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

Disentangling causation and information (full text)


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.

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.