What Is an Organism? Immunity and the Individuality of the Organism

Thomas Pradeu and Elizabeth Vitanza

in The Limits of the Self

Published in print February 2012 | ISBN: 9780199775286
Published online May 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199932818 | DOI:
What Is an Organism? Immunity and the Individuality of the Organism

Show Summary Details


This chapter raises a traditional philosophical question, that of the definition of the identity of a living thing, and asks whether immunology can shed light on it. The notion of biological identity has in fact two main aspects: uniqueness and individuality. The crucial and specific contribution of immunology concerns biological individuality, because the immune system offers a principle of inclusion, and therefore is critical in delineating the boundaries of the organism at a truly systemic level. Thus, contrary to what many philosophers of biology have long said, a field pertaining to physiology, namely immunology, can offer a theoretical framework to understand biological individuality. I suggest a new definition of the organism as a heterogeneous reality, made of genetically diverse constituents, the unity of which is ensured by the permanent action of the immune system. Finally, I articulate my conception of the immunological individual with current conceptions of evolutionary individuals.

Keywords: organism; individual; identity; uniqueness; genidentity; physiology; unit of selection; symbiosis; colonial organism; superorganism; heterogeneity

Chapter.  14353 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy of Science

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribe Recommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.