This is a section of my forthcoming revision to Species, presented here for
comments that I can steal – umm, I mean for peer commentary.
The philosophical ideas and terms of Wittgenstein have played an interesting and underappreciated role in the species debate: we saw Beckner appeal to family resemblance predicates, and Pigliucci revive that, as explanations of specieshood. I would like to appeal to another Wittgensteinian notion: forms of life (Lebensformen).
In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein was discussing our ability to understand foreign points of view (including other minds) and famously said, “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.” A little later he stated, “What has to be accepted, the given, is—so one could say—forms of life.” For Wittgenstein, understanding another language-game depends upon shared points of reference in the form of life. Since we do not share a Lebensform with a lion, his language-game would be opaque to us. However, any biologist would know that we do share a Lebensform with lions, and indeed all mammals, and more distally, all vertebrates, etc. And so, if we could speak lion, we would understand what he was saying to that degree of evolutionary relatedness.
The notion of a form of life has recently been applied to species by the neo-Aristotelian ethicist, Roland Sandler, as part of a justification of Aristotelian virtue ethics based upon the natural flourishing of organisms (especially humans, of course). Leaving to one side the ethical arguments, this is intriguing. What would it mean to say a species is a form of life? In the ordinary sense, that is a truism, but a Lebensform has much more than its appearance. A Lebensform is the sum total of the relations of the individual to its community, to its environment, and between its needs and parts, leading to typical development. In the general sense required for biology, the Lebensform of a species is the interrelations of members of the population with each other and with the ecological context and history of that population.
Any organism is a developmental system. That is to say, the outcomes of its development are not predetermined merely by its genes (genetic determinism is a kind of preformationism) but also by the environment in which it develops to maturity and further reproduction. Susan Oyama wrote:
What shapes species-typical characters is not formative powers but a developmental system, much of which is bequeathed to offspring by parent and/or arranged by the developing organism itself. The same is true of atypical ones, which may result from developmental systems that are novel in some respect; an aberrant climate or diet may “play” on the genome in a different way, a mutation may eventuate in altered stimulus preferences or metabolic processes, thus altering the effective environment, etc.
So, the issue with what makes a life-form is not that there is an “essential” set of biological properties in a given organism, but that the organismal outcome will depend on the interplay between endogenous and exogenous properties: genes, somatic inheritance, the abiotic environment, food sources availability at different developmental typical stages, parental investment, etc. In an approach named “niche construction”, several biologists have argued that preceding generations construct aspects of the organismic environment that can be usefully seen as inheritance for the organism, such as trackways, nests, cultural behaviors, and so on for animal species. Thus, in addition to the usual gene+environment=phenotype “interactionist consensus”, there arises a complex system of feedback loops and effects that make an organism the organism it is. Oyama’s comment indicates that what “makes” a species includes, among other things, the extra-genetic heredity within a metapopulation. In short, a biological life-form is not going to involve some uniquely shared set of properties, nor will it be the case that it is a social or cognitive construct; it is part of a set or more or less stable processes that we observe and report.
Wittgenstein’s version of Lebensformen is that they have self-enclosed criteria for typical behaviors and cognitive styles, which are self-constructed through the use of language games. It has no particular biological implications, and Sandler’s use of the term is based upon species having self-justifying natural goods. Here, however, we can appeal to some more generalized features of the concept – that species construct through their variable ways of making a living in their environment, the properties that we see are clustered together.
Parenthetically, Lebensform is also a term that has a non-Wittgensteinian history in biology, particularly in botany. Eugenius Warming used it for the forms of vegetation. Raunkiaer, a Danish ecologist, proposed what has come to be known as the Life-form spectrum, which was early adopted as a taxonomy of ecotypes. It is still in use today. Helmreich and Roosth argue that the term has always held the implication of “a space of possibility in which life might take shape”, and so it is appropriate to employ it in this context.
Recognition of a Lebensform is still something that is done iteratively and recursively. And in line with the notion of a family resemblance predicate, it is not to be expected that there will be sharp or universal tests for delimiting species.
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