Holobionts: Ecological communities, hybrids, or biological individuals? A metaphysical perspective on multispecies systems

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences:1-11 (2020)
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Holobionts are symbiotic assemblages composed by a macrobe host plus its symbiotic microbiota. In recent years, the ontological status of holobionts has created a great amount of controversy among philosophers and biologists: are holobionts biological individuals or are they rather ecological communities of independent individuals that interact together? Chiu and Eberl have recently developed an eco-immunity account of the holobiont wherein holobionts are neither biological individuals nor ecological communities, but hybrids between a host and its microbiota. According to their account, the microbiota is not a proper part of the holobiont. Yet, it should be regarded as a set of scaffolds that support the individuality of the host. In this paper, we approach Chiu and Eberl’s account from a metaphysical perspective and argue that, contrary to what the authors claim, the eco-immunity account entails that the microorganisms that compose the host’s microbiota are proper parts of the holobiont. Second, we argue that by claiming that holobionts are hybrids, and therefore, not biological individuals, the authors seem to be assuming a controversial position about the ontology of hybrids, which are conventionally characterized as a type of biological individual. In doing so, our paper aligns with the contemporary tendency to incorporate metaphysical resources to shed light on current biological debates and builds on that to provide additional support to the consideration of holobionts as biological individuals from an eco-immunity perspective.

Author Profiles

Javier Suárez
Universidad de Oviedo
Vanessa Triviño
Complutense University of Madrid


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