Friday, September 18, 2009

Fellow blogger and outstanding philosopher of biology John Wilkins' long-awaited book on the origin of the species concept is now out and Larry Arnhart has written the first review:
When Darwin claimed that all species have evolved from ancestral species so that each species is adapted to a specific manner of life, he was closer to Aristotle than to those nominalists who would deny the natural reality of species.

So, I am now pleased to report that the scholarly writing on the "species problem" seems to be moving towards this position as I argued it in 1998. Increasingly, historians of science and philosophers of biology are questioning the "essentialism story" told by Mayr and Hull that presents Darwin's "populational" thinking as a revolutionary rejection of the "essentialist" thinking that ruled over biology for two thousand years. Instead, scholars are rediscovering a tradition of Aristotelian biological empiricism that broke away from Platonic essentialism and prepared the way for Darwin.

Some of this new scholarship was surveyed a few years ago in an article criticizing the "essentialism story"--Mary Winsor, "Non-essentialist Methods in Pre-Darwinian Taxonomy," Biology and Philosophy, 18 (2003), pp. 387-400. Now we have two new books that elaborate the issues in this scholarly debate. Newly published is John S. Wilkins, Species: A History of the Idea (University of California Press, 2009). Soon to be published is Richard Richards, The Species Problem: A Philosophical Analysis (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press). I have read Wilkins' book, and I have read a few chapters from Richards' manuscript. Wilkins is a philosophy professor at the University of Sydney. Richards is a philosophy professor at the University of Alabama.

Wilkins provides an encyclopedic history of the idea of species from Plato to the present. Running through his history is his argument for the falsity of the essentialism story as told by Mayr and Hull. His argument rests on three claims (x-xi, 231-34).
Essential reading for anyone interested in the history of evolution as an idea.

2 comments:

Mike Flynn said...

But did not Darwin himself say in Origin, "I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given, for the sake of convenience, to a set of individuals closely resembling each other..."

John Farrell said...

Yes. What's fascinating about John's book is what developed after.