Organisms as Persisters

Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology 9 (14) (2017)
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This paper addresses the question of what organisms are and therefore what kinds of biological entities qualify as organisms. For some time now, the concept of organismality has been eclipsed by the notion of individuality. Biological individuals are those systems that are units of selection. I develop a conception of organismality that does not rely on evolutionary considerations, but instead draws on development and ecology. On this account, organismality and individuality can come apart. Organisms, in my view, are as Godfrey-Smith puts it “essentially persisters.” I argue that persistence is underpinned by differentiation, integration, development, and the constitutive embeddedness of organisms in their worlds. I examine two marginal cases, the Portuguese Man O’ War and the honey bee colony, and show that both count as organisms in light of my analysis. Next, I examine the case of holobionts, hosts plus their microsymbionts, and argue that they can be counted as organisms even though they may not be biological individuals. Finally, I consider the question of whether other, less tightly integrated biological systems might also be treated as organisms.


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Author's Profile

S. Smith
University of Warwick

Citations of this work

Units and levels of selection.Elisabeth Lloyd - 2008 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Environmentality in biomedicine: microbiome research and the perspectival body.Joana Formosinho, Adam Bencard & Louise Whiteley - 2022 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 91 (C):148-158.
Functional ecology's non-selectionist understanding of function.Antoine C. Dussault - 2018 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 70 (C):1-9.
Do heritable immune responses extend physiological individuality?Sophie Juliane Veigl - 2022 - History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 44 (4):1-20.

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References found in this work

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.Edward O. Wilson - 1975 - Harvard University Press.
Biology as ideology: the doctrine of DNA.Richard C. Lewontin - 1991 - New York, NY: HarperPerennial.
What is an organism? An immunological answer.Thomas Pradeu - 2010 - History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 32 (2-3):247-267.

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