The Constitution of Individuals and Groups in the Biological Sciences: Implications of an Ecological Framework for Understanding Cancer
Recent biological and biomedical research has featured the idea that living things are not “individuals” but collectives. Gordon and Pradeu examine this question, combining the perspectives of a biologist who studies collective behavior in ant colonies and other natural systems and a philosopher of science who studies the immune system and the microbiome. They offer a philosophical and scientific examination of the conditions under which something can be said to be an “individual” in the living world, and how, in certain circumstances, individuals function as a single collective, while collectives can function as biological individuals. Their investigation has led them to an important result: they propose an ecological framework to shed new light on cancer. Cancer biologists and medical oncologists often emphasize the heterogeneity of cancer, both at the inter-tumoral and intra-tumoral levels, but usually they do not connect these differences in the features of tumors to ecological differences, i.e., differences in the local microenvironments in which such tumors appear, grow, and disseminate. Gordon and Pradeu are continuing their collaboration by pursuing the implications of such an ecological framework for understanding cancer.