New Series: blogging about Biological Individuality!

Lynn Chiu
3 min readDec 31, 2019

A new blog series: it’s 2020 and time to take a look back at a decade of research on the study and nature of biological individuals.

Photo by Steffen Kastner on Unsplash

2019 ended on a personal good note. I’ve been commissioned by Taiwanese philosopher of science Ruey-Lin Chen to write an entry or two for the Chinese Encyclopedia of Philosophy. After some back and forth and acknowledged biases, we’ve decided that it’s best to start with a comprehensive overview on biological individuality (sorry, Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, I’ll have to write about you in 2021!).

My scope will primarily focus on contributions in the last decade, though the work I’ll be reviewing draws on traditions set in the mid to late 20th century. I’m particularly excited to write about processual, dialectical, feminist, and enactive approaches that challenge standard assumptions of individuality, e.g. individuals are bounded, autonomous, independent, self-sufficient, etc.

Here’s the current rough outline:

Part I: the metaphysics of biological individuality

  • Do the metaphysics of individuality matter for biological individuality?
    * Individuals as substances (as opposed to properties, events, processes)
    * The “container metaphor”: individuals as hierarchical sets
  • The composition, constitution, and boundaries of biological individuals
  • The identity, persistence, and individuality of biological beings

Part II: individuals in the biological sciences

  • Measures of individuality
  • The hierarchical levels of biological individuals and groups
  • Physiological individuals
  • Ecological individuals
  • Evolutionary individuals
  • Pragmatic and ontological pluralism

Part III: approaches to biological individuality

  • The Standard View: autonomous, independent, bounded, distinct
  • The enactive approach and organizational theories of biological individuals
  • Process biology
  • Dialectical biology
  • Feminist philosophy of biology

This is a year-long project and I hope to blog about my progress throughout 2020. I’ll be blogging in English here and collaborate with a Chinese copyeditor/translator (the incredible Weijen Liu) every three months to write up each section in Chinese.

Comments and suggestions are welcome! My hope is that this piece will become an introductory (or as Ruey-Lin put it, authoritative) text to upper undergraduate and graduate students in the Chinese speaking world (in both traditional and simplified scripts).

Yet most importantly, this is not just an opportunity for me to reflect on a decade of research done by philosophers and conceptually-minded biologists. I’d like to highlight and critically consider approaches that focus more on the ecological, interdependent, co-constructing, co-scaffolding, co-developing nature of biological beings. I want to know how else we can speak of individuals and their entangled existence without resorting to mere competition vs cooperation. In my mind, these contrasting concepts both presume that individuals are first separate then interacting. But what about individuals that were never independent and distinct?

Those promoting process biology (e.g. John Dupré), dialectical biology (e.g. Richard Lewontin), feminist biology (see SEP entry) have long accused biology and philosophy of subconsciously adopting a capitalist, individualist, atomic, reductionist, determinist, nested hierarchical view of individuals (all the “bad” words!). This is particularly apparent in evolutionary biology, where Darwinism evolution is understood as driven by the competition & strategic alliances between “selfish” entities & the survival of those with the fittest dispositions. These alternative takes seem to converge on a common enemy, but in what way does this “enemy” persist and flex it’s power? What counts as a truly alternative approach?

The more specific question I’m concerned here is whether these alternatives properly entered the debate over biological individuality in the past decade. The debates, to a large extent, were driven by the need to incorporate “weird" ways of being (e.g. bacterial colonies, social insects, fission & fusion, symbiosis) into standard theorizing in biology and philosophy. Did the attempts draw on radically different approaches or were they mostly squeezing weird beings into the same standard mold (either by expanding the referents of those molds or generalizing the molds to better accommodate a larger reference set)?

As you can see, my personal interest in individuality dovetails very nicely with my interests in the EES. Should we rethink the basic assumptions and structure of evolutionary theory or should we merely tweak them? It’s always fascinating to be the revolutionist but to make a good case I’ll have to firsy firmly assess the landscape independently of my own preferences, as much as I can muster.

Follow along and join the discussion! I might move this series to a better platform for greater engagement. Let me know what you think!



Lynn Chiu

I communicate science from a philosophical perspective. Researcher of living things that stay with the trouble. Communicator of risky interdisciplinary science.