Talk by James diFrisco: “Individuality and the Limits of Biological Functionalism”

Date and time: Monday, June 8, 11.30 am.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: James diFrisco (KU Leuven / Universidad Católica de Lovaina)

Title: Individuality and the Limits of Biological Functionalism

Abstract: According to ordinary intuition, living individuals and organisms are the same thing. Many of our moral and legal practices are connected to organism-based conceptions of individuality. For example, we grant rights to animal organisms rather than to their cells conceived as individuals, and assign moral responsibility to persons in a group rather than to the group as an individual—usually. Developments in biology, however, have indicated that familiar organisms are just one case of individuality among others, such as genes, cells, colonies, groups, species, and even ecosystems. It has therefore become a genuine problem to explain what it is in general that makes something a biological individual.

My project takes its point of departure from the inadequacy of the evolutionary explanation currently on offer, in which being an individual just means being a unit of selection. Instead of opposing this by recourse to more physiological explanations of individuality, however, I suggest it will be more illuminating to place both within a more general framework. I propose to do this by introducing two new elements to the debate: a (1) process-based and (2) hierarchical view of individuality. The first ensures that individuality receives a deeper explanation as a product of fundamental biological processes; the second, that different individuals are explained in terms of processes at different levels—whether they be physiological, evolutionary, or otherwise.