9th RUB-Workshop for History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences

24th-25th March 2022, Beckmanns Hof, Ruhr-University Bochum

The concept of ‘agency’ has played fundamental roles in the history of philosophy and the sciences. For instance, it has been interpreted through the notions of ‘action’ and ‘intention,’ with ramifications in long-standing disputes on determinism and free will, personhood, moral responsibility, or the nature of causation in human affairs, among other topics. In the study of life, the concept of agency has ignited debates on the ontological status of organisms and the activities they undertake in the world. In particular, the observations that organisms have the ability to actively react to environmental changes, autonomously construct and maintain their organization and identity despite changes in material composition and form, regenerate, self-reproduce, find shelter and food, etc., have long puzzled philosophers and scientists. How do we explain the apparent purposiveness of organismal development and actions? Do all organisms have agency and pursue goals of their own? What evolutionary consequences obtain from the agential activities of organisms? How do we make sense of organismal agency and integrate it into biological theories and practices? The aim of this workshop is to address the riddle of organismal agency through the lenses of philosophy, history, and the biological sciences. It aims to (i) clarify the epistemological and ontological underpinnings of organismal agency. In addition, it will (ii) contextualize the problem of organismal agency in the history of philosophy and biology in fruitful new directions by disentangling its interconnections and the continuities and discontinuities of former approaches. Finally, this workshop will (iii) delve into the consequences of embracing organismal agency for the study of development and evolution, its formal integration into biological theories, and translatability into scientific practice.

(i) Philosophical dimensions

The current debates on organismal agency in developmental and evolutionary biology reopen a bundle of old questions regarding the ontological and epistemological status of agency. Is agency a capacity that belongs to the furniture of the world or a heuristic tool for scientists? Can we dispense with it for explaining biological phenomena, or is it an inescapable outcome of our rational makeup without which we cannot fully grasp the properties of the living? Furthermore, what is the structure of teleological explanations and what kind of relations should they trace? In addressing these questions, it is necessary to contextualize agency within related concepts like teleology, purposiveness, goal-directedness, normativity, autonomy, and autopoiesis. In addition, we ask whether agency refers mainly to organismic behavior or to development in general. That is, does it refer to purposive behavioral responses to novel environmental stimuli or to self-organizing and self-maintaining developmental processes? This, in turn, is related to a fundamental question regarding the referents of the agential standpoint: Can agency be predicated of organisms that lack rationality or even a nervous system (e.g., bacteria, plants)? Agency is usually regarded as a property of organisms as wholes, but a comprehensive theory of the organism is lacking. Thus, it is necessary to discuss organismal agency in the context of the ongoing debates on biological individuality and organism-centered biology. Can agency be ascribed to biological individuals other than organisms (e.g., populations and tissue-forming cells)? Are highly integrated multi-species collectives (e.g., holobionts) agents? Does the organism have a ‘special kind’ of agency different from other biological entities?

(ii) Historical dimensions

Recent trends to recognize and understand organismal agency must be understood against the background of enduring discussions in the history of philosophy and biology. Investigations concerning ‘agency’ have a long pedigree in the history of philosophy, from Aristotle’s inquiry on what is a voluntary or intentional action, to the influential criticism of Hume regarding the causal powers of agents, to the recent developments in philosophy of action or the agent-based explorations of enactivism and embodied cognition. One central answer to the riddle of organismal purposiveness was provided by Kant. Some historians have contended that many authors in the fields of morphology and physiology, before and after Kant, sought to explain purposiveness as something constitutive of living organisms and not just as a regulative maxim of the reflective power of judgment with heuristic value for scientific research. We want to explore the diverse trajectories of organismal agency in the history of the life sciences and its intersections with the history of philosophy. What answers were given to the riddle of organismal agency in the 18th and 19th centuries (e.g., in debates about vitalism and Lamarckism)? Were these ideas linked to scientific developments? Moreover, recent historiographical work has unearthed that several authors took seriously the idea of organismal agency in early 20th-century biology, for example, in animal behavior, botany, and developmental physiology. In this context, we ask: How was organismal agency construed inside organicist, holistic or neo-Kantian movements of early 20th-century biology? What were the continuities and discontinuities of these former frameworks that emphasized organismal agency with approaches of the second half of the 20th century? How do we account for the renewed interest on organismal agency in contemporary biology? How do these past debates shed light on reoccurring challenges?

(iii) Biological dimensions

Agency-talk is pervasive in biology, ranging from descriptions and explanations of behavior, the dynamics of homeostatic physiological processes, the goal-driven trajectories of development and the outcomes of adaptive scenarios. But in which instances is the attribution of agency warranted? Some biologists regard most of these instances as careless wordings that should be replaced by non-agential variants. Others consider them as harmless and even useful shortcuts. Still others argue that they are legitimate and irreplaceable. In any case, agency is interlinked with biological practice and the methodologies adopted by scientists. Thus, we aim to explore how agency can be studied and modeled, and in which way it can be used to explain biological phenomena. Can agential explanations be reduced to non-agential (e.g., selectionist) explanations? How is the environment related to agential dynamics and which role does it play in agential explanations? These questions are especially important in the current debates on organism-environment interaction and the organism’s active role in evolution. In particular, philosophical reflection on agency may shed light on theory-building and experimental research on niche construction and developmental plasticity, and help ground organism-centered evolutionary perspectives. Likewise, it is pertinent to ask how agency itself emerged and changed in the course of evolution. Finally, we want to inquire into how conceptual approaches to organismal agency could inform new ways of thinking about socially relevant topics in biomedicine (e.g., units of responsibility, and targets of interventions). This workshop will bring together scholars from philosophy, history of science, and biology who have expertise in diverse conceptual, theoretical, historical and methodological problems related to organismal agency.

Alejandro Fábregas-Tejeda, Guido I. Prieto & Jan Baedke
Department of Philosophy I
Ruhr University Bochum

DFG-Emmy Noether Research Group
The Return of the Organism in the Biosciences:
Theoretical, Historical and Social Dimensions
Ruhr University Bochum