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Biological Individuality

Integrating Scientific, Philosophical, and Historical Perspectives

Individuals are things that everybody knows—or thinks they do. Yet even scholars who practice or analyze the biological sciences often cannot agree on what an individual is and why. One reason for this disagreement is that the many important biological individuality concepts serve very different purposes—defining, classifying, or explaining living structure, function, interaction, persistence, or evolution. Indeed, as the contributors to Biological Individuality reveal, nature is too messy for simple definitions of this concept, organisms too quirky in the diverse ways they reproduce, function, and interact, and human ideas about individuality too fraught with philosophical and historical meaning.

Bringing together biologists, historians, and philosophers, this book provides a multifaceted exploration of biological individuality that identifies leading and less familiar perceptions of individuality both past and present, what they are good for, and in what contexts. Biological practice and theory recognize individuals at myriad levels of organization, from genes to organisms to symbiotic systems. We depend on these notions of individuality to address theoretical questions about multilevel natural selection and Darwinian fitness; to illuminate empirical questions about development, function, and ecology; to ground philosophical questions about the nature of organisms and causation; and to probe historical and cultural circumstances that resonate with parallel questions about the nature of society. Charting an interdisciplinary research agenda that broadens the frameworks in which biological individuality is discussed, this book makes clear that in the realm of the individual, there is not and should not be a direct path from biological paradigms based on model organisms through to philosophical generalization and historical reification.

400 pages | 14 halftones, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Biological Sciences: Biology--Systematics, Evolutionary Biology

History of Science


"Lidgard and Nyhart have compiled a superb collection of essays concerning recent work on the concept and nature of biological individuals. . . . The overarching question ‘What is a biological individual?’ is demonstrated to have an intricate history, changing and evolving as biologists learned more about organismic structures and functions, life cycles, cellular systems, and ecological interactions. Notions of what counts as an individual are shown to have carried over into social and political identities and practices. In addition, philosophical, conceptual underpinnings and commitments are shown to interplay with these changing biological understandings. . . . The volume is marvelous! While not for the casual reader, it is exemplary of the best current work in biological philosophy. . . . Highly recommended."

D. B. Boersema, Pacific University | Choice

“I found this collection a very enjoyable read and recommend it as a starting point to anyone interested in the notion of biological individuality broadly construed and interested in understanding what unifies and separates the different meanings of this term across time and disciplines.”

Pierrick Bourrat, Macquarie University | Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

“Individuality is one of the hottest topics in the philosophy of biology today. The recent, technologically driven explosion of knowledge about the microbial world has led both biologists and philosophers to reconsider the traditional idea that organisms are genetically uniform populations of cells with a clear physical boundary—bodies. Very up-to-date, containing a number of substantial original contributions, and with a good balance of historians, philosophers, and eminent scientists, Biological Individuality is well positioned to represent the most exciting strands of the current debate.”

Paul Griffiths, University of Sydney, coauthor of "Genetics and Philosophy: An Introduction"

“A tour de force inquiry of individuality that proposes a fruitful perspective that potentially resolves many of its disparate definitions. Biological Individuality reflects the strengths of cross-disciplinary research on fundamental biological concepts.”

Paul Lawrence Farber, Oregon State University, emeritus, author of "Finding Order in Nature: The Naturalist Tradition from Linnaeus to E. O. Wilson"

" has the discussion and the concept of biological individuality evolved over the past 25 years or so? Scott Lidgard and Lynn Nyhart’s volume aims to answer that question and succeeds admirably...This book pushes one hard to reexamine foundational ideas about what biology studies as its basic subject matter."

James Strick | Journal of the History of Biology

Table of Contents

Introduction: Working Together on Individuality
Lynn K. Nyhart and Scott Lidgard

l The Work of Biological Individuality: Concepts and Contexts
Scott Lidgard and Lynn K. Nyhart

2 Cells, Colonies, and Clones: Individuality in the Volvocine Algae
Matthew D. Herron

3 Individuality and the Control of Life Cycles
Beckett Sterner

4  Discovering the Ties That Bind: Cell-Cell Communication and the Development of Cell Sociology
Andrew S. Reynolds

5 Alternation of Generations and Individuality, 1851
Lynn K. Nyhart and Scott Lidgard

6 Spencer’s Evolutionary Entanglement: From Liminal Individuals to Implicit Collectivities
Snait Gissis

7 Biological Individuality and Enkapsis: From Martin Heidenhain’s Synthesiology to the Völkisch National Community
Olivier Rieppel

8 Parasitology, Zoology, and Society in France, ca. 1880–1920
Michael A. Osborne

9 Metabolism, Autonomy, and Individuality
Hannah Landecker

10 Bodily Parts in the Structure-Function Dialectic
Ingo Brigandt
Commentaries: Historical, Biological, and Philosophical Perspectives

11 Distrust That Particular Intuition: Resilient Essentialisms and Empirical Challenges in the History of Biological Individuality
James Elwick

12 Biological Individuality: A Relational Reading
Scott F. Gilbert

13 Philosophical Dimensions of Individuality
Alan C. Love and Ingo Brigandt

List of Contributors


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

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