The concepts and origins of cell mortality

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 45 (23):1-23 (2023)
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Abstract

Organismal death is foundational to the evolution of life, and many biological concepts such as natural selection and life history strategy are so fashioned only because individuals are mortal. Organisms, irrespective of their organization, are composed of basic functional units—cells—and it is our understanding of cell death that lies at the heart of most general explanatory frameworks for organismal mortality. Cell death can be exogenous, arising from transmissible diseases, predation, or other misfortunes, but there are also endogenous forms of death that are sometimes the result of adaptive evolution. These endogenous forms of death—often labeled programmed cell death, PCD—originated in the earliest cells and are maintained across the tree of life. Here, we consider two problematic issues related to PCD (and cell mortality generally). First, we trace the original discoveries of cell death from the nineteenth century and place current conceptions of PCD in their historical context. Revisions of our understanding of PCD demand a reassessment of its origin. Our second aim is thus to structure the proposed origin explanations of PCD into coherent arguments. In our analysis we argue for the evolutionary concept of PCD and the viral defense-immunity hypothesis for the origin of PCD. We suggest that this framework offers a plausible account of PCD early in the history of life, and also provides an epistemic basis for the future development of a general evolutionary account of mortality.

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