Individuality is a key concept in human societies. How we define individuals and their boundaries affects our social relations, what kind of rights and duties we have, as well as when we are considered healthy or sick. In all these realms, the biological side of humans’ individuality – the organism – plays a crucial role. Currently, after many decades dominated by the paradigm of the gene, the concept of organism is making a comeback in the bio- and biomedical sciences. The organism is again recognized as a causally efficacious, autonomous, and active unit that transcends the properties of genes – especially in fields like epigenetics, niche construction theory, and evolutionary developmental biology (Evo-Devo).
This project investigates these recent developments from a perspective of integrated history and philosophy of science. It focuses on (i) biotheoretical and conceptual, (ii) historical, as well as (iii) social and anthropological dimensions of today’s ‚return of the organism‘. Especially, it aims at offering solutions for theoretical and societal challenges of organism-centered biosciences in the 21st century. This concerns the problem, (i) that while organisms are increasingly recognized as agents that actively construct their own development and their environments, large genomic datasets also reveal that they are inextricable linked with and fully embedded in their material and social environment. This ambiguous new character of the individual – to stand out and at the same time to disappear – leads to various methodological and explanatory challenges in the biosciences. This complex current situation can better be understood (ii) when compared to periods in the history of biology, especially in the early 20th century, in which the organism emerged as a central unit in biology. In order to identify the relevant conceptual debates and the solutions they offer with respect to today’s challenges, archival research is combined with methods of text mining. Finally, this project investigates (iii) how current individualistic and anti-individualistic developments in biology drive trends in personalized medicine and public health debates. This includes, first, novel responsibilities of individuals as self-determined health care agents, but also new worries about social heteronomy. Second, the ambiguous status of the organism stirs debates about suitable targets of policy interventions – individuals or collectives (e.g., social and ethnic groups) – to combat diseases such as cancer and obesity. This includes the biomedical trend to return to racial classifications for studying disease susceptibilities of environmentally embedded individuals.