IAS-Research Talk by Davide Vecchi: “Biological individuality and the challenge posed by the ubiquity of multi-species partnerships”


Date and Time: April 25, Tuesday, 11:15 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Davide Vecchi (Centre for Philosophy of Sciences, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon, Portugal. In collaboration with Isaac Hernández, Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, Laboratoire ERRAPHIS, PhiSciVi, France)

Title: Biological individuality and the challenge posed by the ubiquity of multi-species partnerships

Abstract: There exist at least two traditions approaching the problem of biological individuality differently. On the one hand, an evolutionary tradition. From this perspective, organisms are only one among many kinds of biological individuals, and individuation is an evolutionary process. On the other hand, a physiological tradition. From this perspective, individuation is an ontogenetic process that can be viewed as an act of closure from an ever-changing environment. The problem of either view is that partnerships between organisms belonging to different species are ubiquitous in the biological world. The first tradition is forced either to downplay the frequency of partnerships, or their evolutionary significance. The second tradition is forced to relinquish the autonomy of the partners and admit their reproductive, metabolic, developmental and physiologically openness, ultimately characterising closure more prosaically as a tendency rather than as an essential categorical property of biological systems. We shall propose that the many examples of partnership where the metabolic, reproductive, physiological and developmental limits of the partner entities cannot be precisely drawn are an ideal test case to think about biological individuality in new terms.

IAS-Research Talk by Francesca Michelini: “Keywords in Philosophy of Nature and Autonomy in Biology. On Hegel and Plessner’s Theories of Living Beings”

Date and Time: November 8, Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Francesca Michelini teaches philosophy at the University of Kassel (Germany). She is co-founder member of the project cluster “Integrative Biophilosophie“ and member of the research program “Animal – Human Being – Society“ of the Hessen State Ministry of Higher Education, Research and the Arts. Her main subject of research is the intersection between History of Philosophy and Philosophy of Biology, and she is author of many publications in the fields of Philosophical Anthropology, Philosophy of Nature and Classical German Philosophy. In the field of Philosophy of Biology she has coauthored the books “Frontiere della Biologia“ (2014, with Jonathan Davis, in Italian) and “Oganisms: The Explanation of Aliveness“  (2016, with Georg Toepfer, in German).

Title: Keywords in Philosophy of Nature and Autonomy in Biology. On Hegel and Plessner’s Theories of Living Beings


In their recent volume Autonomy in Biology, Alvaro Moreno and Matteo Mossio emphasize that biological autonomy has two equally important and closely connected dimensions: the “constitutive” one, which determines the identity of the living system, and which fundamentally derives from what they label “closure of constraints”; and the “interactive” one, also called “agency”, which „far from being a mere side effect of the constitutive dimension, deals with the inherent functional interactions that the organisms must maintain with the environment“ (Moreno and Mossio 2015, VIIII). Furthermore, in their assessment of the specific nature of the biological organization of living systems, they make reference especially to Kant’s legacy in the current debate.

Without neglecting Kant’s importance, in my talk I would like to focus on two historical positions in philosophy of nature, such as Hegel’s and Helmuth Plessner’s, that – I think better than Kant – may fruitfully contribute to the current debate on autonomy in biology, especially in regard to the “interactive” dimension of autonomy. Both philosophers arguably aimed, in different ways, to continue Kant’s enquiry on living organism, going however beyond Kant in some important respects, notably concerning the relationship between the organism and the environment, an aspect neglected by Kant himself. More precisely, my aim is to show the connection between two key categories they elaborated for the conceptualizing of what life is: Plessner’s “boundary” (Grenze/Begrenzung) and Hegel’s idea of “deficiency” (Mangel), or, to say it better, Hegel’s “activity of deficiency”. First of all, I will try to explain the meaning of these categories in their respective philosophies of nature, consequently showing to what extent the two categories are closely interrelated; I will then point to the most significant similarities between the two approaches, and finally I will briefly outline what their contribution to today’s debate on autonomy in biology can be.

IAS-Research Talk by Wim Hordijk: “Autocatalytic Sets: The Origin and Organization of Life”

Date and Time: October 11, Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Wim Hordijk (KLI)

Title: Autocatalytic Sets: The Origin and Organization of Life


Life is a chemical reaction. Or, more precisely, life is a functionally closed and self-sustaining chemical reaction network. In other words, living systems produce their own components, insuch a way as to maintain and regulate the chemical reaction network that produced them.

During the 1970s, several researchers independently developed formal models of a minimal living system based on the above definition. However, most of these models do not explain how these systems could have emerged spontaneously from basic chemistry. They provide insights into the organization of life, but not necessarily its origin.

Now, a new mathematical framework, based on the original notion of autocatalytic sets, is able to shed more light on both of these aspects. Autocatalytic sets capture the functionally closed and self-sustaining properties of life in a formal way, and detailed studies have shown how such sets emerge spontaneously, and can then evolve further, in simple models of chemical reaction networks. Furthermore, this new framework has been applied directly and successfully to real chemical and biological networks. Thus, the autocatalytic sets framework provides a useful and formal tool for studying and understanding both the origin and
organization of life.

In this talk, I will give a non-technical overview of the background, concepts, and main results of the formal framework, and how it can perhaps be generalized beyond chemistry and the origin of life to entire living systems, ecological networks, and possibly even social systems like the economy.

IAS-Research Talk by Leonardo Bich: Why defining life is not pointless

Date and Time: June 21, Tuesday, 11:00 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Leonardo Bich (Universidad de Chile)

Title: Why defining life is not pointless


Despite numerous and increasing attempts to define what life is, there is no consensus on necessary and sufficient conditions for life. Accordingly, some scholars have questioned the value of definitions of life and encouraged scientists and philosophers alike to discard the project. Commenting on the merits of this pessimistic conclusion, this paper explores the instrumental potential for operational definitions of life in scientific research. Rather than as classificatory tools for demarcation of natural kinds, we consider definitions of life from a pragmatic standpoint as theoretical and epistemic tools, and we focus on the possible contributions to research in those domains in which they are used most (e.g., Synthetic Biology, Origins of Life, Alife, and Astrobiology). We argue that critically rethinking the nature and uses of definitions can provide new insights into the epistemic roles of definitions of life for different research practices. In particular, we examine contexts where definitions integrate criteria for life into theoretical models that involve or enable observable operations. We show how these definitions of life play important roles in influencing research agendas and evaluating results, and we argue that to discard the project of defining life is neither sufficiently motivated, nor possible without dismissing important theoretical and practical research.

IAS-Research Talk by Sune Holm: Causation as control: The case of synthetic biology

Date and Time: June 21, Tuesday, 12:30 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Sune Holm (University of Copenhagen)

Title: Causation as control: The case of synthetic biology


“The ‘cause’ of an event in nature is the handle, so to speak, by which we can manipulate it” (R. G. Collingwood). On the manipulationist view, the distinction between causal and non-causal relationships is a distinction between relationships that can be manipulated and those that cannot. The manipulationist account of causation is thus guided by the idea that causal relationships can be exploited for purposes of manipulation and control. It is “our interests in controlling the world” (Woodward 2010) that gives us an appetite for spotting causal relationships. In this paper I discuss Woodward’s manipulationist account of causation in the context of synthetic biology and its effort to construct machine-like living systems.

IAS-Research Talk by Argyris Arnellos: “The body complexity thesis: multicellular hurdles for animal cognition”

Date and Time: June 7, Tuesday, 12:00 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Argyris Arnellos

Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, (KLI) Klosterneuburg, Austria
e-­‐mail: argyris.arnellos@kli.ac.at

Title: The body complexity thesis: multicellular hurdles for animal cognition

Abstract: Animal – and thus multicellular (MC) – agents and their relation to a macroscopic environment composed of various media available for locomotion and recognizable objects are taken by many to be central to cognition. However, as I will claim, neither animals as (freely moving) MC organizations nor the macroscopic environment in which they act can be taken as a self-evident starting-point for the evolution of cognition. I will argue that the evolution of animal cognition as is exemplified in MC organisms that appeared during the Cambrian explosion requires a set of pre-adaptations that emerge in a complex body capable for sensing and moving in a macroscopic environment. Specifically, I will discuss how an epithelial organization and its properties can be cast as the key enabling factor for the emergence and evolution of the animal sensorimotor interaction, and also how a focus on the epithelial organization integrates animal sensing and moving with the physiology and development of its MC body; all essential features of the organizational basis of MC agents (Arnellos & Moreno, 2015; 2016).

The talk is partially based on recent work:

  • Arnellos A, Moreno A (2015) Multicellular agency: an organizational view. Biology and Philosophy 30(3): 333-357. doi: 10.1007/s10539-015-9484-0 
  • Arnellos A, Moreno A (2016) Integrating constitution and interaction in the transition from unicellular to multicellular organisms. In: Niklas K, Newman S (eds) Multicellularity: origins and evolution. MIT Press, Cambridge MA, pp 249-275

IAS-Research Talk by Sébastien Lerique: “The Epidemiology of Representations paradigm for the enquiry of cognition-with-culture: how online experiments surface problematic assumptions”

Date and Time: June 7, Tuesday, 10:30 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Sébastien Lerique

Centre d’Analyse et de Mathématique Sociales (EHESS / CNRS, Paris).                     Centre Marc Bloch (CNRS / Humboldt Universität / MAEE / BMBF, Berlin) 

Title: The Epidemiology of Representations paradigm for the enquiry of cognition-with-culture: how online experiments surface problematic assumptions


Since the very beginning of social sciences and that of psychology and later cognitive science, several authors have attempted to unify the study of cognition and culture (or social) in meaningful ways. While the question already existed in Durkheim’s initial works [5], it was only later tackled in earnest by Mauss’ Techniques of the Body [10], Giddens’ Structuration Theory[7] or Bourdieu’s Sens Pratique [1].
          Today’s debate, however, is more defined by proponents from cognitive science. There is, on one side, a theory allying neo-darwinism and cognitive representationalism that is best summed up in Sperber’s Epidemiology of Representations [11] and Boyd and Richerson’s Gene-Culture Co-Evolution [2]. On the other side an enactive proposition which anthropologists like Ingold, in line with Mauss’ initial intuitions, are calling for [9], is being developed by Froese, Di Paolo, and De Jaegher among others [3] [6]. The whole debate is now being fuelled by the accumulation of discoveries in evo-devo and non-genetic inheritance, which do not fit in the modern synthesis’ account of life evolution [8]; this is creating a need for new unifying paradigms and creative empirical methods to test them [4], need which will likely challenge Sperber, Boyd, and Richerson’s dominant theory.
           Testing this theory, however, and especially its macroscopic cultural aspect, has been a real challenge for the field in the last two decades. My goal in this presentation is to show how online and web-based experiments, which offer openings to rise to that challenge, run into the philosophical problems that critiques like Ingold have identified in Sperber’s works. I will begin by presenting Sperber’s Epidemiology of Representations in more detail, fleshing out what it aims for and what underlying principles it bases itself on. I will then briefly present the method and results of one finished and one ongoing experiment studying transmission chains of short sentences (like a written broken telephone game), both inspired by the availability of large datasets of recorded online interactions and by the possibilities offered by modern browsers and the web. I will then try to show how those experiments run into the problem of interpretation and meaning, and how this is the manifestation of problems in the philosophical basis of the theory. I will conclude by evoking what web-based experiments can bring to the enactive approach of unifying the different levels of the study of life.

[1] Bourdieu, Pierre. 1980. “Le Sens pratique.” Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, coll. « Le sens commun ».

[2] Boyd, Robert, and Peter J. Richerson. 1988. “Culture and the evolutionary process.” University of Chicago Press.

[3] Cuffari, Elena Clare, Ezequiel Di Paolo, and Hanne De Jaegher. 2015. “From participatory sense-making to language: there and back again.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 14.4 (2015): 1089-1125.

[4] Day, Troy and Russell Bonduriansky. 2011. “A Unified Approach to the Evolutionary Consequences of Genetic and Nongenetic Inheritance.” The American Naturalist 2011 178:2, E18-E36.

[5] Durkheim, Émile. 1976 [1915]. “The elementary forms of the religious life.” Trans. J. W Swain (2nd ed.). London: Allen & Unwin.

[6] Froese, Tom and Ezequiel Di Paolo. 2011. “The enactive approach: Theoretical sketches from cell to society.” Pragmatics & Cognition 19:1 (2011), 1–36.

[7] Giddens, Anthony. 1984. “The constitution of society: outline of the theory of structuration.” Cambridge : Polity Press.

[8] Gilbert, Scott F., Thomas C. G. Bosch, and Cristina Ledón-Rettig. 2015. “Eco-Evo-Devo: developmental symbiosis and developmental plasticity as evolutionary agents.” Nature Reviews Genetics 16, 611–622.

[9] Ingold, Tim. 1999. “Three in one: on dissolving the distinctions between body, mind and culture.”

[10] Mauss, Marcel. 1936. “Les techniques du corps.” Journal de Psychologie, XXXII, ne, 3-4. Communication présentée à la Société de Psychologie le 17 mai 1934.

[11] Sperber, Dan. 1996. “Explaining Culture.” Blackwell.

Talk by Roslyn M. Frank: “A cognitive approach to the schema of ‘dialogic subjectivity’ (elkarrekikotasuna) in Euskera: Three examples”.

Date and Time: November 30, Monday, 11.30 am.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Roslyn M. Frank (University of Iowa) (https://uiowa.academia.edu/RoslynMFrank)

Title: A cognitive approach to the schema of ‘dialogic subjectivity’ (elkarrekikotasuna) in Euskera: Three examples


The talk begins with a brief overview of the way that ‘language’ has come to be defined as a complex adaptive system and how concepts such as distributed cognition and cultural conceptualizations are being brought to bear in order to analyze the cognitive dimensions of language, in this instance the Basque language. The role played by the sociocultural situatedness of language agents as well as language itself in the production of macro- and micro-level structure of a linguistic system is highlighted. Next, factors contributing to the stability of a linguistically instantiated schema are summarized, e.g., the notion of networking, that is, the way that mutually supporting instantiations of a schema can contribute to its stability and continuity across time. Even when the cognitive schema entrenched in the language is not consciously perceived by its speakers, the participating linguistic subsystems still provide mutual structural support for each other. As will be demonstrated, from a cognitive perspective the three subsystems that will be examined in the talk act to support each other and have contributed to the stability of the schema of ‘dialogic subjectivity’ (elkarrekikotasuna) across time. As a bridging mechanism for the last section of the talk, the need to consider the ‘dialogic dimension’ of language is brought forward which as Stawarska (2009) has noted, involves moving beyond first-person transcendental subjectivity and the limited scope of first and third modes at the exclusion of the first-to-second person mode of interrelatedness. In the last part of the talk the way that the Basque language emphasizes the first-to-second person mode of interrelatedness and structurally incorporates the schema of ‘dialogic subjectivity’ will be addressed. To illustrate how this schema is instantiated, three examples of subsystems that feed into the schema of ‘dialogic subjectivity’ will be analyzed. All three of them are present in the Basque language today. Moreover, as will be demonstrated, this cognitive schema is deeply embedded in the Basque language and shows significant time-depth. Although no knowledge of Basque is required to follow the presentation, Basque speakers may discover that Euskera has some remarkable cognitive dimensions that until now have gone relatively unnoticed, not the least of which is the way that schema of ‘dialogic subjectivity’ contrasts with the schema of ‘monologic subjectivity’ found in languages like Spanish and English.

Selected references: 

Azkarate, M., & Altuna, P. (2001). Euskal morfologiaren historia. Donostia: Elkarlanean, S.L.

Cuffari, E. C., Di Paolo, E., & De Jaegher, H. (2014). From participatory sense-making to language: There and back again. Phenomenology and Cognitive Science, 1-37. DOI 10.1007/s11097-11014-19404-11099.

De Jaegher, H., & Di Paolo, E. (2007). Participatory sense-making. Phenomenology and Cognitive Science, 6, 485-507.

Frank, R. M. (2005). Shifting identities: A comparative study of Basque and Western cultural conceptualizations. Cahiers of the Association for French Language Studies, 11(2), 1-54. http://tinyurl.com/shifting-identities-in-Basque.

Frank, R. M. (2013). Body and mind in Euskara: Contrasting dialogic and monologic subjectivities. In R. Caballero-Rodríguez & J. E. Díaz Vera (Eds.), Sensuous Cognition: Explorations into Human Sentience: Imagination, (E)motion and Perception (pp. 19-51). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. http://tinyurl.com/body-and-mind-in-Euskara.

Frank, R. M. (2014). A complex adaptive systems approach to language, cultural schemas and serial metonymy: Charting the cognitive innovations of ‘fingers’ and ‘claws’ in Basque. In J. E. Díaz-Vera (Ed.), Metaphor and Metonymy through Time and Cultures: Perspectives on the Sociohistorical Linguistics of Figurative Language (pp. 65-94). Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Frank, R. M. (2015a). Cultural Linguistics and the future agenda for research on language and culture. In F. Sharifian (Ed.), Routledge Handbook on Language and Culture (pp. 493-512). New York/London: Routledge. http://tinyurl.com/cultural-linguistics.

Frank, R. M. (2015b). The relevance of a ‘Complex Adaptive Systems’ approach to ‘language’: A bridge for increased dialogue between the disciplines of cognitive and evolutionary linguistics. Presentation at the 13th International Cognitive Linguistics Conference, July 20-26 2015, Northumbrian University, Newcastle, UK. [Invited talk at the Theme Session “Cognitive Linguistics and the Evolution of Language: Converging Perspectives”] http://tinyurl.com/CAS-ICLC-2015.

Frank, R. M., & Gontier, N. (2010). On constructing a research model for historical cognitive linguistics (HCL): Some theoretical considerations. In H. Tissari, P. Koivisto-Alanko, K. I. Allan, & M. Winter (Eds.), Historical Cognitive Linguistics (pp. 31-69). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. http://tinyurl.com/model-HCL.

Fuchs, T., & De Jaegher, H. (2010). Non-representational subjectivity. In T. Fuchs, H. C. Sattel, & P. Henningsen (Eds.), The Embodied Self: Dimensions, Coherence and Disorders (pp. 203-214). Stuttgart: Schattauer Verlag.

Maynard, S. K. (2007). Linguistic Creativity in Japanese Discourse: Exploring the Multiplicity of Self, Perspective and Voice. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Michelena, L. ([1979] 1987). Miscelánea filológica vasca IV. In L. Mitxelena (Ed.), Palabras y textos (pp. 435-463). Bilbao: Universidad del País Vasco. Publicado en Fontes Linguae Vasconum XX, 33: 377-406

Moreno Cabrera, J. C. (1998). Allocutivity and voice in the Basque verb. In L. Kulikov & H. Vater (Eds.), Typology of Verbal Categories (pp. 169-178). Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.

Naruoka, K. (2008). Expressivity of Demonstratives: A Contrastive Study in Japanese and English Discourse. Japan Women’s University.

Sharifian, F. (2009). On collective cognition and language. In H. Pishwa (Ed.), Social Cognition and Language: Expression of the Social Mind (pp. 163-180). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Sharifian, F. (2011). Cultural Conceptualizations and Language: Theoretical Framework and Applications. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Stawarska, B. (2009). Between You and I. Athens   Ohio University Press.

Stewart, J., Gapenne, O., & Di Paolo, E. A. (2011). Introduction. In J. Stewart, O. Gapenne, & E. A. Di Paolo (Eds.), Enactivism: Towards a New Paradigm in Cognitive Science (pp. vii-xvii). Cambridge: MIT Press.

Talk by Francisco Vergara Silva (UNAM, Mexico): “Evolución biocultural y filosofía de la ciencia”

Date and Time: November 9, Monday, 11.30 am.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Francisco Vergara Silva (Institute of Biology, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México)

Title: Evolución biocultural y filosofía de la ciencia


Los estudios científicos sobre la evolución de Homo sapiens, sus parientes filogenéticos cercanos, y algunas especies biológicas cuya relación con grupos humanos concretos se intensificó al inicio del Holoceno –i.e. las múltiples especies domesticadas que sustentaron el origen de la agricultura y la configuración de sociedades jerárquicas– pasan actualmente por un momento de auge. Al tiempo que dichas investigaciones evolucionistas involucran cruces entre diversas aproximaciones metodológicas, fortaleciendo campos híbridos como la arqueogenética o la paleogenómica, la filosofía de la ciencia –en especial, la que se encuentra ligada con la teorización en biología– está tomando parte cada vez más notoria en dichas interacciones disciplinares. En esta charla trataré el caso de la teoría de construcción de nicho (TCN) cultural, en tanto espacio de confluencia de diversas comunidades y discursos, científicos y filosófico-científicos, acerca de patrones y procesos evolutivos que –en mi opinión– se acoplan sin dificultad a una noción de bioculturalidad. En complemento a esta visión de conjunto, abordaré los aspectos conceptuales de un conjunto de investigaciones sobre evolución humana, predominantemente arqueológicas, desarrolladas inicialmente en el sureste de México por especialistas norteamericanos hace aproximadamente medio siglo. En función de ambos tratamientos, argumentaré que el interés antropológico contemporáneo por la TCN(C) se explica mejor como resultado de su ‘raíz arqueológica’ y que, por tanto, diversos recursos analíticos arqueológicos actuales bien podrían enriquecer a una ‘síntesis evolutiva extendida biocultural’ en la misma medida –o aún más– que los que provienen propiamente de la biología. Esta presentación busca contribuir a discusiones sobre las afinidades disciplinares múltiples del pensamiento evolucionista contemporáneo, así como a reflexiones sobre la interacción entre ciencia y filosofía de la ciencia en los estudios académicos situados en ‘áreas bioculturales megadiversas’, como Mesoamérica.