Back in July I was invited to attend my first summer school, a gathering of young scholars at Gut Siggan in Holstein, Germany. The subject of our collective brainstorming was ‘Superorganisms, Organisms and Suborganisms as Biological Individuals’. In other words, what is an ‘individual’ in biology, how do we arrive at this definition and why does it matter? The summer school had a distinctly interdisciplinary twist, bringing in biologists, philosophers, sociologists and even a few historians – including yours truly. During the various lectures and seminars we heard varied examples from the history of microbial classification to perspectives on modern DNA testing to remind ourselves what a difficult – and often controversial – task labeling something as a biological individual can be.
Participants were pointed to one particularly interesting piece of reading by Lynn Nyhart and Scott Lidgard ‘Individuals at the Center of Biology: Rudolf Leuckart’s Polymorphismus de Individuen and the Ongoing Narrative of Parts and Wholes’ (Journal of the History of Biology 44 (2011): 373-443). Nyhart and Lidgard point out that biological individuality was as central a problem to pre-1859 naturalists as evolution. Philosophical notions followed discoveries in cell theory, discussions on compound organisms and debates over the existence of single-celled organisms (p. 374). Zoologists like Leuckart were also involved in ongoing disputes in taxonomy, dividing and creating animal groups to create new classification systems (p. 377). In the concluding paragraphs of their paper, Nyhart and Lidgard attempt to draw parallels between modern trends in biology – including interest in modular organisms and developmental modularity – and nineteenth-century discussions of individuality (p. 406). But does the latter really possess relevance today? Do seemingly arbitrary and ever changing definitions actually make a practical difference in the world?
In a series of important contexts, yes. To take one example from my own research, getting a new breed of plant recognised as a variety can bring intellectual property protection and potentially lucrative commercial awards. Other speakers at the summer school pointed out that what we recognise as a biological individual is important in how we carry out conservation programmes; we need to know what we are actually trying to preserve. Yulia Egorova, a lecturer from the University of Durham, revealed the impact of DNA testing on cultural and religious groups. How we perceive human individuality can often have dangerous consequences for how we view ourselves and others. What constitutes a biological individual is not simply a question best left to philosophy.