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  • SFB-TRR 212

    Connecting Theory and Empiricism

    © Antje Herde


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Principle investigators

Prof. Dr. Marie Kaiser

J.-Prof. Dr. Alkistis Elliott-Graves



Dr. Katie Morrow


PhD student

Marlene van den Bos

Individual-based research: concepts, epistemology and integration

The CRC is a paradigm example of Individual-Based Research (IBR), which studies individuals and their interactions with the (social) environment. We contributed to and benefited from this focus by providing a philosophical analysis of the CRC’s major concepts (individuality, individualised niche, and NC3-mechanisms) and their ontological presuppositions. With this conceptual-ontological analysis in place, we will now broaden our focus from concepts to methods and epistemic practices of the CRC.

Our aim is to provide a philosophical framework for IBR in biology. We will use the CRC as a philosophical case study to explore what IBR in biology is, how its central concepts can be understood, what kind of complexity it is concerned with, what its strengths and limitations are, which methodological challenges it encounters, and how the integration of findings from different biological fields is achieved in IBR.

Our project is divided into three parts:

  1. Concepts in IBR.

According to the standard conception in the CRC, individualised niches consist only of those environmental conditions that affect (i.e. increase or decrease) the fitness of an individual. This standard conception raises three sets of questions. First, should we really assume that fitness effects determine the dimensions of an individualised niche? Second, what belongs to the environment of a particular individual and how can individualised environments be distinguished from individualised niches? Third, what makes individualised niches social, what makes them temporal? Answering these questions helps to develop the standard conception of an individualised niche further. Another major goal is to meet the challenge of a plurality of individualised niche concepts. Our aim is to guide this discussion by identifying alternative niche concepts, explicating their differences (e.g. are niches located more on the side of the individual or environment), and analysing which niche concepts work best in which research contexts and in regard to which epistemic goals.

  1. Epistemology of IBR

Our research questions concern the relationship between individuality and uniqueness and the notion of complexity. Complexity alone does not explain the epistemic difficulties of studying complex systems: it is heterogeneity that limits the transferability and generalisability of results across systems or across time (thus also constraining predictability). Are individuality and uniqueness instances of heterogeneity? If yes, then how does heterogeneity manifest in biological practice? Are there differences in terms of how heterogeneity is studied within the CRC? More specifically, how do Individual-Based Models (IBMs) and meta-analyses analyse heterogeneity? We also hope that the answers to these questions can shed light on the epistemic challenge, i.e. how is it possible to gain knowledge about individuals through investigation of groups? Does the particular way in which individuals and uniqueness are treated in IBMs and meta-analyses shed light on the matter?

  1. Integration in IBR.

We aim to examine how the findings from different scientific fields actually are integrated in the CRC as an instance of IBR. We focus on the integrative practices that occur within different biological fields, and we examine how the theoretical framework of NC3-mechanisms fosters integration between ecology, behavioural, and evolutionary biology.

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