Essentialism about species is today a dead issue (Sober)
Folk essentialism is both false and fundamentally inconsistent with the Darwinian view of species (Griffiths)
1. What is it to be a member of a particular biological taxon? In virtue of what is an organism, say, a Canis lupus ? What make s it one? These are various ways to ask about the ‘essence’, ‘nature’, or ‘identity’ of a particular taxon. They raise the issue of Taxon Essentialism. 2. What it is to be a particular individual organism? In virtue of what is an organism, say, the Queen? What makes it her? These are various ways to ask about the ‘essence’, ‘nature’, or ‘identity’ of a particular individual. They raise the issue of Individual Essentialism. 3. If an individual organism belongs to a taxon does it do so essentially? This is the issue of Essential Membership . Clearly, if we had answers to both Taxon Essentialism and Individual Essentialism we would have an answer to Essential Membership : an organism O is essentially a member of a taxon T iff an organism having the essence of O entails its having the essence of T.
These essentialism issues have been much discussed by metaphysicians in recent times. Thus, on Taxon Essentialism , Saul Kripke (1980), Hilary Putnam (1975), and David Wiggins (1980) have urged that the essence of a taxon, particularly a species is (at least partly) an intrinsic , underlying, probably largely genetic property. This view accords with common sense and has been widely accepted in philosophy. These authors also embraced Essential Membership . And, talking about the Queen in particular, Kripke has urged a view on Individual Essentialism : her origin in certain gametes from certain parents is essential to her. This “origin essentialism” has stirred controversy among metaphysicians (e.g., McGinn 1976, Salmon 1979, Forbes 1986, Robertson 1998). The methodology of the metaphysicians is to appeal to intuitions.
The Philosophers of Biology
What have philosophers of biology had to say on these issues? The contrast with metaphysicians could hardly be more stark. First, philosophers of biology (and biologists) are dismissive of the popular Kripkean view on Taxon Essentialism. The idea that a species has an underlying intrinsic essence is thought to smack of “Aristotelian essentialism” and reflect a naive and uninformed view of biology that is incompatible with Darwinism. Clearly, if the essence of a species is not intrinsic it must be relational (assuming that it has an essence at all). The consensus is indeed that the essence is relational: for an organism to be a member of a certain species, it must have a certain history. Second, until recently, the issue of Essential Membership had been largely ignored in philosophy of biology. Insofar as it has been addressed it has been rejected. Third, the issue of Individual Essentialism has been totally ignored in philosophy of biology. The methodology of philosophers of biology is to appeal to biological theory.
The course will consider these essentialism issues. It will use the methodology of philosophers of biology to argue against almost all of their consensus. So it will be arguing for positions akin to those of the metaphysicians, but without relying on intuitions. It will be organized around a draft of my forthcoming book, Biological Essentialism (Oxford University Press), which draws on several published articles.
If there is time the course will also consider some other issues in the metaphysics of biology. Are species, genera, families, etc. “real”? An answer to this needs to be very clear about what it is to be “real”. Are species natural kinds or individuals? Does anything really hang on this question?
Anyone who is not a philosophy graduate student should consult with me before enrolling for this course.
- A brief weekly email raising questions about, making criticisms of, or developing points concerning, matters discussed in the class and reading for that week. 50% of grade.
- (ii) A class presentation based on a draft for a paper (topic chosen in consultation with me). The draft to be submitted before Tuesday of the week of presentation. 20% of grade.
- (iii) A 2,500 word paper probably arising from the draft in (ii). 30% of grade.
COLLECTIONS OF MANY IMPORTANT ESSAYS
- Ereshefsky, Marc, (ed.). 1992a. The Units of Evolution: Essays on the Nature of Species. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [0-262-55020-2] (Sadly, this book is out of print but it may be possible to obtain second hand copies.)
- Wilson, R. A., ed. 1999a. Species: New Interdisciplinary Essays. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Dupré, John. 2002. Humans and Other Animals. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Ereshefsky, Marc. 2001. The Poverty of the Linnaean Hierarchy: A Philosophical Study of Biological Taxonomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Godrey-Smith, Peter. 2014. Philosophy of Biology. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Kitcher, Philip. 2003. In Mendel’s Mirror: Philosophical Reflections on Biology. New York: Oxford University Press. [0-19-515179-8]
- Kripke, Saul. 1980. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- LaPorte, Joseph. 2004. Natural Kinds and Conceptual Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [0-521-82599-7]
- Millikan, Ruth Garrett. 2000. On Clear and Confused Ideas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Putnam, Hilary. 1975. Mind, Language and Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Slater, Matthew H. 2013. Are Species Real? An Essay on the Metaphysics of Species. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Sober, Elliott. 1993. Philosophy of Biology. Boulder: Westview Press.
- Sterelny, Kim, and Paul Griffiths. 1999. Sex and Death. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [0-226-77304-3]
- Wiggins, David. 1980. Sameness and Substance. Oxford: Blackwell.
[Counts towards course satisfaction of Group A or B]