Species: A History of the Idea

Species: A History of the Idea

Species: A History of the Idea

Species: A History of the Idea


The complex idea of "species" has evolved over time, yet its meaning is far from resolved. This comprehensive work takes a fresh look at an idea central to the field of biology by tracing its history from antiquity to today. John S. Wilkins explores the essentialist view, a staple of logic from Plato and Aristotle through the Middle Ages to fairly recent times, and considers the idea of species in natural history--a concept often connected to reproduction. Tracing "generative conceptions" of species back through Darwin to Epicurus, Wilkins provides a new perspective on the relationship between philosophical and biological approaches to this concept. He also reviews the array of current definitions. Species is a benchmark exploration and clarification of a concept fundamental to the past, present, and future of the natural sciences.


The history of research into the philosophy of language is
full of men (who are rational and mortal animals), bache
(who are unmarried adult males), and tigers (though it
is not clear whether we should define them as feline
animals or big cats with a yellow coat and black stripes).

Umberto Eco [1999: 9]

“What sort of insects do you rejoice in, where you come
from?” the Gnat inquired.
“I don’t rejoice in insects at all,” Alice explained, “because
I’m rather afraid of them — at least the large kinds. But I
can tell you the names of some of them.”
“Of course they answer to their names?” the Gnat
remarked carelessly.
“I never knew them do it.”
“What’s the use of their having names,” the Gnat said, “if
they won’t answer to them?”
“No use to them,” said Alice; “but it’s useful to the people
that name them, I suppose. If not, why do things have
names at all?”
“I can’t say,” the Gnat replied. “Further on, in the wood
down there, they’ve got no names.”

Lewis Carroll [1962: 225]

Why look at one concept in science, out of context of the larger theories, practices, and societies in which it occurs? Why trace “species”? This sort of question is raised by both philosophers and historians when histories of scientific ideas are written.

Philosophers tend to dislike history for several reasons. One is that they often address issues and ideas as if the opponent is sitting across the symposium table from them, no matter whether that opponent lived last week, last century, or last millennium. Philosophers of science often treat history as a source of anecdotes to illustrate some more general point, such as the way the Copernican revolution changed philosophical understanding or how genes overcame vitalism. Famously or infamously . . .

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