized organizations was of fundamental importance because they were both a source and a locus of complexification, and a necessary concept for understanding the origin of organisms. Once a minimal form of individuality appeared, collective synchronic organizations would also appear, and these collective systems would in turn create favorable conditions to their individualized parts. I will also discuss how the embodiment of these early individual systems in collective systems is at the origin of ecological and symbiotic systems. Yet, though these collective organizations could exhibit certain similitudes with the individual systems, they are not full-fledged individuals, and only much later evolution has generated highly integrated multicellular organisms. In the second part, I will analyze how and why collective organizations could constitute multicellular integrated individualities. I will argue that a key concept that helps to understand what differentiates non-individuated collective systems from individuated ones is that of Functional Integration. By this I mean a process by which a large variety of merely coordinated functions, distributed among different associated agents, become hierarchically organized according to a global regulatory center, constituting a unique cohesive autonomous system, whose identity is maintained through its agency. Finally, I will argue why, in a similar way as in the origin of life, the appearance of integrated multicellular individualities is also a key point for understanding the complexification of life.
Recent debates in metaphysics on personal identity and material constitution have seen a rise of theories which appeal to a biological understanding of identity. So-called animalists claim that the puzzles of standard psychological theories of personal identity can be avoided by the insight that we are essentially animals or organisms rather than persons and that the necessary and sufficient conditions of our identity over time therefore are purely biological in character. Moreover, it has been argued (most famously by Peter van Inwagen) that if there are any composite objects at all in the world, then these are those studied by biology. According to this view, there are no inanimate things like stones or cars, strictly speaking, as these turn out to be just collections of particles; but there are living organisms, due to a special unity making them each one rather than many.
It is time to investigate whether, and if so how, the concept of biological identity can indeed serve the functions metaphysicians attribute to it. For that purpose, the conference will aim to confront the metaphysical motives for proposing biological conceptions of identity, diachronic as well as synchronic, with the scientifically informed research on biological identity which has been carried out within the philosophy of biology but which so far has been little noticed by the metaphysics community. The conference seeks to connect these two hitherto largely separate debates so as to put future metaphysical allusions to biological identity on more solid grounds and, at the same time, to raise awareness for the metaphysical implications of the empirically founded models of biological identity developed in philosophy of biology.