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Egenis · People

Dr. Dan Nicholson

Egenis Research Student - completed


MBiol (Bath), MA (Leeds)


01392 269142


01392 264676






Byrne House


Prior to starting my PhD in philosophy of biology at Exeter, I studied biochemistry, molecular, and cellular biology at the University of Bath. I also spent a year at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Iowa investigating the molecular basis of muscular dystrophy. Following this, I returned to Bath to study the biochemistry of halophilic archaea at the Centre for Extremophile Research. In 2005 I began a second Masters degree in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Leeds, where I discovered my passion for the history and philosophy of biology. My Masters dissertation was a philosophical defence of the search for laws in biology. At Exeter, I have been examining the ontological and epistemological presuppositions informing our biological understanding of living systems. I will be submitting my thesis by the summer of 2010.

PhD Project Summary

My PhD thesis is a critical examination of mechanistic thinking in biology. It presents a radically new interpretation of the mechanicism-vitalism dispute, an evaluation of the conceptual and empirical coherence of the organism-machine analogy, and an examination of the mechanistic rationale underlying the emerging field of synthetic biology. It also includes a historical and philosophical analysis of the concept of 'mechanism' which is used to evaluate the claims of the new mechanismic programme in the philosophy of science. Finally, the thesis considers an alternative tradition to mechanistic biology called biological atomism that is shown to provide a useful perspective through which to examine the conceptual foundations of cell theory, as well as opening up a new way of thinking about the epistemic decomposition of living organisms.

Following the completion of my PhD, my intention is to use the critique of mechanistic biology developed in my thesis to formulate an organicist philosophy of biology which positively asserts the ontological distinctiveness of living organisms and vindicates their central place in biological theory. Organicism shares with vitalism its philosophical critiques of mechanicism but differs from it in that it is firmly grounded in empirical science. My contention is that organicism's emphasis on the critical importance of self-organization and intrinsic purposiveness as real constitutive features of living organisms (and not simply as regulative heuristic ideals, as Kant conceived them) is precisely what needs to be built into our current theoretical understanding of them. In this way, my plan is to articulate an organicist understanding of living systems that is informed by the latest empirical findings of biological science and which serves as the underlying philosophical backbone for an organism-centred philosophy of biology.

Supervisory Team

• Principal Supervisor: Prof. Lenny Moss

• Secondary Supervisor:

Teaching Experience

• 2008-2009 - Teaching Assistant for 'Sex & Death: Introduction to Philosophy of Biology'

• 2007-2008 - Teaching Assistant for 'Introduction to Philosophical Analysis'

• 2006-2007 - Teaching Assistant for 'Knowledge and Reality 2'

Academic Activities


Nicholson, D. J., 'Biological Atomism and Cell Theory', Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 41 (3), 2010, pp. 202-211. Merlin, F., Nicholson, D. J., Reiss, C., Sojic, A., Witteveen, J., 'Emergent Philosophy of Biology in Europe', Biological Theory, 3 (4), 2008: pp. 391-392

Nicholson, D.J., 'Is the Organism Really a Machine?' in Bullock S., Noble J., Watson R. and Bedau M.A. (eds.), Artificial Life XI: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on the Simulation and Synthesis of Living Systems. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008

O’Malley, M. A. & Nicholson, D. J., Review of Philosophy of Biology by Brian Garvey, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2008.

Recent Presentations

  • "Teaching the Philosophy of Biology" – Egenis, University of Exeter (June 2010)
  • The Concept of Mechanism in Biology" – ISHPSSB, Brisbane, Australia (July 2009)
  • “Thinking About Cells: Continuity versus Discontinuity" &ddash; Life of the Cell: Philosophy & History of Cell Research, University of Exeter (April 2009)
  • “Thinking About Mechanisms, Again” – , University of Exeter (January 2009)
  • "Organisms and Machines" – Historical and Philosophical Perspectives on the Concept of Organism, IHPST, Paris (December 2008)
  • “The Philosophical Basis of Synthetic Biology” – 'Reinventing Life?': EGN International Conference, London (October 2008)
  • “Organisms Are Not Machines” – European Summer School in Philosophy of the Life Sciences, Rovigo, Italy (September 2008)
  • “Is the Organism Really a Machine?” – International Conference for Artificial Life XI, Winchester (August 2008)
  • “Organisms Are Not Machines” – HuSS Postgraduate Conference, University of Exeter (May 2008)
  • “Mechani(ci)sm vs. Vitalism: The Conceptual Evolution of the Dispute over the Nature of Life” – Egenis Departmental Seminar, University of Exeter (December 2008)
  • “Are There Laws in Biology?” – 'Philosophical Issues at the Physics-Biology Nexus – Workshop in Honour of Evelyn Fox Keller', School of Philosophy, University of Leeds (May 2007) - As Invited Speaker
  • “Are There Laws in Biology?” – Egenis Departmental Seminar, University of Exeter (March 2007)

Research Interests

  • History and Philosophy of Biology
  • General Philosophy of Science
  • Philosophy of Medicine
  • Philosophy of Chemistry
  • Science and Religion
  • Bioethics