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My latest paper

I have just had a paper published:

“What is a species? Essences and generation” Theory in Biosciences Volume 129, Numbers 2-3 / September, 2010. Pages 141-148 . DOI 10.1007/s12064-010-0090-z

Abstract: Arguments against essentialism in biology rely strongly on a claim that modern biology abandoned Aristotle’s notion of a species as a class of necessary and sufficient properties. However, neither his theory of essentialism, nor his logical definition of species and genus (eidos and genos) play much of a role in biological research and taxonomy, including his own. The objections to natural kinds thinking by early twentieth century biologists wrestling with the new genetics overlooked the fact that species have typical developmental cycles and most have a large shared genetic component. These are the “what-it-is-to-be” members of that species. An intrinsic biological essentialism does not commit us to Aristotelian notions, nor even modern notions, of essence. There is a long-standing definition of “species” and its precursor notions that goes back to the Greeks, and which Darwin and pretty well all biologists since him share, that I call the Generative Conception of Species. It relies on there being a shared generative power that makes progeny resemble parents. The “what-it-is-to-be” a member of that species is that developmental type, mistakes in development notwithstanding. Moreover, such “essences” have always been understood to include deviations from the type. Finally, I shall examine some implications of the collapse of the narrative about essences in biology.

A manuscript version is here.


  1. AK AK

    rather like having a certain number of electrons, positrons and neutrons makes each atom of an element that element.

    S/B protons. Atoms of natural matter (as opposed to anti-matter) don’t contain positrons.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Now you tell me? When it’s in print? *sigh*

      • AK AK

        Sorry, if you offered it here for review earlier, I must have been too busy and missed it. Still, you ought to hammer the journal reviewers about it: in philosophy any analogy should be checked for accuracy.

        OTOH it probably doesn’t make much difference: anybody who knows enough about it to notice also knows what you meant.

        I also noticed that there was no mention of Plato and his ideal types, although IMO he/they had a lot to do with pre-scientific thinking. (Especially defects therein.)

        Also, you might consider that humans (like most mammals and probably most vertebrates) tend to group observed phenomena into species (in the broad sense) and there’s probably strong selective pressure for those species to match biological species in cases of biological phenomena.

        Given this, it seems likely that we already know what species are, we’re just looking for detailed scientific definitions that match what we know.

        Do you make this point in your book? If so, it seems too important to me to leave out of the paper.

        (Oh yes, and BTW the number of neutrons doesn’t affect which element it’s an atom of, although there are some subtle effects in chemistry, especially in the case of deuterium, but even organic takeup of carbon and oxygen varies slightly by isotope.)

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          Plato has, to my knowledge, almost no impact upon biology from Aristotle’s time to this. In fact, there is only one natural history Platonist I know of and that is Louis Agassiz. I document this in my book, that this paper is an abstraction of. Plato certainly has no impact on species conceptions at all. Even the later neo-Platonists like Cudworth and Wilkins have only passing influence rather than direct. In trying to work out what was wrong with the neo-Platonist position, John Ray managed to come up with a quite non-Platonist view of species, the one I call the Generative Conception.

          I left it out because Plato is irrelevant. Simpson and Dewey were just wrong.

          Philosophy of Biology often gets things of a physics nature wrong. I apologise for not checking it.

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