The Place of the Organism in Biology and Medicine

10th RUB-Workshop on the History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences

16th-18th November 2022, Beckmanns Hof, Ruhr-University Bochum

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 biological and medical sciences. The individual 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, evolutionary developmental biology, and precision and personalized medicine. The aim of this workshop is to address these recent developments from a perspective of integrated history and philosophy of science. It focuses on (i) philosophical, biotheoretical, and conceptual, (ii) historical, as well as (iii) (bio)medical and social dimensions of today’s ‘return of the organism’. In particular, it aims at discussing solutions for theoretical and societal challenges of organism-centered biosciences in the 21st century.

(i) Philosophical dimensions

The current debates on the concept of the organism in developmental and evolutionary biology, as well as a renewed interest in past organicist stances in theoretical biology, reopen a bundle of old questions regarding the ontological and epistemological status of the organism as a purportedly special unit in the biosciences. How do we individuate organisms and what kind of biological individuals are they – physiological or evolutionary individuals, or even both? Is the organism a useful unit of investigation to interlink forms of developmental and evolutionary individuality? Do organisms play special explanatory roles in biological theories? 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 organism leads to various methodological and explanatory challenges in the biosciences. Are organisms (a special kind of) agents that show goal-directedness and are autonomously organized? How do organisms relate to their environments? How does that relationship influence the health of the human organism?

(ii) Historical dimensions

Recent trends to again emphasize the organism, rather than the gene, as a central unit to study development, evolution, and health must be understood against the background of enduring discussions in the history of philosophy, biology, and medicine. This includes important phases, from Kant’s framing of organisms as units with intrinsic purposiveness, to discussions about organismenvironment relations in 19th and 20th century evolutionary biology and debates about vitalism, as well as the role of the organism during the so-called ‘eclipse of Darwinism’. How and due to which social, institutional and disciplinary reasons was the organism increasingly replaced by the gene (or populations) as the central explanatory unit in biology and health sciences? What conceptual and methodological transitions did medicine experience, when replacing internal features of human organisms – such as genes – as factors of health and disease by organism-environment relationships. How do we account for the renewed interest in the individual (human) organism in contemporary research? What can we learn about the current ‘return of the organism’ from relevant phases in the history of biology (e.g., from organicism and holism) and medicine? Do they provide conceptual solutions for today’s challenges of organism-centered biology?

(iii) Biomedical and social dimensions

Finally, this workshop investigates how current individualistic and anti-individualistic developments in biology drive trends in personalized medicine and public health debates. On the one hand, it has been argued that the focus on individuals and their particularities, as well as the perception of individuals as self-determined health care agents can have detrimental public health implications, for example, neglecting population health. Relatedly, 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. A further facet of significance to the organism concept is found in the ‘social organism’ metaphor. Bridging the ‘biological’ and the ‘social’ is a topic fraught with controversy, particularly considering the conscription of shared concepts (such as levels of organization) to reduce (or contextualize) health and evolution within a biological or social context.

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 the concept of organism.


Saana Jukola, Guido I. Prieto,
Jan Baedke, Daniel S. Brooks,
Alejandro Fábregas-Tejeda

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