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Biological Notion of Self and Non-self

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The Biological Notion of Self and Non-self
First published Tue May 21, 2002; substantive revision Thu May 21, 2015
Fundamental to biology are (1) defining the characteristics of identity, which distinguish individual organisms from those of similar kind, and (2) describing the mechanisms that defend organisms from their predators. Immunology is the science devoted to these problems. A progeny of late 19th-century microbiology and the clinical discipline of infectious diseases, immunology did not attain a formal theoretical construction until after World War II, when “the self” was introduced as the conceptual foundation of a new theory of immunity. In the original formulation, self-reactive immunity was eliminated in utero, leaving active immune mechanisms to destroy “the other”— pathogens, foreign substances, altered host elements. By the late 1970s, the self model assumed paradigmatic standing, and immunology dubbed itself the science of “self/non-self discrimination.” But this thesis has been challenged, for the immune self is polymorphous and ill-defined. Contemporary transplantation biology and autoimmunity have demonstrated phenomena that fail to allow strict adherence to the self/non-self dichotomy, and placing tolerant immune mechanisms within a broad ecological context has highlighted the balance of co-operative and competitive relationships in which immunity functions. As new models are emerging, “the self” has been regarded as both (1) a powerful idiom tying together divergent phenomena and research traditions, and (2) a fecund metaphor, whose grounding—philosophically and scientifically—is unsteady. In sum, “the self” has operational and heuristic utility, but the basis of self/non-self discrimination remains elusive as the putative nexus of immunology's doctrines.

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1. Introduction
2. Philosophical and linguistic considerations: The cognitive metaphor
3. Concerning individuality and selfhood
4. The immune self
5. Immune agency contested
6. Autoimmunity
7. The ecological imperative
8. Conclusion: Immunology contextualized
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