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Smith, Subrena. Organisms as Persisters
2017, Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology 9 (14)
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Added by: Simon Fokt, Contributed by: Ellen Clarke

Abstract: This paper addresses the question of what organisms are and therefore what kinds of biological entities qualify as organisms. For some time now, the concept of organismality has been eclipsed by the notion of individuality. Biological individuals are those systems that are units of selection. I develop a conception of organismality that does not rely on evolutionary considerations, but instead draws on development and ecology. On this account, organismality and individuality can come apart. Organisms, in my view, are as Godfrey-Smith puts it “essentially persisters.” I argue that persistence is underpinned by differentiation, integration, development, and the constitutive embeddedness of organisms in their worlds. I examine two marginal cases, the Portuguese Man O’ War and the honey bee colony, and show that both count as organisms in light of my analysis. Next, I examine the case of holobionts, hosts plus their microsymbionts, and argue that they can be counted as organisms even though they may not be biological individuals. Finally, I consider the question of whether other, less tightly integrated biological systems might also be treated as organisms.

Comment: This paper is ideal for teaching the problem of biological individuality, in a philosophy of biology course

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