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What Is an Individual? Biology Seeks Clues in Information Theory

The notion of what it means to be an individual often gets glossed over. “So far we have a concept of ‘individual’ that’s very much like the concept of ‘pile,’” said Maxwell Ramstead, a postdoctoral researcher at McGill University. “If there’s a pile of sand, you intuitively know this is a pile of sand. But a pile is not a precisely defined thing. It’s not like after 13 grains, it moves from a collection to a pile.” Such a fundamental definition is absent in part because “biology as a field is completely under-theorized,” said Manfred Laubichler, a theoretical biologist at Arizona State University. “It’s very much still an empirically driven discipline.” Now, a few groups of scientists are setting out to change that — and they’re beginning by formalizing the concept of the individual according to a set of principles and measurements that they hope will guide biology into a new era.

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