A coarse-graining account of individuality: how the emergence of individuals represents a summary of lower-level evolutionary processes?


Explaining the emergence of individuality in the process of evolution remains a challenge; it faces the difficulty of characterizing adequately what ‘emergence’ amounts to. Here, I present a pragmatic account of individuality in which I take up this challenge. Following this account, individuals that emerge from an evolutionary transition in individuality are coarse-grained entities: entities that are summaries of lower-level evolutionary processes. Although this account may prima facie appear to ultimately rely on epistemic considerations, I show that it can be used to vindicate the emergence of individuals in a quasi-ontological sense. To this end, I discuss a recent account of evolutionary transitions in individuality proposed by Godfrey-Smith and Kerr (Brit J Philos Sci 64(1):205–222, 2013) where a transition occurs through several stages, each with an accompanying model. I focus on the final stage where higher-level entities are ascribed a separate fitness parameter, while they were not in the previous stages. In light of my account, I provide some justification for why such a change in parameters is necessary and cannot be dismissed as merely epistemic.

Biology & Philosophy, 38(4), 33.
Pierrick Bourrat
Pierrick Bourrat
Senior Lecturer & DECRA Fellow

My research interests include the various concepts deployed in evolutionary theory, causation, and the interplay between biological and cultural evolution.