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Individualism and Local Control1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

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In both biology and psychology, the notion of an individual is indispensable yet puzzling. It has played a variety of roles in diverse contexts, ranging from philosophical problems of personal identity to scientific questions about the immunological mechanisms for telling ‘self’ from ‘non-self.’ There are notorious cases in which the question of individuality is difficult to settle — ant hill, slime mold, or beehive, for instance. Yet the notion of an individual organism, both dependent on and independent of other individuals in specific ways, is crucial to our conception of life itself. It is also crucial to our notion of mentality, and hence to other concepts — moral and social — which must be explicated in terms of individual mentality. (Think, for example, of the importance of the quality and nature of individual consciousness to debates about abortion and euthanasia.)

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1987

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My thinking in this paper was stimulated and usefully influenced by a seminar on Artificial Life given in collaboration with Paul Thompson in the Fall of 1990. Thanks to Paul Thompson and all participants, especially Greg Crookall, Lisa Blake, and Niko Scharer.


2 A curious etymological tidbit is suggestive here. It turns out that the word ‘whole’ and the various cognates of ‘holism’ are etymologically unrelated, even though the ‘w’ in ‘whole’ is adventitious. ‘Whole’ is etymologically related to ‘health’ (cf. ‘hale’); but health has become semantically so closely identified with the idea of an integral totality that the sense of ‘whole’ has actually shifted to merge with that of the Greek ‘holos.’ We can see the turning point in the word ‘wholesome,’ in which the morpheme is ‘whole’ but the sense is ‘health.’ Obviously I’m not suggesting that etymology has much weight as an argument; but it is an indication that the notions of an individual — of wholeness — is difficult to keep separate from some normative notion of functional integration.

3 Rosenberg, AlexanderThe Structure of Biological Science (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press 1985)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, ch. 3

4 Matthen, Mohan and Levy, EdwinTeleology, Error, and the Human Immune System,’ journal of Philosophy 81 (1984) 351-72CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5 The notion of function has, in recent years, received a promising line of explication, suggesting that it might be entirely naturalized. The standard line is roughly this: the production of a goal G is a function of a given activity or event of type A, if the fact that A results in events of type G explains the existence of A. This is indeed a naturalistic account, but it works only insofar as we are not interested in the issue of what counts as an individual. As soon as that issue is broached we cannot altogether escape evaluative issues. Cases where such references to individuals seem inescapable include the case of the immune system as well as the case of mentality. For the standard line, see Wright, LarryFunctions,’ Philosophical Review 82 (1973) 139-68;CrossRefGoogle ScholarTaylor, CharlesThe Explanation of Behaviour (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1964)Google Scholar; Bennett, JonathanLinguistic Behaviour (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1976)Google Scholar; and Millikan, RuthLanguage, Thought, and Other Biological Categories (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1984)Google Scholar. For a powerful recent case in favor of the ineliminability of value from the analysis of teleology, see Bedau, MarkNaturalism and Teleology,’ in Naturalism: A Critical Appraisal (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press 1992)Google Scholar.

6 See Langman, RodneyThe Immune System (San Diego: Academic Press 1989)Google Scholar.

7 See Edelman, GeraldTopobiology: An Introduction to Molecular Embryology (New York: Basic Books 1988)Google Scholar.

8 Smith, AdamAn Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Cannan, Edwin ed. (New York: Modern Library 1937)Google Scholar

9 Russell, BertrandMysticism and Logic (London: Allen & Unwin 1910), 102Google Scholar. Russell once suggested that the simplicity of natural law is an illusion reflecting our stupidity: simplicity is merely a feature shared by the only laws we have been smart enough to discover.

10 See Cole, CharlesUnisexual Lizards,’ Scientific American 250 (1984) 94-100CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 The status quo is not, as one might think, that equal numbers of males and females are conceived, but that male conceptions outnumber females ones just enough, given their greater vulnerability during pregnancy and infancy, to ensure equal numbers of males and females at the reproductively peak age.

12 Fisher is cited by Richard Dawkins in The Extended Phenotype: The Gene as Unit of Selection (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1982); see R.A. Fisher, The Cenetical Theory of Natural Selection (Oxford: Clarendon 1930).

13 Langton, C.G.Studying Artificial Life with Cellular Automata,’ Physica D 10 (1986) 120-49CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Langton, C.G. ed., Artificial Ufe (Redwood City, CA: Addison-Wesley 1989)Google Scholar; Langton, C.G. ed., Artificial Life 11 (Redwood City, CA: Addison-Wesley 1992)Google Scholar

14 See Gardner, MartinWheels, Life, and Other Mathematical Amusements (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman 1982)Google Scholar.

15 Rucker, RudyCA Lab: Rudy Rucker’s Cellular Automata Laboratory (Sausalito, CA: Autodesk 1989)Google Scholar

16 The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton 1987)

17 Hogeweg, P.Cellular Automata as a Paradigm for Ecological Modeling,’ Applied Mathematics and Computation 27 (1988) 81-100CrossRefGoogle Scholar

18 Ibid., 85.1 owe this reference to Greg Crookall.

19 Adaptation and Natural Selection (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1966)

20 Traditional, but disputed: see Jay Gould, StephenEver Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History (New York: Norton 1977), 79-90Google Scholar.

21 The Society of Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster 1985)

22 In other respects as well, local control needn’t preclude hierarchy altogether. Consider, for example, the different levels at which the DNA might affect the development of the individual: protein composition, interaction with environment in epigénesis, interaction with allele in selective competition, etc.

23 Dennett, Daniel C.Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little, Brown 1991), 134-5Google Scholar

24 For one such defense relating to the content of perceptual experience, see John McDowell, ‘The Content of Perceptual Experience’ (forthcoming). See also Davidson, DonaldMental Events,’ in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon 1982)Google Scholar; ‘Knowing One’s Own Mind,’ APA Proceedings, 1989.

25 Burge, T.Individualism and the Mental,’ Midwest Studies in Philosophy 4 (1979) 73-121CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 116-17

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