In contemporary approaches in the philosophy of biology, biological individual and organisms are considered as actually consisting of several different levels of groups, where each level was attained by merging formerly separate individuals from a lower level. Prokaryotic cells are the result of the assembly of formerly independent replicators, several eukaryotic cells joined to make eukaryotic cells, and cells cooperate to form multicellular organisms. This view works relatively well for unitary organisms such as fruit flies and other asocial insects, and for vertebrates and other such species where discrete individuals can be identified and counted without any relevant problems. At the same time, the relevance of collaborative interactions among biological individuals (e.g., symbiotic relationships) is unquestionable, and increasingly acknowledged in the literature. Accordingly, there are many cases of cooperation (e.g. high level of multicellular cooperation in metazoans) that results in full-fledged organisms. However, there are several cases of cooperative and collaborative relationships that lead to groupings/collections for which one cannot easily conclude whether they should be considered as individual organisms or not. These somehow ‘in-between’ cases include bacterial colonies (e.g. bacterial biofilms), cellular slime molds, mycelia fungi and clonal plants, as well as colonial invertebrates such as corals, anemones, bryozoans, and complex polip and zooid colonies of invertebrates (such as the Physalia physalis and the Botryllus schlosseri, respectively), and many social insects, etc., are cases where the distinction between ‘individual organism’ and ‘group/collection’ becomes ambiguous, since for the moment, there is no clear and definite way to infer whether they achieve the status of organisms.
Contemporary attempts to define individual organisms are based on cohesive or polishing mechanisms so that potential conflict among the constituting units is minimized, and on the cooperative/conflicting behaviors of the entities involved, where conflict is separated from cooperation, and where the combination of high cooperation and low conflict indicates that the organism is the focus of adaptation. Therefore, contemporary approaches are somehow mostly acknowledging the collaborative dimension. Moreover, there are suggestions where the acknowledgment of the collaborative dimension comes almost at the expense of the role of individuality.
The main aim of this workshop is to discuss the notion of ‘autonomy’ as a possible candidate for defining and explaining individual organisms in biology (from microbial colonies up to metazoan multicellular collections). The aim is twofold and stems from two main observations/assumptions: First, the acknowledgment of the collaborative dimension should not come at the expense of the role of individuality. This would lead to a series of problems in the study of living systems and of the essential characteristics of their complex biological organisation. On the contrary, it seems that individual-systemic and collaborative aspects of biological individuality are strongly and deeply intertwined. Second, the solutions provided by contemporary approaches, even if they are favoring the collaborative dimension, they do not apply in the ‘in-between’ cases un-problematically. Thus, we believe that a more comprehensive approach to biological individuality is needed and we suggest the notion of ‘autonomy’ –conceived in a collaborative context –as an adequate tool for the task. Our aim in this workshop will be to further define and explain autonomy and to discuss why and how it could grasp the nature of the organization of individual organisms in biology, as well as what it can say and/or explain regarding the substantial difference between full-fledged individual organisms and complex colonies.