Species: The evolution of the idea

I have completed and submitted the manuscript now for my revision of Species: A history of the idea, now renamed Species: the evolution of the idea. I am publishing it with CRC Press, and it is due out next year.

In addition to updating and revising the historical sections of the book, I have added a philosophy of species section, discussing the idea of species as kinds, classes, individuals or, as I argue, phenomena in need of explanation individually. This has increased the book to around 180,000 words with bibliography. I received a criticism from a well-known philosopher for it being so long. He argued that shorter books make for better communication, and there is a sense in which this is true, but I was as concise as the material permitted, and it raised a question in my mind: are we too lazy now to read?

In the period I most adore, the nineteenth century, books were long. Darwin’s Origin was around 154,000 words, and that was an “abstract” of a much larger book. A reviewer for the publisher insisted Darwin drop the evidence and just make the argument (and also add more about pigeons!). Darwin did neither. Of course I am not comparing my book with his, but reading was expected of readers in that era, and for some time after. In many ways, it is the American influence on publishing that makes short word counts a virtue. It is a tendency to popularization that makes shorter works better. Consider Hume’s Treatise, for example: it runs to 225,000 words or so. Yes, the Essay is much shorter (around 56,000 words), but prolixity is not always a vice. Both works have their place.

One thing I have done is to quote copiously from original sources, including modern sources, as the literature is disparate and widely distributed, and one of my goals was to make the material available for readers so they didn’t have to go hunting for the sources. Even so, I have been very sparing; many views are simply mentioned. It is not easy to cover such a vast amount of material. Whether I did a good job remains to be seen.

Maybe I should do a short book on species. They are all the rage. However, Frank Zachos’ book and Matt Slater’s book do that very well (from a professional biologist and philosopher’s perspectives, respectively) so I don’t see what would be gained.

I also did an appendix listing all the species-related conceptions and replacement concepts I know of. Since this will be available electronically, that chapter is a stand alone reference point for readers. As well, I did another appendix listing the ranks within post-Linnean taxonomy, with notes about when the major ranks were defined.

I hope this is a useful book. I expect to hear what people think fairly quickly…

Slater, Matthew H. 2016. Are species real? An essay on the metaphysics of species. Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Zachos, Frank E. 2016. Species concepts in biology: Historical development, theoretical foundations and practical relevance. Switzerland: Springer.

15 thoughts on “Species: The evolution of the idea

  1. I look forward to seeing your appendix on species concepts. When I studied college biology in the ’90s, there were said to be (only) about 30 of them.


    1. Were you surprised? if so why?
      I bet I could easily come up with 30 concepts for human families.


    2. My view is there are six basic conceptions relating to species in theoretical biology, and all the rest are mixtures of those. They tend to relate to the interests of the researchers (e.g., gene flow, ecology, taxonomy) and the evolved properties of the organisms themselves (sex, niche adaptation, phylogenetic inheritance). However, I mark the 28 or so in current usage and their variants.


  2. I just had a look at the first edition of your species book, right behind me here at my computer. I learnt a great deal from it. What came to mind was a comment from a good friend of mine, now decreased. A book can be judged by its index. I understand the origin of this comment was Ray Bradbury, but I haven’t checked. Anyway, the 1st edition has as great index…


    1. To guide hand or eye. Index=The pointy finger that demonstrates. An index or sometimes a shorter form of text called a handbook or a manual.

      “I toke in hand this little boke, as a triall in the true trade of interperting. Which done, I thought not my trauaile mysspent but wirthie to be published abroad for common vse and commoditie, and meete that of all estates he be vsually read, dayly to be had in hande, and continually to be had in remembraunce”

      The Manuell of Epictetus


  3. Hello Dr. Wilkins,
    I left a concise and interesting reply to your post “Species: The evolution of the idea”, yesterday, and somehow the server, website, or whatever, just destroyed it. It was before I had signed into my wordpress account, and it just vanished.
    I am not feeling as sharp or intelligent today as I was yesterday, but, since the basic ideas are (of course) still the same, I will try to reconstruct it.
    I don’t think that your book is too long; and I don’t think it is laziness that made the philosopher say that it was too long.
    The mobile devices we all carry and use decide what kind of communications we can see and hear. Since those are brief, and designed to discourage thinking, it trains us to prefer short messages that we don’t have to think about.
    The change originally came from the broadcast media, the networks. As bigger and bigger corporations acquired ownership of them, they were removed farther and farther away from journalism, since the corporations were increasingly distant from journalism. The contents, or as they like to say today, “content”, became faster and faster and more continuous all the time. Increasingly through time, there were fewer and fewer pauses and breaks and now, of course, there are none at all; and commercials are cunningly sewn into the stream, seamlessly, so that they can’t be avoided, and, ideally, not even noticed.
    Following closely on the heels of that, the large corporations, sometimes the same ones, acquired control over the World Wide Web and “The InterNet”, and its contents. It, too, therefore became increasingly shallow, plastic, meaningless, and uniform, the same as the broadcast networks did.
    Following on the heels of that, the cellphones and smart-phones all became “mobile devices”; and historically came after the acquisitions and conversions of the Web, so there was nothing to change. They started out fast, continuous, shallow, and meaningless. That is not the important point, though. The important point is that the “mobile devices” were increasingly made so beautiful and desirable, so fun and so important, that everyone *had* to have one; it was not an option to not have one. Therefore, they became the default media and the default means of communication, both at the same time; they simultaneously
    replaced the broadcast networks (“TV”) and telephones, as well. So, that was how they became the deciders of what kinds of information you can see and hear, and gained control over it.
    I’m skipping over all the perhaps tedious details of how all that was engineered (advertisers say, sales is the art of creating in the customer the desire to buy); and of course it happened gradually during this century, the same as the previous two big changes happened gradually.
    Some have said that the “dot com crash” set the stage for the big, big corporations to acquire control over the most popular websites, and so on; but that is not my issue and others can discuss it if they wish to. Rather, the point is that they did.
    I have been given feedback from intelligent people, for example a friend who works at CU Boulder, that my e-mail or other written communications were “too long”. You aren’t alone in hearing that. But people have been (and I know they will deny this and will not want to hear it) manipulated into wanting and needing mobile devices, and into loving them. They have been
    conditioned or trained (or whatever) into preferring to use the mobile device as their sole information source.
    So, all the media, now dominated by the so-called mobile devices, are presenting a fast, continuous stream that literally prevents thought by not allowing the time for it to take place. Everything is video, video, and more video; reading is rarely done now and it has become difficult for students and younger people to read (I spent a fair amount of time on a University
    campus). The attention span of people has become increasingly shorter over time.
    So, basically, in other words, all of us are now trained to prefer short communications, with shallow content that is immediately understandable. Your philosopher colleague is not lazy, he or she is conditioned by mobile devices and related media, as we all are; he or she can’t handle longer passages. It takes too long to read longer works; everyone is taught to run today, and to keep running, and to never stop. That is, it isn’t that he or she doesn’t have the time, clock and calendar time, literally; it is that *psychologically* he or she doesn’t have the time to read any longer works.
    Most college students that I have observed – in a University town they are everywhere, not just on campus – just jump over, on-screen or online, any information that takes more than a few seconds to read. We are all conditioned to be that way today! But for younger people, it is much, much worse. Your philosopher colleague probably still has the *ability* to read information that takes more than a few seconds to read, but, doesn’t want to; so they turn it around and claim that shorter books are (implied:always) better communication; but that can’t be true. Rather, the best communications are the ones that use exactly the right number of words to make the communication that the writer want to make. The actual length, in words or pages, is basically irrelevant.
    I’m interested in seeing, not only the online version of the appendix you mentioned, but also an electronic copy of your book, as soon as one becomes available.

    Dr. Jone Dae.


  4. The mind boogling nature of the modern world aside. Short can go with the long. Handbook’s or manual’s are very old school aid understanding and add complexity.


      1. In my time on campus mice and mobile phones were a great source of anxiety and debate. It seemed to demonstrated something, general how stupid students were and how bad the net was when such an infantile mind was unleashed within it.

        In my experiance students generally want to learn and in my mind the anxiety of lecturers demonstrated something else. it said something about what they did rather than what students did.

        It was not a very popular idea.


  5. Good to see you publishing an updated version of your book. Will it be widely available on the smartphone platforms (Kindle, Nook, iBooks, &c)? I read mostly on my mobile device. Been slogging through Blackburn’s Essays in Quasi-Realism and MacIntyre’s Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity on my phone. So mobile devices render more than overly concise social media neural flatuence. And I can modify fonts and backgrounds to make things easier on my eyes. Good luck doing that with a hardcopy. Hundreds to thousands of books take up the same smallish space. No need for real bookshelves. Ebooks were the greatest innovation since Gutenberg! Speaking of Gutenberg there is a treasure trove of free ebooks out of copyright. Sweet.

    And I can task switch from reading books to news to weather (GFS and Euro models a screentap away) to texting a friend. Who is that actress on that show? IMDB knows. And looking up words is quicker now than tediously thumbing through a thin paged dictionary and the word is pronounced out loud for me.

    And the podcasts bluetoothed into my car. Have you thought of talking to the Partially Examined Life podcasters about philosophy? They recently did some episodes on Hume and Darwin, but I haven’t had a chance to listen. Their podcasts vary from 1-2 hrs. Not too short. But good for edifying commutes.

    Smartphones are disruptive and have downsides pointed out by another poster, but I don’t even care to fire up my desktop anymore.


    1. My podcasts are about 1-2 hours, and some are longer, up to 4 hours for the longest one.
      -Did you listen to the Doris Lessing lectures? They’re here.
      It might take you some time to listen to a lecture. You’d have to really just stop and listen to her talk, without the meaningless distractions that are “just a screentap” away.
      And Lessing is very good, her books are famous and she is well-respected by the wise and folks in the wisdom traditions.
      Good look finding an of them in the free e-books! Those are mostly, really, just junk.
      For the weather, just stop looking at and touching your mobile device, and look up, and look around the sky. Wait, don’t look away yet! Watch it for awhile.


    2. I believe that the publishers will make it available as an ebook; that’s pretty much the norm these days. Whether it will be any cheaper or not is another matter, and out of my hands.


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