Whately on species

Given the mythology that species were defined by essences prior to Darwin found in nearly every textbook, I find this passage, published in 1826 by Archbishop Richard Whately (1787–1863), first in the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana (a project initially proposed by Coleridge) and then as a separate textbook, very telling. Whately was Archbishop of Dublin in the Church of Ireland, and was both a social reformer as well as an educator. He was a mentor to John Henry Newman, who later converted to Catholicism and became one of the greatest apologists for the Church (and a Cardinal) writing in English.

The Elements of Logic, first published in 1826 (1823 in the Encyclopaedia) underwent nine editions, but Whatley never substantially changed any of his logical positions even as logic underwent a major revival in large part due to his own text. He was derided by Whewell, for example, for his emphasis on deductive logic rather than inductive reasoning, and for thinking that logic was merely the inference of ideas than more substantive reasoning. Nevertheless, much of modern logic would not have developed as it did without him. Pierce read his Elements as a young man (around 13), and it inspired much of his thinking. Boole, Mill and many others drew inspiration from him.

In this section, which is notionally about Realism (what would now be called Platonism), Whately makes several points that are relevant to the species question/problem. They are:

  1. Species as used in syllogistic logic is a different sense of the term from how it is used by naturalists; hence what can be said of logical species (they have essences that define them; they are not real but are simply convenient abstractions, etc.) cannot be transferred over to the naturalist’s sense.
  2. Naturalists will define varieties and races within species. Any such subtaxon will be a “species” in logic.
  3. The standard meaning of natural species is descent from a common stock and resemblance of organisms.
  4. The naturalist’s genus is a matter of a convenient arrangement. Specificity (being a member of a natural species), however, is a fact.
  5. Natural species may be defined or identified by “marks”, but these are not necessarily, or even often, the differentia (the essential differences) of the species.
  6. The cause of specificity is not observable; hence we infer species rather than observe them.
  7. Realism regarding classes is a mistake, except in the case of natural species, either of living or inorganic objects (like gems).

This text alone is sufficient to destroy the essentialism myth. Not only is it some 33 years before Darwin published the Origin of Species, the third edition was actually in Darwin’s library. It is clear that most educated English speakers would have known, therefore, that the species of logic and essences are distinct from the species of natural history.

The passage is taken from the first edition of the Elements. It is substantially the same as late as the ninth edition, however.

Download the text here: Whately on species

6 thoughts on “Whately on species

  1. Do you have a sense of how frequently “species” was or is used in the sense of syllogistic logic vs. “natural species” (which I take to mean biological species)? One must wonder why a new term come into usage for one of them if they are so different.

    1. The term “species” was a Latin vernacular term for “appearance” or “kind”. It had several technical uses that developed over time, in logic, in metaphysics, and in natural philosophy, including natural history. It gained its biological meaning around the 17th century (John Ray, etc.) independently of the logical tradition. Thereafter, logicians usually distinguished the technical meaning from the usage in natural history (not always – the 17th & 18th century logics didn’t much attend to it), especially after Linnaeus.

  2. Hello John

    From Whitely’s first point: – “… logical species (they have essences that define them; they are not real but are simply convenient abstractions, etc.) cannot be transferred over to the naturalist’s sense.
    Is this incorrect though – and is this why things get complex.
    I can say, ‘Look, a herd of cows and they are real.’ If I think of a species though, cows for instance, I do not see real cows, only a convenient abstraction of an evolving process that cows may be subject to. But biology frequently uses ‘species’ as a collective noun – not as an abstract reference to a process.
    John Ray said, ” … one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa.” He could hardly have said, ‘One abstraction of an evolving process never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa.’
    To put this another, what exactly is the naturalist’s sense?
    This species thing is as hard as the problem, how should I hold a Christmas cracker so that I get all the goodies.

  3. I like the way the encylopaedia can by used as a vehicle to demonstrate repitition and difference over the long term and still provide a terse, measured contextual hit, up close and in the moment.

  4. George Bentham (1827)
    Outline of a New System of Logic: With a Critical Examination of Dr. Whately’s Elements of Logic simply says:

    “As to the particular sense in which naturalists make use of the word species, it is very different from the logical sense of the word, the only one in which it should be made use of on the present occasion.”

    and

    “..the naturalist must always be assured of the all-comprehensiveness of his classes and subclasses…and his divisions must therefore have been performed in the contradictory bifurcate mode [ie hierarchical successive dichotomization]…that species must be compared with all the others, and a property must be mentioned by which it is distinguished from each of them. The species is then constituted by the coexistence of these properties, and all the other species are mentally combined into one second species, characterized by the absence of any one or more of these properties…It must be carefully remembered that
    these observations apply to the logical division of collective entities only, not to the analytic division of individuals.”

    1. George Bentham 1827 says:- “The species is then constituted by the coexistence of these properties, and all the other species are mentally combined into one second species …”
      Give or take a bit, the species problem is whether species are discrete – or is life one continuum. Here we find a third take. That, if one species is identified by ‘distinctness’ from all others, then in the light of that one species, all others are of the same species. So now we have one distinct species and all the rest a continuum.
      But does it not follow that, if we find another species by its ‘distinctness’ we have two species – and so on until all species are distinct – which they do seem to be.

      Whately says:- “Natural species may be defined or identified by “marks”, but these are not necessarily, or even often, the differentia (the essential differences) of the species.
      The cause of specificity is not observable; hence we infer species rather than observe them.”
      Presumably, the cause is now observable in that we now have genes to play with, and ‘species’ seems synonymous with ‘gene-pool’.

      A question occurred to me the other day. – Is a species a gene-pool – or do species contain gene-pools?

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