A Process Ontology for Contemporary Biology (PROBIO)

  • Awarded to: Professor John Dupré
  • Funding Awarded to Exeter: £1,390,105
  • Dates: 1 May 2013 - 30 April 2018
  • Sponsor(s): European Commission

This project aims, first, to rethink central issues in the philosophy of biology by elaborating an ontology for biology that takes full account of the processual nature of living systems. Starting with a careful survey of existing positions, especially Whitehead and the American Pragmatists, the goal will be to develop a concept of process adequate for addressing the multiple levels of interacting processes at different time scales characteristic of living systems. The concept of a stable biological thing will be analysed as a stabilised process relative to an appropriate time scale, and this conception should make possible a better understanding of familiar biological pluralisms (about genes, organisms, species, etc..) in terms of different ways in which distinct scientific practices intersect with biological processes.


Second, the concept of process developed will be used to rethink some further highly topical philosophical issues in contemporary philosophy of biology (and philosophy of science generally). The project will explore the potential of a processual perspective to provide a critique of the widely discussed recent versions of mechanism. The latter have been deployed to offer accounts of explanation and, eventually, causation. Such accounts will be assessed for the possibility of revision in the light of modifications suggested by a processual perspective. The project will explore generally the relevance of this perspective to influential contemporary accounts of causation and explanation.


Finally the project will apply the preceding ideas to several highly active and important areas of contemporary biology: systems biology, synthetic biology, and microbiology. These investigations, in fact, will be carried on in parallel with the more general philosophical enquiries, with the idea that the two will be mutually informative: the philosophical analyses will not only be applied to scientific concepts, but will also themselves be evaluated for their relevance to real cutting edge biology. This evaluation will be guided by interaction with scientific practitioners and an expert Advisory Board, as well as text-based study. The project aims to be of direct relevance to both philosophy and science.

Post Docs on the project


Workshops organised as part of the project: 

Process Philosophy of Biology” 

20-21 November 2014, Egenis, Exeter 

Organised by John Dupré and Dan Nicholson 

Symbiotic Processes” 

19-20 November 2015, Egenis, Exeter 

Organised by John Dupré and Stephan Güttinger 

Organisms: Living Systems and Processes” 

9-10 March 2016, Egenis

Organised by John Dupré and Anne Sophie Meincke 


Workshop associated with the project: 

Biological Identity” 

2-3 June 2016, Institute of Philosophy, London 

Organised by Anne Sophie Meincke and John Dupré 

Funded by the Institute of Philosophy, London (annual conference grant 2015/16), by the British Society of Philosophy of Science and by the European Research Council through the PROBIO research project 


Key Output: 

Nicholson, D. & Dupré, J. (Eds.): Everything Flows. Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1st May 2018. Table of Contents

Introduction by John Dupré and Dan Nicholson: “Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology”  

Chapters by project members: 

• John Dupré (with Marta Bertolaso): “A Processual Perspective on Cancer” 

• Stephan Güttinger: “A Process Ontology for Macromolecular Biology”. 

• Anne Sophie Meincke: “Persons as Biological Processes. A Bio-Processual Way Out of the Personal Identity Dilemma” 

• Dan Nicholson: “Reconceptualizing the Organism: From Complex Machine to Flowing Stream” 


Other Outputs: 

John Dupré: 

Metaphysics of metamorphosis.” Aeon. Published online, November 30, 2017. 

The Metaphysics of Evolution.” Interface Focus. Published online, August 18, 2017. 

(With Cordelia Fine and Daphna Joel). “Sex-Linked Behavior: Evolution, Stability, and Variability.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2017, 21 (9): 666–673. 

"Postgenomic Perspectives on Sex and Gender." In How Biology Shapes Philosophy: New Foundations for Naturalism, edited by David Livingstone Smith, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016: 227-246. 

A Process Ontology for Biology.” Physiology News, 2015, 100: 32-34. 

“The Role of Behaviour in the Recurrence of Biological Processes.” Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2014, 112: 306–314. 

"Animalism and the Persistence of Human Organisms", The Southern Journal of Philosophy, (Spindel Supplement), 2014, 52: 6-23. 

“Living Causes.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume, 2013, 87: 19-38. 

Stephan Güttinger: 

(With John Dupré). “Viruses as living processes.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 2016, 59: 109-116. 

Trust in Science: CRISPR-Cas9 and the Ban on Human Germline Editing”. Science and Engineering Ethics. Published online, June 26, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-017-9931-1 

(With John Dupré). “Genomics and Postgenomics.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). 

Anne Sophie Meincke: 

(With John Dupré). (Ed.): Biological Identity. Perspectives from Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Biology. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge (History and Philosophy of Biology Series), forthcoming. (with contributions by Ellen Clarke, John Dupré, Arantza, Etxeberria, Adam Ferner, Philippe Huneman, Anne Sophie Meincke, Alvaro Moreno, Matteo Mossio, David Oderberg, Eric T. Olson, Paul F. Snowdon, Denis Walsh, David Wiggins) 

Bio-Agency and the Possibility of Artificial Agents.” In Philosophy of Science - Between the Natural Sciences, the Social Sciences, and the Humanities. Selected Papers from the 2016 conference of the German Society of Philosophy of Science, edited by Alexander Christian et al. Dordrecht: Springer (European Philosophy of Science Association Series), forthcoming (February 19, 2018) (double-blind peer reviewed).

“How to stay the same while changing. Personal Identity as a Test Case for Reconciling ‘Analytic’ and ‘Continental’ Philosophy Through Process Ontology.” In Analytic-Bridge-Continental + (ABC+) Process Philosophy, edited by Robert Booth. Berlin et al.: de Gruyter (Process Thought Series), forthcoming. 

“Haben menschliche Embryonen eine Disposition zur Personalität?” (“Do Human Embryos Have a Disposition to Personhood?”) In Der manipulierbare Embryo, edited by Martin Hähnel, Markus Rothhaar and Roland Kipke. Münster: Mentis, forthcoming (December 2017): 147-171. http://www.mentis.de/index.php?id=00000005&article_id=00000028&category=&book_id=00000952&SID=ccd12fb3d0489632ad2e4115d12b5e57 

“Personale Identität ohne Persönlichkeit? Anmerkungen zu einem vernachlässigten Zusammenhang.” (“Personal Identity Without Personality? Reflections on a Neglected Relation.”) Philosophisches Jahrbuch, 2016, 123 (1): 114-145. 

“Potentialität und Disposition in der Diskussion über den Status des menschlichen Embryos: Zur Ontologie des Potentialitätsarguments.” (“Potentiality and Disposition in the Debate on the Status of the Human Embryo: On the Ontology of the Argument from Potentiality.”) Philosophisches Jahrbuch, 2015, 122 (2): 271-303. 

Dan Nicholson: 

(With Richard Gawne). “Neither logical empiricism nor vitalism, but organicism: what the philosophy of biology was”. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 2015, 37(4): 345-381. 

“The Machine Conception of the Organism in Development and Evolution: A Critical Analysis”. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 2014, 48 (B): 162-174. 

“The Return of the Organism as a Fundamental Explanatory Concept in Biology”. Philosophy Compass, 2014, 9 (5): 347-359. 

(With Richard Gawne). Rethinking Woodger’s Legacy in the Philosophy of Biology. Journal of the History of Biology, 2014, 47 (2): 243-292.

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