Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The origins of species... errr... concepts

So, after about 8 years of work and study, I finally completed my book, whimsically entitled The origins of species concepts: the history and philosophy of a living idea last night. Well, that's the title until the more sensible and less punnish publishers get hold of it. They probably won't like my suggestion of using the duck rabbit in a thought bubble on the cover either. Bastards.

In this book I argue a few rather contrary-to-received-wisdom views. One is that there never was essentialism about biological species before Darwin - it's a later development. Of course, people had essentialistic views of diagnoses or definitions of particular species - this was part of taxonomic practice following Linnaeus. But nobody thought species had actual material essences until around 1880, and nobody I can find used that as an argument that species were immutable until after that, early in the 20thC. There's an interesting story there, too, about (I think) the influence of Catholic philosophy in reaction to Haeckel's atheism. That's for later.

Another is that nobody thought what we now call "species" were freely mutable prior to Linnaeus. They all seemed to implicitly and occasionally explicitly deny that species changed their mode of generation much, if at all (hybrids excepted). Of course, they use the word species, but it seems to have no more meaning that an English speaker using the word sort.

A third claim is that the default, widely accepted with few exceptions, notion of living kinds, was something like "the generation of like or similar forms of living beings". I find this in Aristotle, Epicurus, and all through the modern era right up to the present day, although there is a strong move away from "form" as a definiens after Mendelian genetics was rediscovered.

Philosophically, I am reiterating my claim that species just means any lineage that is maintained over time as separate from other lineages but differences in shared properties. I call this the Synapomorphic Species Concept. A sexual species is a mode of being a species. So is an asexual species, an ecological species, and so on. These modes evolved, just like having four limbs or feathers.

I distinguish between three kinds of "individuals" that species might be - ontological particulars, historical cohesive systems, and phenomenally distinct objects.

What else? I have a slew of claims and treatments of existing concepts (which are better called conceptions - species is the concept, that a species is a protected gene pool, for example, is a conception of species), but my major claim is that scientists are entitled to use as many concept[ion]s as they need to do accommodate the (biological) ways in which lineages are held apart. This is a limited pluralism, or as I call it in my paper already published, a "chaste" rather than a promiscuous pluralism.

Much fun will be had by all, I am sure. I still need the publishers to accept it for publication, but as this is a revision (and roughly doubling) of a previously reviewed manuscript, I am very hopeful.

Now on to other papers. I've been a historian long enough. Some philosophy!