The nature of a biological individual is a problematic issue to discuss, and this question is actively debated in the context of the philosophy of science. According to Dupré and O’Malley (2009), biological individuals, including different types of organisms, are not autonomous, as theorists and practitioners are inclined to argue, and the focus should be on an individual as a kind of a system in which collaborations between living and non-living organisms and agents can be observed. As a result, the main processes that are identified by the authors and that explain the development of biological individuals are metabolism, symbiosis, and collaboration (Dupré & O’Malley, 2009).
Although the researchers’ position seems to be well-argued, the other theorists also developed their rather opposite ideas, according to which more attention should be paid to autonomy as the main quality of biological individuals (Kovaka, 2015; Sterner, 2015). From this point, the question is whether Dupré and O’Malley’s position is relevant to discuss the nature of biological individuality through the lenses of systemic relationships and collaboration. This question is important because more attention should be paid to understanding how biological individuality is discussed with references to the problem of the impact of lineage and metabolism on the development of living beings. In spite of the fact that Dupré and O’Malley’s ideas are debated by many theorists, it is possible to agree with the authors’ claim that biological individuals are not autonomous because they develop as systems based on the collaboration, interaction, metabolism, and symbiotic relationships; and these aspects need to be discussed in detail.
Biological Individuals from the Perspective of Collaboration
The most influential idea proposed by Dupré and O’Malley is the discussion of biological individuals from the perspective of collaboration. Still, while focusing on the nature of interactions within and between organisms, it is possible to agree that collaboration is the key process that explains the impossibility to rely on the autonomy of organisms during their life cycles. Dupré and O’Malley (2009) note that collaboration may “include the ‘mere’ coincidence of individual interests, and it is often in the interest of any individual to collaborate – at least to some extent” (p. 2). Thus, it is important for biological individuals and agents to interact continuously in order to address their primary needs and remain competitive, as well as become able to develop effectively. The researchers also explain that the “shared interests can lead to highly cooperative ‘team’ behavior” (Dupré & O’Malley, 2009, p. 2). As a result, it is possible to speak about biological individuals as systems or structures for which the process of collaboration is typical. Following the ideas declared by French (2014) in his work, it is important to note that “there are no biological objects … All there is are biological structures, interrelated in various ways and causally informed” (p. 345). From this point, currently, researchers are inclined to pay more attention to analyzing the relevance of Dupré and O’Malley’s argument and agree that the authors’ views explain the complex nature of the problem.
The Vision of Autonomy
While focusing on Dupré and O’Malley’s ideas, it is possible to note that they are also reasonable in terms of declining a general vision of autonomy as the key feature that is referred to when it is necessary to distinguish biological individuals. If all such individuals are autonomous, and they collaborate rarely, these organisms should be regarded as autonomous at all levels, but the truth is rather different (Guay, 2015). Thus, Dupré and O’Malley (2009) state that “traditionally conceived biological entities are systems elaborated around unique genomes, but to consider them as autonomous individuals is a mistake,” and moreover, the authors also note that the functional wholeness is “the basis of any attribution of autonomy” and “ a characteristic of collaborative interactions” (p. 11). In this context, the researchers tend to deny the possibility of autonomous development, this point is also supported by other researchers, and this fact adds credibility to the discussed vision. Thus, Etxeberria and Ruiz‐Mirazo (2009) also agree with Dupré and O’Malley regarding the view that autonomy cannot be discussed as the main feature to determine the individuality or the individualistic nature of the agent, but the collaboration or any other cooperative relations can be discussed as such feature. From this perspective, Dupré and O’Malley’s focus on collaboration in the context of the individuality of organisms and other agents is important because it is related to the understanding of how individuals can be perceived in terms of the metabolic wholes or specific entities that are influenced by the lineage and the overall evolution.
The Phenomenon of Interactors
Moreover, it is significant to discuss how the authors’ ideas are correlated with the traditional theories arguing on the phenomenon of interactors and their role in determining biological individuality. According to Hull (1978), the issue of biological individuality should be analyzed through the lenses of the interaction between agents and species. This idea is also adopted by Dupré and O’Malley (2009) for their discussion of complex interactions in organisms with references to their nature. The authors claim in their work that “interactors … are complex systems involving the collaboration of many highly diverse lineage-forming entities” (Dupré & O’Malley, 2009, p. 13). A similar discussion is also typical of the other researchers whose ideas were influenced by not only Hull’s visions but also Dupré and O’Malley’s views. Therefore, while following the thoughts declared by Ereshefsky and Pedroso (2013), it is also possible to note that the theory explaining the interactors’ role in biological individuality is also the basis for the natural selection debates. From this perspective, the researchers’ ideas regarding the interactions and interactors’ relationships are supported with references to different studies in the field of knowledge.
The Issue of Metabolism
One more argument that supports the relevance of Dupré and O’Malley’s view regarding biological individuality is related to the issue of metabolism. According to the authors, “life arises when lineage-forming entities collaborate in metabolism” (Dupré & O’Malley, 2009, p. 1). It is possible to agree with the authors’ discussion of the process metabolism as an argument to view individuals as systems because they distinguish between two perspectives from which it is important to consider metabolism. Thus, these perspectives are autonomous and collaborative ones. In this research, Dupré and O’Malley are inclined to adopt the collaborative framework that explains the idea that metabolism is an important part of the agents’ interactions, and all biological entities, in spite of their level, are inclined to participate in such interactions. This idea is also supported by Guay (2015) because agents or organisms cannot be discussed as autonomous when they participate in the specific metabolic processes that are the core aspect necessary for their development and survival. Thus, it is still possible to speak about the large metabolic systems instead of autonomous biological individuals. In this context, the researchers’ view also seems to be well-supported.
The Phenomenon of Symbiosis
When biological individuals are perceived as interconnected, collaborative, and participating in the metabolic processes, it is also possible to speak about the phenomenon of symbiosis. According to Booth (2014), symbioses are explained with references to the history of evolution, and much attention should be paid to discussing them in order to find out how organisms usually interact in order to survive and create the systems that can contribute to their further development. Therefore, Dupré and O’Malley’s emphasis on the role of symbiosis in life development seems to be relevant in this context. Following the researchers, “even paradigmatic biological individuals, such as large animals, are dependent on symbiotic associations with many other organisms” (Dupré & O’Malley, 2009, p. 1). While speaking about symbiosis as a process, it is also possible to concentrate on the dependence of organisms or individuals on each other. Therefore, the researchers note that “symbiotic relationships are ubiquitous” (Dupré & O’Malley, 2009, p. 12). These claims are also supported by the ideas proposed by Booth (2014) and Guay (2015) in their works. Thus, the researchers’ argument can be viewed as not only provocative but also rather deep and comprehensive because the authors aim at discussing the problem of biological individuality from several perspectives.
The complexity of the Authors’ Argument
Dupré and O’Malley also combine all their arguments in one while focusing on the collaboration through the perspective of not only metabolic processes but also lineages. Thus, Dupré and O’Malley (2009) are inclined to state in their work that “no more and no less could be said of the claims to individual life histories of paradigmatic organisms such as animals or plants,” therefore, “we think of these as the collaborative focus of communities of entities from many different reproductive lineages” (p. 15). Ereshefsky and Pedroso (2013) also focus on the idea of collaboration in the context of evolution in their work. While focusing on each aspect from which it is possible to discuss the problem of the collaboration within and between organisms, the authors create the developed paradigm that allows understanding how the biological individuality should be viewed through the perspective of collaboration in systems rather than for the point of autonomy.
In their research, Dupré and O’Malley pay much attention to the discussion of organisms or biological individuals that are usually not regarded as ‘Darwinian individuals,’ as it was noted by Guay (2015). While focusing on the discussion of the role of organelles or viruses among others in the process of collaboration, the researchers are able to create the appropriate argument based on the assumption that there are many bacteria in organisms that continuously interact with each other, as well as with the host organism (Dupré & O’Malley, 2009). As a result, this individual can be perceived as a system in which metabolic processes are directly associated with the interaction of these bacteria (French, 2014). If it is possible to speak about such type of interaction, it is also possible to focus on the development of strong connections that characterize the organisms’ dependence on each other, as is stated by Ereshefsky and Pedroso (2013) in their work. From this perspective, the arguments by the discussed authors seem to be reflected in the works of many other investigators.
The Ideas of Opponents
However, there are researchers who are inclined to accentuate the factor of autonomy as the main one while discussing biological individuals. Thus, according to Pradeu (2012), “two entities are individuals as soon as it is possible to say that they are two” (p. 2). Still, this easy explanation does not reflect the complexity of the individuals’ development in the context of lineage and metabolism. While perceiving biological individuals as symbiotic organisms and systems within which different individuals cooperate, it is possible to state that humans’ relations with microbial agents are also of the symbiotic nature. Furthermore, the whole organism in which these relations are observed can be discussed as a cooperative system. Nowadays, many researchers are inclined to support this idea developed by Dupré and O’Malley (2009). As a result, even if biological individuals can be counted, it is almost impossible to state that they are autonomous or not regarded as a system. Therefore, Dupré and O’Malley seem to propose the idea that reflects the complex vision regarding biological individuality in its diversity.
The other researchers can note that if individuals exist, they should be discussed as real individuals, with the autonomy provided to the great extent. Thus, if there are meaningful entities, they should be regarded as individuals (Kovaka, 2015; Sterner, 2015). However, these researchers also agree that even if autonomous meaningful entities can be viewed as biological individuals, they do not stop collaborating (Sterner, 2015). In this context, many researchers refer to the ideas formulated by Dupré and O’Malley to support their vision. In addition, the other investigators focus on the importance of the hierarchical relationship in order to discuss the problem of collaboration, and they conclude that organisms can equally collaborate not at all levels (Kovaka, 2015). Still, it is important to note that the collaboration and interaction in different forms are typical of all levels of the hierarchy related to biodiversity.
The term ‘biological individuality is related to the variety of organisms and agents that can be perceived as individuals. However, the discussion of the qualities associated with biological individuals can be different. If one group of researchers refers to the concept of autonomy in order to explain the nature of biological individuality, the other group of researchers is inclined to analyze organisms as interacting, collaborative, and dependent. This position is rather provocative, and it is actively debated. Nevertheless, it is possible to agree with the ideas formulated by Dupré and O’Malley as the proponents of this position. The reason to agree is that the authors are inclined to demonstrate all the levels of different relationships between organisms in the form of collaboration, interaction, metabolism, and symbiosis that are obvious and cannot be ignored. As a result, the authors’ views and argumentation are effective to draw the theorists and practitioners’ attention to the problem of organisms’ interactions with the focus on different levels. Thus, this approach is efficient to explain, for instance, how microbes can influence the lives of human beings and what interactions can be observed. As a result, it is possible to argue why such interactions can point to the presence of systems rather than autonomous agents.
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Dupré, J., & O’Malley, M. (2009). Varieties of living things: Life at the intersection of lineage and metabolism. Philosophy & Theory in Biology, 1(1), 1-25.
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