, Volume 26, Issue 4, pp 475-488
Date: 21 Dec 2010

Homunculi rule: Reflections on Darwinian populations and natural selection by Peter Godfrey Smith

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Down with essentialism

This is the best, most thought-provoking book in the philosophy of biology that I have read in a long time. It is rigorously argued, deeply informed, full of wonderful examples, and it has more novel ideas within its pages than any two other recent books in the field that I can think of. It has opened my mind on several key issues and changed my mind as well; it is also provoked me to come up with what I hope are better defenses of some of the points of my position criticized in the book.

One of the most important things we have learned from Darwin (but some philosophers, alas, still don’t get it), is that essentialism is simply a mistake. There is no mystery about why many philosophers resist this verdict: their method, going back to Socrates, demands exceptionless definitions and self-evident axioms, from which deductive consequences can be made to flow. Philosophers are not alone in their weakness for essentialism. Even evolutionary theorists have often succumbe ...