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From Minimally Autonomous Biological Individuals to Collectively Associated Autonomous Adaptive Agents

Final Report Summary - ABIADA (From Minimally Autonomous Biological Individuals to Collectively Associated Autonomous Adaptive Agents)

Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship (IEF) project FP7-PEOPLE-2010-IEF-273635
Argyris Arnellos, April 2011 - March 2013
Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science, University of the Basque Country

A great difficulty in theorizing and explaining living systems as biological organisms, especially when one also considers their evolutionary patterns, is due to their individual-systemic and collective-evolutionary characteristics being so strongly and deeply intertwined. From the perspective of individual organisms, living systems, starting from basically autonomous unicellular systems as the main building blocks, are reorganising themselves through both constitutive-metabolic cycles and interactive loops with the environment, thus being capable to aggregate and collectively form greater, more complex and diverse forms of biological organisation in time, which, in their majority, are able to generate and maintain new forms of diverse and flexible interactions with the environment (i.e. new forms of adaptive agency).

The problem is when one tries to specify the conditions and the terms in which such organisations and their respective evolutionary characteristics can be accounted for. Autonomy is considered as the fundamental concept to characterise and explain the underlying organisation of several complex patterns of those evolutionary transitions. However, so far, only the concept of basic (minimal) autonomy has been theoretically established, providing a naturalised explanation for the basic biological organisation indicated by the metabolic functioning of living systems, at the level of the cell.

Considering the characteristics and specificities of the framework of basic autonomy, the central objective of the ABIADA project has been to investigate whether the idea of autonomy is in any sense useful to understand evolutionary transitions, i.e. the appearance of new more complex forms of biological organisation in time, or in other words, to examine whether the concept of autonomy may account for greater and more functionally diverse forms of collective associations of autonomous individuals. Specifically, the ABIADA project investigated:

- whether the concept of autonomy may account for more complex forms of collective associations of basically autonomous individuals;
- whether general principles that increase autonomy and underlie evolutionary transitions in biological organisms, can be found;
- whether forms of adaptive and flexible behavioural agency could appear through the development of organisations exhibiting new and highly integrated forms of autonomy.

The research has been carried out by an interdisciplinary analysis (combining theories and models from the domains of philosophy of biology, philosophy of science and epistemology of complex systems, behavioural sciences, philosophy of action, and developmental and theoretical biology) of various biological systems with diverse levels of complexity. In particular, a systematic, detailed and multi-level comparative examination of the constitutive and interactive characteristics of several groups of individual unicellular organisms to those of their constituents has been conducted and assessed against the organisational characteristics and specificities of the conceptual framework of basic autonomy. During the whole investigation, the theoretical / philosophical analysis has been in direct contact with empirical data. More specifically, there have been meticulous quantitative but mainly qualitative comparisons of:

i) the characteristics of the developmental processes - focusing on the examination and gathering of highly detailed data on the underlying gene regulatory networks and the respective epigenetic mechanisms that operate in the developmental processes - of the MC systems: Nostoc. punctiforme (a cyanobacterium), Volvox. carteri (a green algae), Strongylocentrotus. purpuratus (a sea urchin), as well as other MC ensembles (e.g. biofilms, modular MC aggregates, etc.);
ii) a meticulous quantitative but mainly qualitative comparison of the agential and in particular of motility-based sensorimotor characteristics, and of the resulting behaviour of several MC systems (of phenomenologically different degree of behavioral complexity. e.g. bacterial biofilms of E. coli and of Myxococus.xanthus Cyanobacteria, Volvox. carteri, Cnidaria (Aglantha.digitale and Nematostella.vectensis) Sea Urchins, etc.

The examination of their behavioural characteristics was made and assessed against their developmental characteristics (using results from previous tasks) as well as against their embryological properties (i.e. number of germ-layers), the existence and type of neuromuscular system and its functional characteristics, the existence and type of organs and the degree of their primitiveness, and overall, of the resulting body plans.

The project provided conclusions for each objective on the background of systemic and causal-mechanistic explanations with an emphasis on the characteristics and properties of the relevant parts / mechanisms and their operations and functions, while considering the generally cyclic and recursive organization of biological systems.

The investigations of the ABIADA project have produced the following results:

A special type and extended version of the concept of ‘functional differentiation' is one of the central theoretical principles for explaining different types and degrees of functional integration in a MC system constituted by different cellular parts, and consequently, it is a key notion / concept in order to examine and compare different levels of organisation and different degrees or/and types of autonomy in multicellular systems (Arnellos and Moreno, 2012; Arnellos et al., 2013a).

The notion of 'autonomy' is suggested as a strong candidate for an inclusive and comprehensive approach to biological organisms. More specifically, it is suggested that 'autonomy' considers the importance of both the constitutive and the interactive dimensions of the properties shown by any biological organism evolving as a dynamically cohesive multicellular organisation, thereby autonomy provides a 'naturalised functional grounding' that integrates the physiological and genetic characteristics of a biological organism with the evolutionary concepts of fitness and adaptation (Arnellos et al., 2013a; 2013b).

A general theoretical scheme is proposed, according to which a multicellular organism is an ensemble of cells that effectively regulates its own development through collective (meta-cellular) mechanisms of control of cell differentiation and cell division processes. The results of the systematic investigation of several biological organisms show that the respective naturalised functional grounding is implemented on the basis of 'a specific type of functionally differentiated and integrated developmental organisation' among the cells of a multicellular ensemble. This developmental organisation regulates itself by endogenously building its regulation, namely, a 'regulatory control system' consisting in several inter-cellular mechanisms and their operational combinations that modulate and control the epigenetic aspects of development. Furthermore, the operation of this regulatory control system is 'dynamically decoupled' from other developmental operations of the MC organism (Arnellos et al., 2013b).

It is suggested that multicellular systems which endogenously construct their own developmental regulation should be considered as 2nd-order autonomous systems (Arnellos et al., 2013a and 2013b).

The centrality of the idea of regulation and its close link with the concept of dynamic decoupling is suggested as a requisite for the type of organization that may support a MC organism (Arnellos et al., 2013b).

It is suggested that behavioural agency is exhibited in multicellular systems through the endogenous production and operation of interdependent regulatory mechanisms affecting both development and motility-based interaction (Arnellos and Moreno, in preparation).

A general theoretical scheme is proposed, according to which MC systems exhibiting a type of developmental organisation, which - through the operations of inter-dependent regulatory control systems - is deeply and intimately intertwined with their adaptive behavior, should be considered as autonomous behavioral agents (Arnellos and Moreno, in preparation).

It is mentioned that not all results from this work have yet been published, as the in-depth examination of the developmental characteristics of various different MC systems have permitted us to reach in further theoretical results pertaining the type / form of autonomy and the different types of the endogenous production of regulatory developmental patterns. The relevant papers are in the stage of preparation and will be submitted for review as soon as possible.

Overall, the abovementioned results provide the basis for a robust theoretical understanding, explanation and modelling of the properties governing and regulating functionally and interactively diverse forms of collective associations of basically autonomous individuals, which are in themselves, new and fully-fledged multicellular autonomous organisms. In more abstract terms, the project has provided a detailed and operationalised theoretical scheme of the organisational requirements for the development of new wholes from groups of parts, and consequently, an operationalised way of distinguishing between groups of parts that phenotypically are acting and phenomenologically are interacting as wholes from groups of parts that are genuinely interacting as wholes with their environments. This has important consequences in several different levels.

First of all, the problem of the creation of new wholes from parts is one of the oldest and most difficult problems in philosophy of science and in philosophy of biology, where it exemplifies itself in the problem of providing an operationalised definition of biological organisms. The theoretical scheme for the development of organisms at the meta-entity level based on the concept of second-order autonomy, as it is provided by this project, is expected to open new directions in this difficult theoretical problem.

Second, nowadays, the notion of 'autonomous organism' is used without any conceptual or practical constraint, especially in the contemporary socio-economic context. However, many details are still unclear - even for questions at lower levels of organizational complexity - on the systematic level at which autonomy- and organism-related events can be described. Also, little is known about the relation of autonomy to adaptation, to agency and even more, to cognition. It is believed that the theoretical framework provided by this project will be the basis for the construction of an integrated framework about autonomous organisms, ranging from biological autonomy to the evolution of complex forms of behavioural agency and of cognitive organisms, promoting thus a robust theoretical but also practical understanding, explanation and modelling of diverse forms of autonomous organisms, through which a more encompassing and deeper understanding of the nature of life will be achieved, and the existing fragmentation within life science could be overcome.

Third, in addition to the more theoretical benefits, the project will have relevant implications for the applied research in the domains of artificial life and autonomous robotics. There is today great interest in building a new generation of artificial agents able to autonomously organise their own objectives, norms, motivations, values and interactions with the environment. The results of this project provide a clearer and deeper understanding of the general principles by which biological dynamics underlie the emergence of autonomous agency, which will implicitly further clarify the conditions and potentialities for its artificial realisation.

Fourth, this project could also have implications in other, mainly social and ethical, dimensions that are of great interest for the European research community. Particularly, the results of the project on aspects pertaining to the dynamic relation between individuals and their collective associations, between organism and environment and the role of intrinsic and extrinsic factors in their development and evolution, are strongly related with issues of ecological sustainability, of health and the appearance of new diseases, of social autonomy and of ethical responsibility. These issues find their common point of reference in the new systemic worldview on the phenomena of life, mind and society as the result of complex and collaboratively interdependent networks of organisms at various and different levels of organisation. The translation of the theoretical results of ABIADA to those domains is a work to be done in the near future.