IAS-Research Talk by Mihaela Pavlicev: “Can knowledge help overcome the biases in societal perception of female biology?”

Featured

Date and time: December 5, Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14.

Speaker: Mihaela PavlicevUniversity of Cincinnati, Department of Pediatrics

Abstract: 

Societal perception, and even the perception of textbook biology and medicine, often reduces female biology to its reproductive function. This has many consequences for the attitude towards female traits, including the attitude of the women themselves, and particularly towards the female traits that have no direct function in reproduction. It is also reflected in medical vocabulary and treatment.  Intriguingly, much of this perception is not based on scientific facts, but likely originates from the way the research questions have been asked in the past, and how the results have been interpreted. I will present some of the recent research on the origin of female orgasm, as well as the physiological basis of the menstruation- examples of female traits often considered “obsolete”. I hope to elicit a discussion on how we can use research insights to re-interpret the female traits in a more accurate, and less damaging, way.

IAS-Research Seminar by Guglielmo Militello: “Harnessing energy production: functional integration in symbiotic relationships”

Date and time: November 14, Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14.

Speaker: Guglielmo Militello

Abstract:

Functional integration is broadly defined in life sciences as the causal interdependence among the subsystems forming an organism. However, this characterisation is vague and not able to describe the different degrees of functional integration in living beings (Pradeau 2010). From an organizational perspective, functional integration is interpreted as the mutual dependence of the constitutive constraints that collectively maintain the whole organisation (Moreno and Mossio 2015; Bich 2016). Therefore, organisational closure (i.e. the closure of constitutive constraints) implies functional integration (Moreno and Mossio 2015).

This talk aims to investigate some important organisational requirements for the functional integration of two (or more) symbionts.

Two case-studies will be analysed and compared: the first one is the endosymbiotic relationship between an α-proteobacterium (the ancestor of mitochondrion) and the proto-eukaryotic cell; the second one is the set of mutualistic relationships that mixotricha paradoxa establishes with its ectosymbionts (essential for the locomotion of mixotricha) and with its endosymbionts (crucial for the bioenergetics of mixotricha).

The analysis supports the thesis that a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for integrated symbionts is the ability of harnessing energy production (namely the synthesis of ATP molecules) through a number of metabolic and genetic constraints that are mutually dependent.

IAS-Research Talk by Javier Suárez: “Stability of Traits as the Kind of Stability That Matters in a Holobiont”

Date and time: November 7, Tuesday, 12:15 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14.

Speaker: Javier Suárez (http://www.ub.edu/grc_logos/javier-suarez1) is PhD student in philosophy at the University of Barcelona and the University of Exeter.

Abstract: Holobionts are biological entities that consist of a multicellular eukaryotic host plus its symbiotic microbiota. Holobionts are supposed to be pervasive and they are supposed to bear emergent traits, resulting from the dynamic interactions between the host and its symbionts. Defenders of the holobiont have recently developed the “hologenome concept of evolution”, according to which holobionts are units of selection in evolution. This claim has been recently contested by many, who claim that holobionts cannot be units of selection because the entities that compose a holobiont are not faithfully transmitted intergenerationally and therefore their influence in the holobiont is not evolutionarily constant. In this paper, I contend their argument by distinguishing between the notions of stability of lineages and stability of traits. Stability of lineages requires the different species that integrate a holobiont to be transmitted every generation in order to have a unit of selection. Stability of traits, however, requires that the traits that are identified in every new generation of holobionts are the same, in order to have a unit of selection. I defend that the arguments that have been offered against the role of holobionts as units of selection assume the idea of stability of lineages and argue that the idea of stability of traits is more suitable for capturing the role of holobionts as units of selection.

IAS-Research Talk by Marc Canciani: “Revising the Superorganism: An Organizational Approach to the Superorganism Concept”

Date and Time: November 7, Tuesday, 11:00 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14.

Speaker: Marc Canciani

Abstract: The superorganism, in the context of eusociality, is typically either understood as a heuristic tool used to better understand group dynamics within colonies or as a form of biological individuality, based on an evolutionary notion of individual. We argue that the concept should be understood similarly to that of its original notion, as denoting higher-level individuals, rather than heuristically. However, the definition of an evolutionary individual (a unit of selection, or alignment of fitness of the parts) is too vague and therefore there are no clear conditions for ascertaining whether a colony is a superorganism or not. We develop a synchronic, organizational approach derived from the Autonomous Perspective, which defines organisms as autonomous individuals. As opposed to the Self-Organization notion (the current mainstream synchronic approach), we argue that the organizational complexity within eusocial colonies should the basis for defining the notion of superorganism. Even though there are processes that are the result of self-organization in superorganisms, we show that there are also forms of higher-level control and regulation between distinct sub-units within the system. Therefore superorganisms are more than just the result of self-organization. Moreover, superorganisms possibly represent a unique form of autonomy: a minimal form autonomy in a multi-agent system.

IAS-Research Talk by Marc Bedau: “The meta-question about life”

Date and Time: October 25, Wednesday, 15:30 p.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14.

Speaker: Mark Bedau (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Bedau)

Abstract: The question how to define life is very controversial, with many answers proposed but no signs of any emerging consensus. This raises a second question, the meta-question about life: Why is the definition of life so difficult and so controversial? Various answers to the meta-question have been proposed, such as being limited to a sample size for life of only one (Sterelny, Cleland), or confusion over homonyms that share a core meaning (Shields), or our failure to recognize impossible to answer question about folk concepts and pointless questions about scientific concepts (Machery), or our mistake of human kinds for natural kinds (Keller). Most contemporary discussions of defining life and resolving its controversies seem to presuppose a Cartesian perspective on the problem, focused on whether we can identify necessary and sufficient conditions for individual living organism. This contrasts with an Aristotelian perspective on the problem, focused on finding the best explanation of the characteristic phenomena involving life, such as life’s hallmarks, its borderline cases, and its characteristic puzzles. I argue replacing the Cartesian perspective with the Aristotelian perspective provides more promise for answering the meta-question about life, and thereby eventually resolving how to define life.

IAS-Research Talk by Mark Bedau: “A defense of cultural Darwinism”

Date and Time: October 24, Tuesday, 11:00 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14.

Speaker: Mark Bedau (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Bedau)

Abstract: Darwin showed that biological populations evolve by natural selection., Some have suggested that natural selection also applies to the evolution of human cultures. Let us call the thesis that there are some populations of cultural entities that evolve by natural selection “cultural Darwinism.” This thesis is controversial today, with avid supporters and adamant critics. The main criticisms lodged against cultural Darwinism are (i) that it is not operational, (ii) that, if operational, it is false, (iii) that, if true, it is fruitless and uninteresting, and (iv) that it presupposes a false atomism about culture. This talk defends the thesis of cultural Darwinism by showing that natural selection shapes at least one population of cultural items–specifically, patented technology–and that the four criticisms of cultural Darwinism all can all be addressed in this context.

IAS-Research Talk by Mª José Ferreira: “Disentangling causation and information: informational parity at issue”

Date and Time: May 16, Tuesday, 11:00 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14.

Speaker: Mª José Ferreira, Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA) y Conicet

Abstract: 

The notion of an informational parity between genes and non-genetic
factors appears in two ways in the literature. On the one hand, it is
claimed to follow from an information-theoretic approach to account
for the notion of information in biology. This consequence, as we
shall explain, is considered to be unacceptable for some authors
which, therefore, took a different approach in order to save the
informational exclusiveness of genes. On the other hand, informational
parity is one of the many versions of the causal parity thesis,
according to which genes and other developmental factors are causally
on a par. According to this view, causal parity is an actual feature
of living systems and the concept of information needs to be congruent
to this fact. We will argue that in both cases there is a deep
conflation between the concepts of information and causation (as
concepts undisputedly related) that has not been sufficiently
addressed, especially with respect to the quarrel over parity. Such a
conflation has a twofold origin: (i) a rough understanding of
causation and (ii) a misreading of information theory.

Seminar on “The history and theory of vitalism, from Descartes to Canguilhem” by Charles Wolfe (University of Ghent)

Date and Time: May 8, 11 & 12 (11:00 a.m.)

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Charles T. Wolfe, Ghent, ctwolfe1@gmail.com

Title: The history and theory of vitalism, from Descartes to Canguilhem

Abstract: In this series of talks I try to reconstruct something like a vitalist conceptual tradition, present both in a subterranean form in the Scientific Revolution period, despite the fact that, as I suggest in the “Life” paper (text 1), there can be no ontology of Life in this period, and increasingly with the emergence of a science of biology in the late 18th century (and here I ask: what do we do with the growing obsession with ‘life science’ from the 1740s onwards, with people like Buffon and Diderot – Diderot who in his 1753 Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature dismisses the mathematical sciences as somehow ‘done’ and asserts that ‘life science’ is a new revolutionary area (*)). In the late 19th century vitalism becomes something of a dogmatic concept, with people like Hans Driesch (**), but in the 20th century there is a new, less metaphysical form of theory of organism, sometimes with vitalist ambitions, culminating perhaps in the idiosyncratic theory of Georges Canguilhem, himself influenced by Kurt Goldstein (text 5 and see Ferrario and Bianco’s papers – on Goldstein and Canguilhem respectively, in Normandin and Wolfe eds., 2013, and Wolfe 2015). And in recent years it is possible to see a new kind of ‘organizational’ concept emerging in theoretical biology, eg in the work of Moreno and collaborators (***), discussed by the philosopher William Bechtel (text 6), which is light years removed from metaphysical vitalism, but is perhaps closer to what I have called the ‘functional vitalism’ of the 18th century Montpellier medical vitalists, with references to concepts such as the ‘animal economy’ (texts 2, 3, 4). I do not argue here that we need to be vitalists, or that mechanistic science (whatever that means) is bad, indeed there has been much good work on mechanistic explanations in recent years, sometimes with reference to biology (****). And perhaps we should reflect on ‘words’ themselves (text 7) and the problem of how vitalism has been treated and defined (texts 8, 9). But nevertheless, I believe a historico-philosophical investigation and evaluation of these episodes – are they are a tradition? a discontinuous tradition ? – helps us have a more diverse, less stubborn and dogmatic conception of the philosophy of biology and its orthodoxies and heterodoxies.

Texts discussed

(There will be a folder with readings available in dropbox)

1. Charles Wolfe, “Why was there no controversy over Life in the Scientific Revolution?”, in V. Boantza & M. Dascal, eds., Controversies in the Scientific Revolution (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2011), pp. 187-219

2. Jean-Joseph Ménuret de Chambaud, ‘Œconomie Animale (Médecine)’, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des arts et des métiers, eds. Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond D’Alembert, 35 vols. (Paris: Briasson, David, Le Breton & Durand, 1751-1780; reprint, Stuttgart/Bad Cannstatt, 1966), vol. 9, 1765, 360-366.

3. Charles Wolfe and Motoichi Terada, “The animal economy as object and program in Montpellier vitalism,” Science in Context 21:4 (2008), 537-579

4. Charles Wolfe, “Models of organic organization in Montpellier vitalism,” Early Science and Medicine (2017)

5. Georges Canguilhem, “Aspects of vitalism.” In Canguilhem, Knowledge of Life, translated by Stefanos Geroulanos and Daniela Ginsburg (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 59-74. (First published 1952)

6. William Bechtel “Biological mechanisms: Organized to maintain autonomy.” In F. Boogerd et al., eds., Systems Biology: Philosophical Foundations (New York: Elsevier, 2007). PDF online : <http://mechanism.ucsd.edu/~bill/research/bechtel.biologicalmechanismsorganization.pdf>

7. Susan Oyama, “Biologists behaving badly: Vitalism and the language of language,” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 32 (2010): 401-423.

8. Scott F. Gilbert and Sahotra Sarkar, “Embracing Complexity: Organicism for the 21st Century.” Developmental Dynamics 219 (2000): 1–9

9. Charles Wolfe, “Vitalism without Metaphysics?”, introduction to Vitalism Without Metaphysics? Medical Vitalism in the Enlightenment, special issue of Science in Context 21:4 (2008), 461-463

General background

Sebastian Normandin and Charles Wolfe, eds., Vitalism and the scientific image in post-Enlightenment life science, 1800-2010 (Dordrecht: Springer, 2013)

Additional (optional)

Roselyne Rey, Naissance et développement du vitalisme en France de la deuxième moitié du 18e siècle à la fin du Premier Empire (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2000) (originally a PhD dissertation in 3 volumes, University of Paris, 1987)

Kurt Goldstein, The Organism: a holistic approach to biology derived from pathological data in man (1934) (translation reprint, New York: Zone Books / MIT Press, 1995)

Moritz Schlick, “Philosophy of organic life.” In H. Feigl & M. Brodbeck, eds., Readings in the Philosophy of Science (New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1953), 523-536.

Pascal Nouvel, ed., Repenser le vitalisme – Histoire et philosophie du vitalisme (Paris: PUF, 2011)

Charles Wolfe, “Was Canguilhem a biochauvinist? Goldstein, Canguilhem and the project of ‘biophilosophy’,” in Darian Meacham, ed., Medicine and Society, New Continental Perspectives (Springer, Philosophy and Medicine Series, 2015), 197-212

(*) Diderot, Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature, § IV, in Diderot, Œuvres complètes, DPV, IX, 30-31. See for discussion Charles Wolfe, “Epigenesis as Spinozism in Diderot’s biological project,” in Ohad Nachtomy and Justin E.H. Smith, eds., The Life Sciences in Early Modern Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 181-201.

(**) see the papers in F. Burwick & P. Douglass, eds.,The crisis in modernism. Bergson and the vitalist controversy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), including on Bakhtin’s critique of Driesch.

(***) see the many excellent papers by Moreno, Etxeberria, Ruiz-Mirazo et al., and also A. Moreno and M. Mossio, Biological Autonomy. A Philosophical and theoretical enquiry (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014).

(****) P.A. Braillard, C. Malaterre, Explanation in Biology (Dordrecht: Springer, 2015)

IAS-Research Talks by Charles Wolfe (Gent) and Fred Keijzer (Groningen)

Date and Time: May 9, Tuesday.

10:15 – 11:30: Charles Wolfe: The organism as hybrid: the organism without idealism.

11:30 – 11:45: Pause

11:45 – 13:00: Fred Keijzer: Why we may want a science of cognition that is not a science of mind

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker 1: Charles T. Wolfe (Ghent)

Title: The organism as hybrid, the organism without idealism

Abstract: The organism is neither a discovery like the circulation of the blood or the glycogenic function of the liver, nor a particular biological theory like epigenesis or preformationism. It is rather a concept which plays a series of roles – sometimes overt, sometimes masked – throughout the history of biology, and frequently in very ‘valuative’ or normative ways, often shifting between realms or registers (Wolfe 2004, 2014), with all sorts of interesting semantic shifts (Cheung 2006). Indeed, it has often been presented as a key-concept in life science and the ‘theorization’ of Life (for instance, in the sense that biology is a science of organisms or is nothing; Grene and Depew 2004). In addition, perhaps because it is experientially closer to the ‘body’ than to the ‘molecule’, the organism is often the object of quasi-affective theoretical investments presenting it as essential, perhaps even as the pivot of a science or a particular approach to nature (from Hegel onwards, and explicitly with thinkers such as Kurt Goldstein, see Goldstein 1995, and, with more metaphysical investment, Hans Jonas; see Wolfe 2004, 2010 and many of the papers in Gambarotto & Illeterati, eds. 2014 as well as Huneman and Wolfe eds., 2010). Conversely, it has also been the target of some influential rejections, classically in Dawkins’ vision of the organism as just an instrument of transmission for the selfish gene (Dawkins 1976), with the ‘organismic’ or ‘holistic’ rejection of the latter view in Oyama et al.’s work (e.g. Oyama 2010). Here, instead of defending one or the other of these clearcut ontological positions (which runs the risk, when defending various versions of organicism, of giving ‘laundry lists’ of irreducibly organismic properties, condemned to be refuted or otherwise reduced: Di Paolo 2009), I reflect on the hybridity and ‘go-betweenness’ of the category of organism, from the standpoint of a mildly historicized form of ‘historical epistemology of the life sciences’.

References:

Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Di Paolo, E. (2009). Extended Life. Topoi 28: 9-21.

Gambarotto, A., Illetterati, L., eds., (2014). The Notion of Organism: Historical and Conceptual Approaches. Special Issue of Verifiche, 48(1-3).

Goldstein, K. (1995). The Organism: a holistic approach to biology derived from pathological data in man. New York: American Book Company / New York: Zone Books. (A translation of Der Aufbau des Organismus, 1934)

Grene, M. and Depew, D. (2004). The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Huneman, P., Wolfe, C.T., eds. (2010). The Concept of Organism: Historical, Philosophical, Scientific Perspectives. Special issue of History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences (32:2-3).

Oyama, S. (2010). Biologists behaving badly: Vitalism and the language of language. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 32(2–3), special issue on The Concept of Organism: Historical, Philosophical, Scientific Perspectives, 401–423.

Wolfe, C.T. (2004). La catégorie d’‘organisme’ dans la philosophie de la biologie. Retour sur les dangers du réductionnisme. Multitudes 16, 27-40, online version at http://www.multitudes.net/La-categorie-d-organisme-dans-la/

Wolfe, C.T. (2010). Do organisms have an ontological status? History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 32(2-3), 195-232

Wolfe, C.T. (2014). The organism as ontological go-between. Hybridity, boundaries and degrees of reality in its conceptual history. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 48, 151-161

Speaker 2: Fred Keijzer is Associate Professor at the Department of Theoretical Philosophy, University of Groningen. His research focuses on issues within the philosophy of cognition and biology. Starting out from work on neural networks and embodied cognition his interest shifted to the many biological examples of intelligence such as they occur in bacteria, plants and other organisms. In this broader perspective, the animal condition stands out and his main research focus is on clarifying the connections as well as the differences. Main topics here are early nervous systems, the animal sensorimotor organization, and biologically embodied cognition.

Title: Why we may want a science of cognition that is not a science of mind

Abstract: How can cognition be interpreted in such a way that it takes in intelligent phenomena in a wide diversity of organisms, ranging from bacteria, protists, plants and fungi to animals? After its rise to prominence in cognitive science, the word cognition can now be seen as a general term to refer to the various mental processes that make us – humans – intelligent. However, the word cognition is less easily applied to intelligent phenomena in other organisms despite an increasing amount of research that would warrant such a description. One issue here is that the application of the word cognition remains elusive. Several closely related commitments are important: (a) cognition is closely linked to mind, a notion that is not self-evidently naturalistic; (b) like mind, cognition is by default tied to the human condition; and (c) the lack of empirical specificity is not considered highly relevant as cognitive phenomena can be recognized ‘on sight’. In this talk, these three commitments will be set aside and an alternative interpretation of cognition will be proposed. This proposal construes cognition explicitly as a technical cognitive science concept that can be dissociated from (a) the notion of mind; (b) from taking humans as its default target; and (c) from an intuitive demarcation. While mind and its characteristics remain in place, cognition comes to articulate a newly demarcated domain that consists of the many different ways by means of which all organisms interact with their environments to maintain and reproduce themselves; humans included. Cognition thus acquires a new and fundamentally different empirical meaning independent from mental concepts. The word cognition can be maintained nevertheless as it still refers to the processes that make humans intelligent. When this proposal is followed, cognition can become a more definite empirical domain that is both conceptually and empirically integrated with the other natural sciences, which does justice to the wide variety of intelligent phenomena that is now being uncovered among nonhumans, and which opens up a broad variety of new conceptual and empirical options in studying this diversity.

Talk by Davide Vecchi: “Challenging the consensus: intrinsicalism and the minimal genome”

Date and Time: April 24, Monday, 16:00 p.m.

Location: Facultad de Educación, Filosofía y Antropología. Aula Polivalente (tercer piso).

Speaker: Davide Vecchi (Centre for Philosophy of Sciences, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon, Portugal)

Title: Challenging the consensus: intrinsicalism and the minimal genome

Abstract: The consensus in philosophy of biology is based on the tenet that biological species are individuated only by relational properties (relationalism) and not by intrinsic ones (intrinsicalism). In this article I argue that the supporters of relationalism have not taken into account the possibility that minimal species genomes might exist. A minimal genome is a set of genetic properties that all and only the organisms belonging to a certain organismal lineage share. Hereby I critically analyse some prominent arguments that have been proposed to show intrinsicalism’s fallacy. I aim to show that the empirical evidence and the theoretical considerations in support for these arguments are weak. In particular, I show that gene conservation is a powerful evolutionary force able to preserve minimal genomes. I also consider in what sense the existence of a minimal genome would support intrinsicalism.