Places still available: Philosophical and Historical Dimensions of Biological Individuality, Winter School, University of Sydney

A number of places are still available for a winter school unit on the history and philosophy of biological individuality, to be held at the University of Sydney, 18-21 July 2016. We invite applications from graduate students and early-career researchers in the history, philosophy, and social studies of science and biomedicine, and related fields, for a four-day (southern-hemisphere) winter school focusing on philosophical and historical dimensions of biological individuality. This is an excellent opportunity for scholars interested in some of the more exciting recent developments in the philosophy and history of biology, those seeking to integrate historical and philosophical approaches in the interdisciplinary analysis of science, and anyone wanting an advanced introduction to biological theories of individuality and self.

The nature of biological individuality has excited considerable debate and controversy during the past decade or more. The problem of what constitutes a biological individual is an old one, but philosophers and historians recently have refreshed and transformed the conceptual field. In this winter school we bring into conversation leading historians and philosophers of biology who have studied different aspects of the problem, and have diverse opinions on the matter. In particular, we hope to explore similarities and differences between the individual of evolutionary theory and the organismal or physiological individual posited in, for example, developmental biology or modern immunology. That is, we ask how the individual of natural selection might be related to, or distinguished from, physiological concepts such as the immunological self or other temporally framed entities.

Until recently, evolutionary questions have dominated discussion of biological individuality. Which units function as distinct members of an evolving population? How do new levels of individuality emerge through evolution? Increasingly, however, philosophers and historians have come to focus on other forms of individuality, such as physiological individuality, which involves identifying individuals by their organizational and functional properties rather than their capacity to play a role in evolutionary processes. Microbial communities are a compelling application for this organismal approach, whether considered in their own right or as a component of a holobiont (a multicellular organism and its microbial symbionts). Organizational perspectives on individuality shift the focus (or enlarge it?) from how entities replicate themselves to how metabolic and developmental processes allow recognition, maintenance, and propagation of selves. In the light of these developments, it may make sense to think of a biological individual as an interactive process without a single, unified telos.

We are looking forward to discussing these issues and many others, according to the interests of participants. Through a mix of seminars, small group discussions, and case studies, graduate students and early-career researchers will find themselves on the frontiers of knowledge of biological individuality. The workshop faculty will illustrate their arguments with examples of their own recent and forthcoming research. We expect participants to shape these discussions and to contribute ideas and examples from their own studies. Additionally, there will be plenty of opportunities to enjoy Sydney’s harbor, beaches, food,
and cultural activities.

Participating faculty:
Lynn K. Nyhart (University of Wisconsin-Madison), a distinguished historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century biology, author of  Modern Nature: The Rise of Biological Perspective in Germany (2009), and co-editor of  Biological Individuality: Integrating Historical, Philosophical, and Scientific Perspectives (forthcoming).

Alan Love (University of Minnesota), director of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, a leading philosopher focusing on conceptual issues in evolutionary and developmental biology, giving special attention to the epistemology of scientific practice (e.g., “Individuation, Individuality, and Experimental Practice in Developmental Biology”


Paul Griffiths (University of Sydney), a leading philosopher of biology, who has written extensively on concepts of biological individuality, genomics, and developmental biology.

Warwick Anderson (University of Sydney), an historian of science and medicine, whose inquiries into concepts of the immunological self, and biological individuality more generally, resulted in  Intolerant Bodies: A Short History of Autoimmunity (2014).

Applicants should send a CV and a brief description (maximum one page) of their research interests, and how they relate to the topic of the Winter School, to [email protected]  (with a subject heading “Winter School Application”). Closing date is May 30, 2016 . We will take care of accommodation expenses and most meals for the period of the Winter School, but participants (or their institutions) will have to cover their own transport costs.

The Winter School is supported by the Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science, the Unit for History
and Philosophy of Science, and the International Research Collaboration Fund of the University of Sydney.