Articles of faith: The theological and philosophical origins of the concept of species

It takes a while for the implications of one’s own work to sink in. In my 2009 book Species, a History of the Idea (see here), I argued that the notion that before Darwin people were essentialistic and fixist about species was false. A recent paper by Jack Powers about Mayr’s misreading of Plato complements an earlier paper about the essentialism mythos by Carl Chung. It is becoming widely accepted that there was no essentialism before Darwin to speak of.

But what I didn’t ask was this question: given that there was no concept of species before the late 17th century in natural history, and that the prior logical and metaphysical notions had nothing much to do with natural history, why did we get a concept of species in the first place? What is “species” needed for?

Noahs ark

I answered this in a talk I gave at Berkeley earlier this year, and repeated last night (and which, yes, will become a paper). The reason we have a notion of species in biology at all is because of Noah’s Ark…

The word species, as John Locke noted, is just a Latin word that means a kind or sort of things, and it is entirely appropriate to use that word to denote kinds of things in biology, as in other domains, if you happen to be a Latin speaker or writer, as most educated people were in that time. Does it have any further or deeper meaning?

Try this: whenever you see the word species, replace it as Locke suggested with sort or kind. Likewise, in ordinary life, try out using species every time you want to use sort or kind or similar terms. See how the vernacular deflates that technical term and how the Latin elevates it to a technical terminology. Before long you find yourself wondering what the ontology of, say, ice cream flavours might be. If species is used as a vernacular word, it means just that botanists and others were simply talking about kinds of things.

Actually in the late Latin of the post-renaissance period, there were two words that meant a kind: genus and species, and as far back as the Greek writings of Aristotle and Theophrastus (Aristotle’s pupil who extended his mentor’s natural historical principles to botany) the correlate terms in Greek – genos and eidos – these were used interchangeably, as any good writer would vary their words to avoid repetition.

What is ironic about that is that in Aristotle’s technical philosophy, and in European discourse up until our target period, a genus was the more general (general being the adjective of genus) and a species was more special (special being the adjective of species), so in ordinary work in natural history neither Aristotle nor his student used the terms as logical terms. Likewise, when they are used in early modern taxonomy, neither are they used in the same manner as they are in logical and metaphysics, contrary to the essentialist story.

So what is at issue is not that scholars of the late 16th century talked about kinds or species, as botanists had since the herbalist tradition became botany and the zoologists had since bestiaries became Historia Animalia. What is at issue is why there had to be a rank or level of organisation that all and only species occupied in natural history. Why did we think there were most basic kinds of organisms? The answer lies in a theological problem: given that there was a trend towards literalism in biblical interpretation in the period from the Reformation through to the Counter-reformation, and given that the number of species described by naturalists was increasing rapidly as exploration of the Americas and the Orient uncovered them (and still is, by the way), how could the story of Noah’s Ark be true?

A German-born Jesuit, the youngest of nine children, Athanasius Kircher (c.1602–1680), working out of Rome but in correspondence with explorers and scholars around the known world, attempted to provide a “scientific” solution. I put scientific in quotes because it is anachronistic: there was no distinction to be had between theology and science in the 16 century, or for some time to come, so this does not imply somehow that science and religion were in conflict here. Kircher is doing what any good naturalist would do – appeal to all lines of evidence, including the Bible.

Kircher tried to work out how many of each kind would fit on the Ark, and so determine what the basic kinds were. He didn’t give them a special (sorry) name, though; he just used the ordinary word species.

A little before Kircher, and possibly influencing him (although I have no evidence of that [late note 1]) my namesake Bishop John Wilkins (no close relation) published his Essay on a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, where he tried to capture all facts about the world in a universal system of logic and an invented language to go with it. While Wilkins (ncr) used genus and species in the usual logical sense (that is, rather in the way we would use set and subset), he did seek to do for the Ark what Kircher shortly afterwards did, to establish what species would fit onto it. He gave this page:


wherein he specified not only the “species” but also that a Mule was not a true species, because it is “a mongrel production”; that is, a hybrid. Likewise various kinds of cattle (“Beeves”) and sheep are varieties of the original species.

Now Wilkins (ncr) employed the young John Ray and Francis Willughby, a botanist and his patron, who was also a zoologist, to draw up the lists of species used in the Essay, and Ray and Willughby (who died young, unfortunately) were gently mocked by their peers for the artificiality of Wilkins’ (ncr) system. So he began to do the hard empirical work of classifying plants directly. Later, he gave a definition of what he meant by species, or rather, what test there was for identifying them:

“In order that an inventory of plants may be begun and a classification (divisio) of them correctly established, we must try to discover criteria of some sort for distinguishing what are called “species”. After long and considerable investigation, no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed. Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individuals or the species, if they spring from the seed of one and the same plant, they are accidental variations and not such as to distinguish a species … Animals likewise that differ specifically preserve their distinct species permanently; one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa.” [Historia plantarum generalis, in the volume published in 1686, Tome I, Libr. I, Chap. XX, page 40 (Quoted in Mayr 1982: 256). The Latin of the definition is nulla certior occurit quam distincta propagations ex semine.]

This was the first definition or operational criterion for identifying these fundamental units of natural history. In short, and in modern terms, it was the first biological definition of species.

Why did natural history need units? After all, people had been using and identifying kinds in botany and other areas of natural history for a great many years, and some of the species of plants identified in the century before this are still held to be “good” species. The sole answer that I can find is that species were required by theology, using philosophical techniques and distinctions.

And one has to wonder if, as a rank, species are still statements of faith, in conservation, genetics and taxonomy in general (ironically, measuring diversity using phylogenetic measures for conservation is called the “Noah’s Ark Problem“; see this on species and this problem). While individual species seem to be real objects occasionally, a good many aren’t (they have subspecific structure or are foldable into larger groups). This leads some, like my colleague and friend Brent Mishler, to deny their existence. Like him, I deny their rank. There is no “unit” of evolution or rank of biological ontology. But I think that there is a reality to phenomenological species: we really do see the patterns in the world we name species. The mistake arises, I believe, in thinking that our perceptual biases somehow give us the structure of the world. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, and the question can only be resolved by finding the actual structure of the biological realm. More to follow on this. For now it is enough to note that species are articles of belief…

[You can see the slides here: now works...]

[In case that doesn't work, I'll try to embed it below]

Late edit: I added the final comment to the title, as it seemed to fit.

Late note 1: Further reading, especially via William Poole’s The World Makers, has led me to understand that Johannes Buteo (Jean Borrel) first started this tradition, and that both Wilkins and Kircher were working off his Arca Noe, published in 1554. Ray regarded Buteo as credulous, and Wilkins noted that he included several fabulous creatures on the Ark. His term for kinds was genera.

Much later note: A version of this post, much shortened and better edited, will appear on The Conversation soon.

Much much later note: Here it is.

51 thoughts on “Articles of faith: The theological and philosophical origins of the concept of species

  1. I never understood why the species concept holds endless fascination for philosophers of biology, while the paradox of sex seems to hold none for them. But this post is really interesting even to me.

    So, what were the pre-Darwininas, if not essentialistic and fixist? As they probably were not evolutionistic either, there must be some excluded muddle?

    P.S.: The link to the slides at the end did not work for me.


  2. I don’t think too many would have thought every animal “species” could fit on the ark unless of course it was like the Weasley’s Ford Anglia and magicked to be much bigger on inside than it appeared (no mention of flying though).
    On a slightly more serious side, it is always interesting what basic natural history knowledge or lack thereof gets attributed to those from the past. How much variation was permissible for something to be in the same species? If like begets like – then was anything born automatically the same species as its parent? from color variants to teratologies? I have noticed a decided bias toward believing the ancients either really dumb or really smart when it suits the purposes of our arguments.


    1. That would be the TARKDIS…

      Classical, medieval and renaissance scholars were pretty smart. They knew, often, that just because some organism had a novel plumage or colour, it was not necessarily a different “kind” of organism. Consider Frederick II noting that a hawk with a different plumage was still a member of the original species, because it interbred with those varieties. This was in the 14th century.

      Everyone had a fascination with teratology right up until the modern era. In my forthcoming book, and on this blog, I have even mentioned an example from the 17th-18th century.


  3. Extremely interesting topic, John, one that I wrestled with throughout the years of taking my biology degree.

    The words “genus” and “species” both appear in the Latin Vulgate of Genesis 1:21, so the issue arises earlier in the Bible than the account of Noah’s ark (Genesis 6). Both Latin words are used as translations of the Hebrew word min, “kind.” Genesis 1 emphasizes (ten times!) that the various created organisms would reproduce after their kind, so it seems to me that may constitute the earliest hint of a biological species concept.

    The “fixity of species” concept was debunked from a different angle by a creationist writer in 2009 (a few months before your book on Species came out). I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that article.

    Lastly, the link to your slides (at the end of your post) doesn’t seem to be working.


    1. Here’s the Vulgate for Genesis 1:21, 24-26 with the key words highlighted:

      [21] Creavitque Deus cete grandia et omnem animam viventem atque motabilem quam produxerant aquae in species suas et omne volatile secundum genus suum. Et vidit Deus quod esset bonum. [24] Dixit quoque Deus producat terra animam viventem in genere suo iumenta et reptilia et bestias terrae secundum species suas factumque est ita [25] Et fecit Deus bestias terrae iuxta species suas et iumenta et omne reptile terrae in genere suo. Et vidit Deus quod esset bonum. [26] Et ait faciamus hominem ad imaginem et similitudinem nostram et praesit piscibus maris et volatilibus caeli et bestiis universaeque terrae omnique reptili quod movetur in terra.

      As you can see, and as you noted, “miyn” is translated in various ways. One can only think that is for style reasons.

      But it is not true that this is the earliest version of a “biological” (i.e., generative) notion of kinds. For a start, Genesis is late, and there are many earlier Babylonian, and other Mesopotamian documents that note the obvious fact that parents resemble progeny. And that is not paying attention to Asian documents, which I don’t know.

      It’s basically the default view: we group things based on our experience and predilection towards animated kinds.

      As to the AIG link (please don’t link to them again on this site), they are merely repeating Buffon’s, and before them Kircher’s, theory that the original created kind diverged into the “kinds” we now see.


      1. Thanks for fixing the link to the slides, John. They’re helpful for understanding your position.

        Regarding the creationist article linked in my first comment, my primary question (which I didn’t make clear) was whether you agreed with the writer’s view that definitions underwent a significant change with Linnaeus. The article proposes that after Linnaeus, the term “species” was used in a new way: fixity of (Linnaean) species was not a viable concept, whereas “fixity” of species (= Genesis kinds) would have been less problematic.

        I don’t side with biblical critics who see Genesis (and various other biblical documents) as “late;” I think the information in the first chapter of Genesis could well have been revealed to, and written down by, Adam. Which is why I suggested the BSC made its first appearance in Genesis.


        1. I am saying, and said in my book, that the term “species” originated in natural history with Ray, who also proposed the created kind definition. Linnaeus merely adopted that.

          I’m sorry you reject critical scholarship regarding the Bible and its authorship. I hope you understand that as a nonreligious person that means that I think it carries no evidentiary weight whatsoever.


        2. Given that Genesis “kind” is so vague as to be meaningless – then yes it would have been less problematic for species fixity. In the KJV for instance, “after his kind” (her would be better) is present, but kind is never defined. Is it just three plant kinds: grass, herb yielding seed and tree yielding fruit whose seed was inside. That leaves out plant categories and includes no subdivision within any of those groups. Were what we know consider species once part of a much, much larger interbreeding unit?

          The animal verses are no better. Is “creeping thing” a kind or are there kinds of creeping things and if there are, how would one know them from reading Genesis? Why is cattle not a beast? Can beasts creep?

          Any resemblance to biology found in Genesis is just wishful thinking.


          1. It makes more sense to see it as a representative of folk biology and animal husbandry, and in that respect it would be relatively universally accepted before modern zoology and botany. Ethnographic evidence is that farming cultures have fewer kinds than foraging cultures, which need to be better informed to make a living.


          1. No, no. That definition has already been taken. For the word “evolution.”

            “Evolutionary scenarios are an artform. They usefully exercise the brain, causing us to look at old data in new ways and stimulating us to collect new data. They do not have to be true!” — W. Ford Doolittle

            “Dembski and I both object to the just-so stories in conventional evolutionary theory.” — James Shapiro

            “In short, we have no basis for any firm assertion about the most famous inquiry among Darwinian just-so stories: how did the giraffe get its long neck?” — Stephen Jay Gould


            1. Rich, live your name, coming from someone who believes in magic. Turned any rods into snakes lately?


              1. The snake thing is certainly more imaginative than the standard zombie cite miner for Christ aspect of contemporary fundamentalist culture. I find Richard very readable when it looks like the response is genuine, its an insight into a very different cultural perspective but it does swing to standard tactics.

                I particularly dislike mistakenly hitting links directing me to I.D. sites the one linking to Richard Dawkin’s debatable defense of male sexual practices for example.

                I think the first post said ‘this suites or proposes very well’.(I don’t want to go back and check) Welcome to the world of Dan Browne. I am not sure how some off the cuff, ill thought out remarks on sexuality will lead to the global supremacy of Richards very particular form of faith but then I am perhaps not an optimist on that one.


              2. You live in a glass house, Michael, and therefore you should not be throwing stones. Let’s talk about the “magic” accept by adherents of a secular/evolutionist worldview.

                First of all, you accept that Something can magically appear from Nothing. For no good reason, a tiny particle or region appeared, a hundred billion times smaller than a proton. Then, for no good reason, the particle or region expanded, many times faster than the speed of light. Then, for no good reason, that inflationary period ended and the expansion continued at a slower rate.

                This Big Bang “singularity” is inexplicable by known laws of physics. It’s a miraculous, magical event contrary to reason.

                Many secular cosmologists and physicists have even suggested that such events could have occurred repeatedly, up to 10^500 times. (This is according to ‘M’ theory, which some wags say stands for ‘Magic’.) This proposed “multiverse” is currently unobserved, and may be forever unobservable, but never mind: you believe in magic!

                Secondly, you accept that Life can magically appear from Non-Life. For no good reason, monomers such as amino acids, nucleotides, and sugars joined together into long homochiral polymers, very much contrary to their natural tendency. For no good reason, these polymers collected themselves together into self-replicating entities, beyond what any well-staffed, well-funded twenty-first-century laboratory is able to make happen.

                As former senior science writer at Scientific American (and evolutionist) John Horgan wrote in a 2011 blog, “Geologists, chemists, astronomers and biologists are as stumped as ever by the riddle of life.” The title of his article: “Pssst! Don’t tell the creationists, but scientists don’t have a clue how life began.”

                Thirdly, you accept that amphibians can turn into humans (Frogs into Princes!) given enough of the magical pixie dust called Time. Increased complexity magically appears through processes that in real life are recognized as negative, destructive, and harmful — processes such as Mutation (accidental errors in genetic information) and Natural Selection (including untimely deaths of lots of organisms).

                Evolutionists have often taunted each other for inventing barely plausible, and sometimes contradictory, “Just-So Stories.” On the other hand, they like to taunt creationists for our “incredulity” and “lack of imagination.”

                Creationists, at least, can point to a supernatural Agent who has the ability to make supernatural events occur. But you, the secularist/evolutionist, require unthinking matter and energy to perform magic contrary to their observed natural tendencies and abilities.

                Sorry, we just don’t have enough faith to believe in that kind of magic.


          2. I’m not interested in the words “baramin” or “baraminology” or “created kind”. What interests me is “min”, whether it is even a word in Biblical Hebrew, and whether if it is a word, it designates something.


            1. According to two Hebrew lexicons I’ve checked, min is indeed a real word, a masculine noun of declension 1a. It means “form, species, kind, sort.” In the Hebrew Bible it never appears as an isolated (“absolute”) word but always within one of four similar phrases that are all rendered into English as “according to its (or their) kind(s)” (found in Genesis 1 and Leviticus 11).


              1. Yes, I am aware that Hebrew dictionaries usually give this interpretation. But what basis do they have for that? I don’t know, I am asking whether there is a scholarly study of the word. Check the references given in the Wikipedia article I cited for an alternative scholarly interpretation.


            2. Tom, your question intrigued me so I spent time researching it at a nearby university.

              As you noted, the Wikipedia article on “Baraminology” indicates that the Hebrew word min is typically translated “kind,” but there is an alternative view: “The fact that kind is used in this set phrase, among other reasons, has led to the hypothesis that it is not a referential noun in Biblical Hebrew, but derived from l’mineh = of him/herself, of themselves.”

              Three footnotes are linked to the foregoing Wikipedia sentence. I have managed to locate all three sources.

              The earliest of the sources (footnote #7) is a statement by Chaim Rabin in a 1961 publication of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. (Note: The footnote reference to p. 262 should have been to p. 392.) Rabin wrote: “The etymologies offered for the meaning ‘kind’ are unconvincing. I would suggest that there was no noun min in BH [Biblical Hebrew], but that we have here the pronominal element reduplicated mymy dissimilated to mini/e, as in Acc. [Akkadian] manama, meneni,, Ug. [Ugaritic] mnm, and that the meaning in all passages is ‘of itself’, ‘of themselves’.”

              My objections to that suggestion: (1) The proposed meaning doesn’t seem to make sense where the expression is used, particularly in Genesis 1, Leviticus 11, and Deuteronomy 14. (2) Current scholars largely agree that the etymology of min is “uncertain” (or “unknown,” or “unclear”). So Rabin’s proposal is really just one more possibility thrown into a mix of uncertain suggestions. (3) Even if Rabin’s suggested etymology were correct, that alone would not establish the meaning of the word as it is used in a specific context.

              Footnote #6 to the Wikipedia article is a 2001 lexical entry in The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, edited by David J. A. Clines. The article defines min as “kind (unless all exx. [examples] in BH [Biblical Hebrew] are from of itself, of themselves, reduplicated form of min)”. This parenthetical caveat seems to be a simple tip of the hat to Rabin (note the many similarities to Rabin’s statement). In any case, the article then proceeds to discuss the various Biblical and other occurrences of min as if the usually accepted meaning, “kind,” is correct.

              Footnote #8 to the Wikipedia article is a 1997 lexical entry by Mark D. Futato in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. But strangely, Futato does not even mention Rabin’s suggested etymology; in fact, Futato states categorically that the Hebrew expression “is best translated ‘according to its/their kind’”. So it seems the Wikipedia author simply erred in referencing Futato on this matter.

              I have looked at several other technical articles, and the preponderance of Hebrew scholarship is that min is a term of biological classification that can be translated into English as “kind.” This is supported by the Septuagint’s rendering of min as the Greek genos (“kind”) (among other words) and by the usage of the word in (the apocryphal) Ecclesiasticus and some Qumran documents.

              Note to John Wilkins: As a result of the above-mentioned research, I have become convinced that the word min is not directly linked to reproduction as I had supposed; it is simply a classification term. I must therefore retract my suggestion that Genesis 1 represented an early hint of the biological species concept. :) The article that persuaded me about this is here:

              [Editor's note: Richard has used Hebrew in this response that I can't get WordPress to display, so I deleted the character markers.]


              1. Richard, TomS.
                I have not read it but you may find, R Benamozegh’s reponse to Darwin, The Hebrew Species Concept and the Origin of Evolution, Rassegna Mensile di Israel LXIII no.3 43-60, of interest. Below is some further information I received some time ago from a correspondent.

                Apparently a footnote Benamozegh made in a commentary to the Pentateuch (a notion borrowed from Darwin which he rejected), was subject to an unusual event in Aleppo in the Levant, copies of the book were burnt.

                The standard response to modernity was not normally so emotive amongst ether Muslims or Jews in the Levant as they did not perceive any threat to religion.

                Aleppo seems to have been subject to the activities of a would- be religious reformer, which may have made discussion of modernity in this context a somewhat more anxious topic than was normal.


              2. p.s The Hebrew Species Concept and the Origin of Evolution, Rassegna Mensile di Israel LXIII no.3

                Papers written by José Faur


            3. Thirdly, you accept that amphibians can turn into humans (Frogs into Princes!)

              Give that one out of ten on the creativity front as at least you have related a secular form of entertainment with a secular movement (so that’s one better than a number of scientists I could think of).

              It fails to work I think as many people in science hold remarkable similar views to religious administrators when it comes to folk culture and popular tales.

              It forms part of an emotive cultural language that is not new and social in origin.


              1. Love to read that, but I can’t find it online…

                I will have to dig it up in relation to an older late 17th cen. argument. I stupidly missed this at the time. If its on a database will let you know.


  4. John, I don’t reject all scholarship or historical criticism or literary criticism of the Bible (using those terms in their technical sense, which does not necessarily imply everyday hostile “criticism” of the content of the Bible).

    What I specified was that I reject the late datings of various biblical documents, including Genesis. As a follower of Jesus, I accept his view of the truth of the Torah, including Genesis. That entails that I must reject the “assured results” of anti-supernaturalist negative critics of Scripture.

    Being non-religious doesn’t have to mean you think the Bible “carries no evidentiary weight whatsoever.” Its existence is obviously evidence of something — to say the least. And it certainly has contributions to make in historical discussions of word usage — to say the least.


    1. Well, Richard Peachey, sure, we could also say something as innocuous as your last paragraph about the Qur’an, the Mahabharata, the Odyssey and Shakespeare’s plays. But then we wouldn’t be saying much of value about any of them, would we?


    2. Well as far as I know the evidence sans faith in the truth of the claims of the Bible is that Genesis (Bereshit) was finally redacted around 450BCE, although elements, particularly J, were around as early as 1200BCE in their roughly present form.

      And nice try: you knew I meant that the Bible has no evidentiary weight other than as a record of what various traditions of belief believed and how various languages were used.


      1. Actually, John, your statement was quite general, making it difficult to understand exactly what you were intending. I would not presume to think I “knew” what you meant.

        So then, you hold that the various Old Testament and New Testament references related to possible archaeological sites, government figures, battles recorded, and other historical matters are of absolutely zero value? That is, you believe the whole Bible is nothing but fictional invention?


        1. Of course not. But it is not a source of information about anything but what someone at one time thought. From that we may infer that this or that figure was historical. My own estimation is that the Bible become more or less historical (in a chronicle sort of way) around the time of Ezra. That is, it is written at or near the time it purports to describe.

          Most especially it is not to be taken as a source of information about the natural world, the prehistory of the world, geography outside the very narrow confines of the actors in the historical sections, and it is always to be tested against physical evidence. In short, it should be treated like any other document from the period and region. At no time is any part of the Bible, Tanakh or New Testament, to be taken as a critical historical document relating the facts. Even in the Luke-Acts document it is unclear that the author is doing due diligence on sources and events, and that is as close to a history in the Bible as you will find. Possibly I and II Maccabees also.

          By the way, this post is an inappropriate place to discuss the validity of the Bible. Please don’t.


          1. “By the way, this post is an inappropriate place to discuss the validity of the Bible. Please don’t.”

            Fair enough, John. It’s your website. I was responding to the issue you raised when you offered your “no evidentiary weight whatsoever” comment.

            Besides that, this particular post actually does discuss the Bible more than some of your other posts. For example, you mentioned the 16th century “trend towards literalism in biblical interpretation” and Kircher’s “appeal to all lines of evidence, including the Bible.”

            But no problem. I’m done for now.


            1. There I was discussing the role that the Bible and its interpretation played in the period in question. Rather different to claiming that the Bible offers evidence of biological facts.


              1. Well on the bright side It goes down as my blog post of the year (unless you can better it) Not just the post and subject, which I loved, but also the range of ideas related in a number of ways that spiraled out of it, classification and taste (as you know) it also raised more questions to me on man like apes a trajectory based in part on a movement from secular fiction to philosophical idea and beyond in the late 17th century. As well as another question relating to how culture is an utter game changer and religious exemption from the norms of being a biological organism and being a supernatural one instead can actually help deal with biological issues that have an effect on the stability of human culture (God as the land owner that does not die, which resolves a significant issue related to human reproduction and the stability of early tribal groupings and landholding). Creative thought and culture as a landscape game changer.

                A wide range of culture/ reality type questions exploded while reading it and then some. Seriously ripe read.

                I think I may have to invent a Byssus award for it. I am running with the ‘Spider Baby in a Pram’ award for the blog post that reminded me the most of my favorite episode of Father Ted.



  5. It rings bells for me in relation to reading Thomas Brown some time ago and some experiments and thoughts he was conducting relating to the narrative. If memory serves me correct in relation to how organisms could develop that were not mentioned as being on board. I think he may have been conducting some experiments replicating cramped conditions of the arc and effects on animals although I may be mis- remembering or speculatively linked at the time two very different activities as I dropped looking at the subject before working it through.


  6. “After long and considerable investigation, no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed.”

    I find that sentence difficult to interpret. Distinguishing features could mean essentials that will necessarily perpetuate themselves in propagation. Or it could mean that whatever traits perpetuate themselves in propagation define the species, whereas the others are individual variants.

    Maybe the distinction between a biological and essentialistic species concept has not yet been drawn at that time and interpreting the sentence with that distinction in mind is retrospective.


  7. Cool stuff. In the 1660′s or so, Jan Swammerdam coined the aphorism “All animals hatch from eggs that are laid by a female of the same species”, which Matthew Cobb suggests implies a fixity of species. His _Bible of Nature_ wasn’t published until 1737, though, which I gather is where more of this general stuff must be. Cobb’s other Swammerdam quote is

    “In nature there is no generation, but only propagation, the growth of parts. Thus original sin is explained, for all men were contained in the organs of Adam and Eve.” ;) The Netherlands had lots of biblical literalists

    It seems to me that preformation is pretty essentialist.


  8. If you can find a year of publication, that would be very helpful, and any other information. I just checked online catalogs and maybe I can get a photocopy or computer-readable copy through interlibrary loan if I have enough information.


  9. Sorry, John. Couldn’t figure out how to email you. (Your “Contact ET” page says “[xyz-cfm-form id=2]” but I didn’t know what to do with that.)

    Anyway, the Hebrew words that got replaced by question marks in my comment can be found in this section of the article referenced by TomS:

    The first two sets of question marks (“????????”) are the word transliterated l’mineh, the last Hebrew word in the final paragraph of this section. The third one (“???”) is spelled like the word for “kind” but without the middle yodh — see the word for “kind” in the middle of the third last line in that same paragraph. Thanks for being willing to clean up my text.


  10. The article seems a bit fuzzy or my understanding is, the normal spelling I am use to seeing for the interpretation you seem to to be implying for kind is lemino/ leminehu.

    An example from the Jewish encyclopedia for example.

    I think further analysis on the Jewish laws concerning the crossbreeding of seeds may throw more light in regard to the term min. I think its usage may prove to be wider than implied.

    With regard to mins non-use in regard to human kind. rather the same as the way the Hebrew word for animal (trans. living soul) is not used in regard to humans. Looks like it could be simply a popular cultural distinction I would suggest.


    1. checking further as a. I am dyslexic (after reading wiki article a more confused dyslexic brain) and B. I have not looked at this in a few years and even then not in huge detail it does appear to be standard term at least in the limited material I have read.

      The concept of kind also appears to be of particular importance in this area of Jewish culture. Arguments over the mixing of different kinds.


      1. I wonder whether one would say that an animal changes kinds when it becomes unclean, when it undergoes any major change (such as metamorphosis, or even just undergoes a seasonal change in color or such), whether kinds are mutually exclusive and exhaustive (that is, whether each animal belongs to one and only one kind), whether an animal passes its kind to its offspring. Issues like these would be important for determining whether “kind” is a taxonomic category, anything remotely like “species” or even “genus”, “family”, “subspecies”, …


        1. Seasonal change was certainly an issue with birds. But you get all sorts of issues here. My favorite is in relation to the barnacle goose. The notion they spontaneously generated survived the discovery that the species had reproductive organs (thought they had two possible methods). When it was discovered that in France a number of different species were eaten at lent as barnacle geese. The suggestion was made that any bird that spontaneously generated should be classed as a barnacle goose.

          Really a wide range of older cultural factors at play in the conclusion but piggy backing off new ideas concerning species and reproduction I think.

          From my very limited understanding of Jewish cultural reading of these things piety and obeying Gods Law is the motivating factor rather than attempting to correspond the laws with nature (may lead to not following cultural tradition and Gods acts lie beyond the scope of the human mind).

          An entirely different approach to textual reading than some modern religious perspectives that stem from a very different cultural background.


          1. Superb article. One of the finest I have read not just in terms of subject but in how to teach. He dealt with a serious issue in a very self effacing way pointing to a very serious fault line you confront when using ethnographic archives in relation to this subject.

            Joy to read and learn from.


          2. Whatever “cleanness” means. It is an interesting discussion on pigs at the end of the paper. Any good sources for the origins of assigning animals to clean or unclean categories?


            1. Robert L. Miller Hogs and Hygiene (on jstor) not on pigs unclean status (but references further archeological study here) but very interesting as its the archeology of this region that should resolve issues to some extent and articles interesting in relation to Leach and Bulmer.

              Mary Douglas Purity and Danger, Edmund Leach, Genesis as Myth, Walter Houston Purity and Monotheism are three significant ethnographic treatments, which you can chase bib. from (Houston is the most recent)


  11. I was wrong in relation to myn, it is the Hebrew name for species. Given two roots mwn appearance structure or mnh, counting.

    Leminah or leminehu is normally translated ‘according to its species’ although, yet again its not used in relation to humanity but only vegetation and animals.


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