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Species: A History of the Idea

John S. Wilkins
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    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.Speciesis a benchmark exploration and clarification of a concept fundamental to the past, present, and future of the natural sciences.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94507-4
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. 1-8)

    The problem of species is a long-standing one in biology. Since the development of modern taxonomy and classification, naturalists, botanists, zoologists, and all the other various terms for aspects of biology as we have known it or now know it have tried to define clearly what it is they are taking about when they talk of “species.” There is a Received View of the species concept that is largely the result of work published by biologists themselves.¹ Polly Winsor [2003] traces the origin of the Received View history to Arthur Cain’s [1958] reliance on a 1916 “misinterpretation” of Aristotle [Joseph...

    (pp. 9-34)

    The history of the species concept can be divided into a prebiological and a postbiological history, which is how the Received View has always treated it. But the two histories overlap substantially, and it is much better to consider instead the history of the species idea that applies to any objects of classification—the tradition of universal taxonomy and philosophical logic—and, independently, the particular history of the species idea that applies solely to biological organisms. Even though, for example, Linnaeus [Linne 1788–1793, vol. 3] famously applied the notionspeciesto minerals as well as organisms, his biological usage...

    (pp. 35-46)

    In hisOn Division(De divisione, c. 505 CE), Boëthius (480–524 or 526 CE) discussed the nature of classification by division. In an extended introduction to the topic, he sets out influentially the basis for the “classificatory logic” of the next 1,500 years, and as he wrote in Latin, this was almost as influential in the development of Western thought as Augustine’s works were. Nearly all his examples are based on animal/human and similar biological cases, but it should not be thought this is a biological concept, any more than Aristotle’s.

    He distinguishes division of genus into species from...

    (pp. 47-96)

    Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464) in hisOn Learned Ignorance[c. 1440; cf. Hopkins 1981] represents a bridge between the medievals, who were rediscovering Aristotle but using the categories bequeathed to them by the neo-Platonists, and the Renaissance era. Cusa was an eclectic, and his comments on categories show an influence from Pythagorean as well as neo-Platonic sources. He was also an early proponent of the universal character or language that we will consider later [Rossi 2000]. He held, for example, that ten is the supreme number and that all unity is found in it [Book II, chapter 6, §123]....

    (pp. 97-128)

    Early in the nineteenth century, in 1826, Archbishop Richard Whately published an influential textbook on logic,The Elements of Logic[1875, my edition being the ninth], which is credited as reviving the study of logic in English-speaking countries. In this book, Whately describesspecies as essences, asheads of predicables, and as that of which genera are parts [and not species being parts of genera, since the genus partakes of the essence, or definition, of the species; Book II, chapter 5, §3, p. 85]. But he also notes thatthissense of “species” is quite distinct from the sense in...

    (pp. 129-164)

    Darwin’s ideas have been widely misinterpreted almost from the date of the publication of theOriginin November 1859. In this chapter, we shall see that he has in fact a fairly orthodox view of species as real things in nature (albeit temporary things), that he did not think interfertility was a good test of a species, and that his dismissive comments in theOriginhave more to do with the professional nature of taxonomy and the difficulties of diagnosis and nomenclature than a claim that species did not exist at all.

    It is occasionally stated that Darwin denied the...

    (pp. 165-180)

    At least one of Darwin’s most prominent followers, E. Ray Lankester, exceeded Darwin’s published suggestion that the termspecieswas arbitrary. Poulton said that Lankester was “inclined to think that we should discard the word species not merely momentarily but altogether” [Poulton 1903: 62]. Ernst Haeckel concurred, stating in hisThe Evolution of Man[1874, third edition cited in Haeckel 1896, volume 1, p. 115] that

    [e]ndless disputes arose among the “pure systematizers” on the empty question, whether the form called a species was “a good or bad species, a species or a variety, a sub-species or a group,” without...

    (pp. 181-196)

    Ronald A. Fisher is famous as the founder of the modern synthesis between Mendelian genetics and Darwinian natural selection.The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection[Fisher 1930] is a seminal work that introduced mathematical models to genetics and selection, and while often cited, it is rarely quoted. But Fisher addressed a number of questions in that book, including a rarely mentioned discussion about eugenics (Fisher was in favor of a form of eugenics, and chapters 8 through 12 are an argument for it), and one of these, almost as a parenthetical comment, is about species in the context of sexual...

    (pp. 197-226)

    We shall now review the broad species concepts presently in play. These are several classes of fundamental concepts, here divided into “Reproductive Isolation Concepts,” “Evolutionary Concepts,” “Phylogenetic Concepts,” “Ecological Concepts,” and a trash can category of “Other Concepts” [Cracraft 1997; Mayden 1997; Wheeler and Meier 2000; Hey 2001 a; Mayden 2002]. From these, a number of subsidiary concepts are composed.

    They opened Buffon again and went into ecstasies at

    the peculiar tastes of certain animals. . . .

    They wanted to try some abnormal mating. . . .

    They made fresh attempts with hens and a duck, a

    mastiff and...

    (pp. 227-234)

    It is time to sum up the major claims of this book, and they are many. For a start, we have considered several historical and several philosophical claims, each in the light of each other. The biological conclusions are not mine to draw, but I can opine—and do.

    From Aristotle through to the end of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the notion of species has not remained static; Aristotle’s conventions and notions have been modified. Mostly, they were modified by the neo-Platonists and especially by Porphyry, who made Aristotle’s top-down classification scheme dichotomous after the manner of Plato....

  15. Notes
    (pp. 235-250)
  16. References
    (pp. 251-288)
  17. Index
    (pp. 289-304)
  18. About the Author
    (pp. 305-305)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 306-306)