“Evolvability as a dispositional property”


Seminar on Tuesday, 14th of February at 11:15am at the Carlos Santamaria (IAS room, B14)

Laura Nuño de la Rosa: “Evolvability as a dispositional property”

Evolvability, or the ability of biological systems to evolve, is usually taken to be a cornerstone of evo-devo and, more generally, of the so-called Extended Evolutionary Synthesis. In the last years, evolutionary biologists have made several efforts to define evolvability, and philosophers of biology have shown an increasing interest in understanding the dispositional nature of this concept. In this talk, I will explore the philosophical consequences associated to two major conceptual tensions permeating current definitions of evolvability. The first concerns the relationship between variability and adaptability. While some authors define evolvability as the capacity of biological systems to vary, evolvability is mostly seen as the capacity to vary in an adaptive way, excluding the capacity of a system for producing deleterious mutations as a part of the ability to evolve. The idea that the ability to adapt can evolve has been charged with suggesting a teleological view of evolution, insofar as natural selection cannot adapt a population for future contingencies. I will explore the existing solutions to this dilemma and will argue that evolvability can be defined in a functional sense without invoking teleology. The second conceptual tension among the existing definitions of evolvability concerns the very subject of evolvability. While most philosophers of biology agree that evolvability can only be a property of populations, I will argue that biologists are right in defining evolvability as a capacity of biological systems that apply to different levels of organization. Finally, I will explore the role of extrinsic (environmental) factors in the determination of evolvability, and argue that the context-sensitivity of evolvability does not challenge its intrinsicality.

From organization of processes to organisms and other biological individuals

Seminar on Thursday, 2nd of February at 11:15am at the Carlos Santamaria (IAS room)

Argyris Arnellos (UPV/EHU): From organization of processes to organisms and other biological individuals


The emphasis on the collaborative dimension of the living world overlooks the importance of biological individuals (conceived as highly integrated and self-maintaining organizations) as the very conditions of possibility for the subsequent buildup of more complex collaborative networks in the course of evolution. Acknowledging the importance of collaboration in life, I briefly explain a process-based organizational ontology for biology, according to which I suggest that the essential features of unicellular organismality are captured by a self-maintaining organization of processes that is integrated on the basis of a special type of collaboration (realized through regulatory processes entailing an indispensible interdependence) between its constitutive and interactive aspects. I then use this ontology to describe different types of unicellular collaborations and to argue that it takes a certain type of collaboration among cells to yield a multicellular organism. The suggested organizational framework is used to critically assess and provide clearer and specific alternatives for several implications raised from the consideration of a mainly and ‘excessively’ collaborative view of life, and especially, issues related to the identification of biological individuals and their boundaries, the distinction between biological individuals and organisms, the organismal status of symbiotic multicellular systems, and the distinction between life and not life, avoiding the problems of pluralism but without however ignoring, neither underestimating nor undermining the central role of the concept of collaboration in understanding the biological realm.

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.

First Bordeaux-San Sebastián Workshop on Philosophy of Biology

Date and time: October 20-21, 2016. Centro Carlos Santamaría (Aula A.4). Campus de Gipuzkoa – UPV/EHU, Donostia-San Sebastián

Speakers: Lynn Chiu (CNRS, Université de Bordeaux), Martha Susana Esparza Soria (UPV/EHU), Arantza Etxeberria (UPV/EHU), Sara Green (University of Copenhagen), Alvaro Moreno (UPV/EHU), Laura Nuño de la Rosa (UPV/EHU), Thomas Pradeu (CNRS, Université de Bordeaux), Marie-Elise Truchetet (University Hospital of Bordeaux)

Organizers: Leonardo Bich (CNRS, U. Bordeaux) Arantza Etxeberria (UPV/EHU)

Info: leonardo.bich@immuconcept.org

Flyer: Here

Program and abstracts: Here

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 Seminar by Michael Beaton (UPV-EHU & Sussex): “Sensorimotor Direct Realism: How We Enact Our World”

Date and Time: June 13, Monday, 11:00 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Michael Beaton (UPV-EHU & Sussex)

Title: Sensorimotor Direct Realism: How We Enact Our World


Direct realism is a non-reductive, anti-representationalist theory of perception which is currently generating a lot of interest within mainstream analytic philosophy. For all that, it is widely held to be both controversial and anti-scientific. The sensorimotor theory of perception, on the other hand, initially generated a lot of interest within mainstream cognitive science, but has not yet delivered on its early promise of changing fundamentally the way in which cognitive scientists think about perception. Here I will argue that sensorimotor theory and direct realism complement each other very well, and that the resultant theory – sensorimotor direct realism – is a scientifically tractable alternative to the dominant, mainstream, representationalist approach within cognitive science. I will argue for the apparently philosophically radical claim that we directly perceive objects themselves, showing how this claim can be understood in a way which makes it amenable to normal scientific study. Objects are analysed as a kind of collaboration between the world and the perceiver. On this account, whilst we never perceive outside the categories of our own understanding, we do, literally, perceive outside our own heads, with no intermediary representations required.

Presentation based on three pieces recently published in Constructivist Foundations.

IAS-Research Seminar by Laura Menatti and Antonio Casado da Rocha: “Landscape and Health: Connecting Psychology, Aesthetics, and Philosophy through the Concept of Affordance”

Date and Time: June 13, Monday, 10:00 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speakers: Laura Menatti (Chile) and Antonio Casado da Rocha (UPV/EHU)

Title: Landscape and Health: Connecting Psychology, Aesthetics, and Philosophy through the Concept of Affordance


In this paper we address a frontier topic in the humanities, namely how the cultural and natural construction that we call landscape affects well-being and health. Following an updated review of evidence-based literature in the fields of medicine, psychology, and architecture, we propose a new theoretical framework called “processual landscape,” which is able to explain both the health-landscape and the medical agency-structure binomial pairs. We provide a twofold analysis of landscape, from both the cultural and naturalist points of view: in order to take into account its relationship with health, the definition of landscape as a cultural product needs to be broadened through naturalization, grounding it in the scientific domain. Landscape cannot be distinguished from the ecological environment. For this reason, we naturalize the idea of landscape through the notion of affordance and Gibson’s ecological psychology. In doing so, we stress the role of agency in the theory of perception and the health-landscape relationship. Since it is the result of continuous and co-creational interaction between the cultural agent, the biological agent and the affordances offered to the landscape perceiver, the processual landscape is, in our opinion, the most comprehensive framework for explaining the health-landscape relationship. The consequences of our framework are not only theoretical, but ethical also: insofar as health is greatly affected by landscape, this construction represents something more than just part of our heritage or a place to be preserved for the aesthetic pleasure it provides. Rather, we can talk about the right to landscape as something intrinsically linked to the well-being of present and future generations.

Presentation based on paper recently published in Frontiers Psychology (see online).