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Agency

 

Since the extrusion of teleological explanation from the physical sciences, biology has wrestled with developing an account of living systems that avoids vitalistic mysticism or explanatory obscurantism, while recognizing rather than dismissing the distinctive agentive properties of organisms that perform metabolic work to attain far from equilibrium conditions. Specifically, living organisms sustain structural and operational conditions entailing targeted disequilibrium that is robust and resilient in the face of perturbation.  The purpose of this research track is to solicit projects for development of novel theoretical approaches and acquisition of data and that explore the origin, operation, interactions, and/or impacts of goal-directedness at one or more levels of scale.

Potential Questions

  • Species of directional orientation
    Relatively robust, directionally oriented processes in biological organisms range from those that do not appear actively regulated but are constrained by biased possibility space (e.g., probabilities of protein-folding and genotype-phenotype map, Hendersonian notions of environmental fitness, energetics of allometric scaling and life history strategy); cybernetic, negative feedback systems that actively regulate toward target states; positive feedback, self-amplifying, or autocatalytic processes; directionally or homeostatically robust processes without discrete sensors and effectors that emerge relationally (e.g., thermal regulation in social insects).  Is there a continuum of regulative agency or a helpful descriptive and explanatory taxonomy of different kinds of directional orientation?  Are there sequential patterns in their evolutionary emergence?  Are some of these processes emergent, or are there adequate mechanistic accounts at various levels of reductive causal explanation appropriate to different manifestations of target-oriented behavior?
  • Scale of purposive capacities
    Goal oriented processes vary with respect to (a) temporal scale (reflexes, embryological development, life-history trajectory, successional regularities), (b) spatial scale (cellular, whole-organism, symbiotic or mutualistic association, social group, possibly ecosystem) and (c) hierarchical scale (local autoregulation, integrated, multi-system, whole-organism processes).  Are there generalizable differences and commonalities in operation and origin? Are there serial or nested accounts for their evolutionary emergence?
  • Niche construction and organismic agency
    Organisms are not merely passively sculpted by selection to fit the external environment, but their agentic capacities actively modify the selectional landscape. Niche construction, or heritable modifications of the environment like nest-building, can influence concomitant evolution of physiology; conversely, physiological adaptation, like endothermy, can influence selection on capacities for habitat modification. How do niche construction and internal modes of biotic agency influence evolution and interact with each other? Do various forms of niche construction influence evolution in different ways? Moreover, the goal-directed behaviors or metabolism of organisms impact the environment in ways that are not random, but the impacts themselves range from unregulated by-products like soil acidification to controlled manipulations like nest-building.  Are there generalizable differences or commonalities in the extent, direction, or causal influence of different kinds of agency on evolution of the organism of those it influences?
  • Evolution, agency, and extra-genetic inheritance
    Organismic agency can influence epigenetic inheritance, generates “ecological inheritance” in niche construction, and facilitates inter-generational learning.  In what ways do these processes influence the direction of evolution or the further elaboration of the capacities themselves? Moreover, there are differentials in “heritability” or inter-generational continuity in various organismic modifications of the environment and in other agentive, extra-genetic modes of inheritance.  How do these modes of inheritance, and their differential heritability, contribute to the range of phenotypic options or the landscape of selection in ways that influence evolutionary directionality?  Are they related to directional trends through lineages and/or convergent trends across lineages?
  • Major Evolutionary Transitions
    In what ways, if at all, can the major evolutionary transitions or evolutionary transitions in individuality (ETI’s) be viewed as stepwise transitions in the scale or efficacy of biotic agency?  What is the relationship between the internal operation of agency and/or the impact of goal-directed processes on the environment at one level of transition, and consequent facilitation of serial transitions?
  • Agency and Major Evolutionary Trends
    To whatever extent there are large scale trends, active or passive, what is their relationship to organismic agency?  Even if evolution represents passive diffusion into possibility space, organismic agency itself modifies both the relief and the boundaries that space and also the range of functional operations that are heritable.  Several questions warrant further exploration. In what ways and to what extent might biotic agency influence major evolutionary trends?  Is there an evolutionary trend in agentic capacity itself, in terms of either capacities for regulated control of internal or external environment, or hierarchical stratification of control mechanisms, or capacities for “exploratory” in addition to “regulatory” purposive behavior?  Finally, to what extent and in what ways might answers to the first two questions interact:  Is there a synergistic or ratchet effect?

Instructions

Compelling responses to this research track will prioritize clear, bold and actionable projects. While there is ongoing discussion about what constitutes goal-directedness, autonomy, agency, or “purpose,” this research track does not seek conceptual differentiation between existing, or proposals for new, definitive construals of these phenomena. The aim, given any plausible and clearly specified conception, is to explore novel and empirically assessible accounts of their operation, interaction,  and/or evolutionary impact. Some potential respondents may believe that their previous work has already addressed one or more of the overlapping questions posed above. Such individuals are encouraged to apply, providing they propose what could be done to increase traction of existing work and/or what new steps of inquiry are promising extensions of their work. Successful outcomes will not only fuel increased insight, but garner sufficient attention to change the status quo of thinking on these frontiers.

Submission Form

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