Benjamin Smart

Department: Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology
Discipline: Sociology and Philosophy
Research Centre/Unit: Egenis, the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences.

Project Summary

PhD Title: The Threefold Problem of Individuality, Organisation, and Subjectivity for Living Systems Theory

Situated at the interface of theoretical biology and epistemology, my research assesses theories of living systems, especially with regards to their individuality, organisation, and subjectivity. These "three faces" to living systems recur in a number of different biological research contexts, playing distinct roles that contribute to a theoretical understanding of living systems. 

Living systems are individuated by a range of different boundaries of varying permeability, such as the phospholipid bilayer of the cytoplasmic membrane to colony-level boundaries of immune tolerance/rejection in some ascidians. Living systems are also realised by complex patterns of organisation. These patterns involve components of varying criticality, relationships between structure and function that are not only correlated one-to-one (e.g. polyfunctional components, functional redundancies, etc.). From the simplest prokaryotes to sophisticated multicellular colonies, life is abound with subjective or (at least) pseudosubejctive systems. For instance, cellular systems are understood to be aware of some aspects of their environment, especially stimuli or resources that are important for their continued operation. Additionally, much that is distinctive of (at least) metazoa has arisen because of subject-dependent behaviours in other living systems, sensing other intelligences, tracking them, manipulating them, and predating them. 

I investigate the extent of epistemic interdependence between these three facets of living systems (their individuality, organisation, and subjectivity) across a set of different theoretical contexts. In particular, I focus on the theoretical work of Humberto Maturana, Peter Godfrey-Smith, and Thomas Pradeu. In assessing the epistemic interdependencies between the "three faces", my research aims to formulate a better grasp of the structure of the problems surrounding living systems theory, providing insight into how we may advance our understanding, whilst preserving autonomy of many diverse biological research contexts.

Supervisory Team

Professor John Dupré

Dr. Adrian Currie