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ProBio Report Summary

Project ID: 324186
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: United Kingdom

Final Report Summary - PROBIO (A Process Ontology for Contemporary Biology)

The Process Ontology for Contemporary Biology (ProBio) project aimed to explore the hypothesis that progress in biology and in our understanding of biology was impeded by an inappropriate metaphysics. This metaphysics, the most basic philosophical framework for our account of reality, has since the time of Aristotle focused on the concept of a substance or, informally, a thing. A thing is stable unless perturbed, has reasonably sharp boundaries, and is autonomous, or exists independently of anything else. Unfortunately none of these features is true of living beings. The latter are stable only because of countless activities, for example metabolic processes, that sustain them far from thermodynamic equilibrium; and their profound interdependence with other beings, e.g. in symbiosis, means that they neither have sharp boundaries nor are autonomous. They are, in fact, processes. Although a tradition of process metaphysics has existed alongside the dominant metaphysics of substance since antiquity, it has always been a minority view, even more so since the Scientific Revolution. The aim of ProBio was to make the argument that the development of biology, at least, required a revival of this neglected process thinking.

The project team believe that we have achieved a good deal to further this objective. In the first place, process metaphysics, or ontology, has become an increasingly prominent topic in the philosophy of biology. The project’s most important output, the Oxford University Press volume, Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology, has contributions from a number of the leading figures in the field (Paul Griffiths, Karola Stotz, Denis Walsh, Frederic Bouchard), and others spoke at our final London conference (Elisabeth Lloyd, James Griesemer, Phyllis Illari, Kenneth Waters). All of these philosophers are now either sympathetic, or explicitly signed on, to the process perspective.

The second goal is to engage with the wider philosophical community, especially metaphysicians. Here again the London conference included leading practitioners, some already interested in the philosophy of process (e.g. Helen Steward, Rowland Stout, Johanna Seibt). In addition, an earlier conference cosponsored with the Institute for Philosophy had brought together a range of philosophers interested in personal identity with philosophers of biology interested in biological identity. A volume is in preparation resulting from this conference, that will provide an effective bridge between these hitherto largely disjoint communities.

Finally we have aimed to bring this work to the attention of practising biological scientists. Many prominent scientists have attended our workshops and visited the project. Speakers at our final conference included systems biologist Sui Huang, developmental biologist Scott Gilbert, cancer biologist Ana Soto, and plant evolutionary ecologist Sonia Sultan among others. We have ongoing collaborations, especially through the follow-on AHRC-funded project, Representing Biology as Process, with several biologists at the Exeter Living Systems Institute.

The project has advanced the understanding of process thought in biology through a wide range of publications addressing specific biological topics—the nature of the organism, genomes and genome editing, cancer, virology, human nature, evolutionary theory, and more—and topical issues in the philosophy of science—causation, mechanism, pluralism—and in philosophy more generally—free will, personal identity, sex and gender, and more. We believe that this body of work illustrates the value of a process metaphysics across the main intellectual communities that we aimed to address, and helps to build bridges between these communities. We believe that we have also made major steps towards clarifying the nature of a process metaphysics and demonstrating its many benefits.

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United Kingdom
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