The concept of individuality is a significant interest in the study of the uniqueness of living things. The concept of an individual entity or organism was centered on the understanding of the independence of individual entities that framed biology in terms of the study of particulate, interacting, and living entities (Gilbert, Sapp, & Tauber, 2012). However, the emergence of new knowledge on concepts such as the cells and ecology has allowed the consideration of cooperative and competitive relations among organisms as crucial determinants of individuality. Regardless of the progress that has been made in the definition of individuality, many questions arise when explaining what makes an individual. Dupre and O’Malley (2009) seek to respond to some of the arising questions in as far as individuality of living things is concerned. For instance, what does it signify for a creature to be living? What is the responsibility of inter-organismic cooperation in development? What is a biological personage? In this paper, I defend Dupre and O’Malley’s (2009) claim that reproduction and the collaboration of entities are not only crucial in the creation of life but also key determinants of the definition of biological individuals.
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In biology, the term “individual” is used and defined in different ways. Dupre and O’Malley (2009) present the biological individual as a creature that relies on mutual interaction between it and other creatures. However, such a definition is lacking due to overlooking the role of numerous species of bacteria and other microbes that share the cells and bodies of animals. Concurring with Dupre and O’Malley’s (2009) expositions, Gilbert et al. (2012) give the example of the algal symbiont, which provides approximately 60% of nutrients to its host coral. When the algal dies due to increased exposure to surface temperatures, the coral eventually dies. In such a case, the main question is whether the coral is a living entity without the algal symbiont. Hence, the view of an individual as an anatomical entity is very controversial. It is imperfect due to lack of consideration of other anatomical entities that play part in survival of the entirety of entities benefiting or non-benefiting from their relationship.
In line with Dupre and O’Malley’s (2009) arguments, the symbiotic relationship between parasitoid wasp and Wolbachia is an important indicator that collaborative efforts are crucial in the developmental process of individuals even from the ovum (Bourke, 2011). Wolbachia bacteria inhabit the cells of several invertebrates to the level of causing harmful impacts on the way the affected organisms reproduce. However, the ejection of such bacteria from the organisms results in the release of undeveloped oocytes by the wasps, hence hindering their multiplication. Hence, without bacteria, female wasps are unable to multiply (Bouchard & Huneman, 2013).
In their paper, Dupre and O’Malley discuss previous modes of knowledge and understanding that have made it difficult for collaborative efforts to be acknowledged as significant in defining and determining individuality. Moreover, some of the pre-existing knowledge areas such as the evolutionary theory by Charles Darwin among other theorists ignore the symbiotic interactions of organisms (Bouchard, 2009, 33). Such knowledge has supported the understanding of selfish beings whose survival is the only goal with no regard to the existence of the others. The same approach and definition of individuals as selfish has also been applied in genes, which are viewed as being in competition (Pepper & Herron, 2008). Consequently, under the pre-existing and deeply enshrined views on individuals as selfish beings, it is understandable why a countering knowledge in support of collaboration has experienced weak acceptance.
The available extensive evidence shows that the standard of evolution where human beings are viewed as selfish individuals is highly problematic, especially when many sets of organisms are considered (Clarke, 2010). Firstly, in its definition, collaboration indicates the desire for shared benefits, even when such benefits are not equal. In the basic understanding, collaboration can be viewed in atoms that combine to form molecules (Ereshefsky & Pedroso, 2013). However, the one common and basic requirement for the molecules to be viewed as living is the ability to reproduce. Therefore, reproduction is an essential part of the Dupre and O’Malley’s (2009) argument concerning biological individuals.
Dupre and O Malley’s (2009) focus on the issue of reproduction and collaboration and the role they play in defining the biological individual avoids organisms such as the viruses and other microbes whose “living status” is controversial. Hence, a further investigation on this area may be important in understanding individuality in a new meaning compared to the traditional view, which focuses on animal, fungi, or plants, whose living status is certain (Clarke, 2013). However, the fact that the microbes can replicate and reproduce in specific conditions brings a new understanding of ‘living’ and the role of cooperative efforts in biological individuals (Pradeu, 2010). For example, viruses are viewed as independent from what is considered living traditionally since they cannot reproduce on their own. Instead, they only replicate and reproduce by penetrating the DNA of the host cells (Pradeu, 2010). According to Gilbert et al. (2012), the interactions of the microbes such as viruses and their hosts are also evident in other big organisms, despite the apparent variation. For example, although viruses depend on their hosts to reproduce, in some organisms such as some types of insects, the process exhibited in the developmental cycle involves the use of hosts where the relationship may be parasitic or even collaborative. However, the question on whether viruses are biological individuals is still very controversial. Dupre and O Malley (2009) assert that the fact that viruses do not have the qualities and properties of cellar organisms has led to their definition as non-living. However, it is evident that the various roles that they play in supporting life and collaboration with other organisms make them qualify as biological individuals. The fact that they can facilitate their transfer from one organism or cell to another calls for new conceptions of what it means to be a biological individual.
The symbiotic relationship between organisms is further exhibited in many organisms that Booth (2014) identifies. For instance, the author gives the example of the symbiotic relationship between Pea Aphid and the bacteria Buchnera Aphidicola. The Buchnera resides inside the cells of aphid cells. When the Buchnera bacterium is killed via antibiotics, the aphids also die. Human beings are infested with bacteria (Hull, 1978). Approximately 90% of human cells are bacteria. For example, the human gut has numerous bacteria strains that are essential in the metabolism process. Without such bacteria, it will be difficult or even impossible to digest various foods (Booth, 2014). Thus, bacterium is viewed as a virtual digestive organism with the host where it plays an important role of providing digestion capabilities, which have not fully evolved in the human body. Hence, in this case, the bacteria is mentioned as an organism that plays a central role in aiding the metabolism process, which Dupre and O’Malley (2009) regard as a key element that defines a biological individual.
Although metabolism is another criterion that is more explicit about the role of collaboration in metabolism, it is also crucial to address the issue of virus reproduction as presented in the article by Dupre and O’Malley (2009) because such microbes reproduce in a manner that is inconsistent with what popular views regard as ‘normal” reproduction. For instance, while the normal reproduction involves two organisms of the same species, reproduction by the virus involves the parasite (virus) occupying the host cells where it releases its genetic contents, which the attacked organism is expected to use to produce other viruses. Hence, the article by Dupre and O’Malley (2009) reveals that the capacity of viruses to replicate themselves shows the need for new definitions and conceptions of what is reproduction. Although such microbes have the ability to excellent replication approaches, the fact that they must carry such replication on their hosts makes scientists view them as failures as compared to the ‘true organisms’ (Booth, 2014). However, numerous “true organisms” have to use hosts and other collaborative efforts with other organisms for successful reproduction and survival of the offspring.
In support of Dupre and O’Malley (2009), it is evident that metabolic collaboration between organisms and the ability to reproduce, which also involves collaborative efforts as argued above, play an important role in the definition of individuality. Despite the various definition that have been suggested, collaborative efforts between organisms play an important role in their existence and hence their nature as biological entities. Although viruses exhibit different behaviors with their interactions with hosts, such behaviors are not exclusive. They are also evident in what biologists view as “true organisms.” Even in reproduction, there is evidence of collaborative efforts between organisms. Therefore, Dupre and O’Malley’s views and propositions on the definition of individuality are justified.
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Bourke, A. (2011). Principles of social evolution. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Clarke, E. (2010). The problem of biological individuality. Biological Theory, 5(4), 312-325.
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