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


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.

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’.


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.

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.