Against species essentialism
What is a species? Darwin, with Sir John Herschel, called it the ‘mystery of mysteries’. John Wilkins traces the history of this question from Plato and Aristotle via Locke and Darwin to Mayr, Hennig, and into contemporary debates about species concepts. Before he begins, Wilkins justifies the writing of a history of ideas, something that he notes is out of fashion with professional historians. Indeed, it may be difficult to accept Wilkins’s comparison of the topology of Porphyry’s treewith a contemporary cladogram (29 & 205), the idea that Pierre Belon (1517–1564) was occupied with the study of homology (54), that Darwin came close to being a cladist (153; Wilkins concedes the anachronism here implied in a footnote), or that Trémaux delivered a punctuated equilibrium theory in 1865. Τhis is the treatment of ideas as “free-floating objects” (viii) which historians tend to object to. In the case of ideas about species, Wilkins finds philosophers and historians better equipped to write...
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