Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 18, Issue 3, pp 387-400

First online:

Non-essentialist methods in pre-Darwinian taxonomy

  • Mary P. WinsorAffiliated withInstitute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto

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The current widespread belief that taxonomic methods used before Darwin were essentialist is ill-founded. The essentialist method developed by followers of Plato and Aristotle required definitions to state properties that are always present. Polythetic groups do not obey that requirement, whatever may have been the ontological beliefs of the taxonomist recognizing such groups. Two distinct methods of forming higher taxa, by chaining and by examplar, were widely used in the period between Linnaeus and Darwin, and both generated polythetic groups. Philosopher William Whewell congratulated pre-Darwinian taxonomists for not adhering to the rigid ideal of definition used in the mathematical sciences. What he called the “method of types” is here called the “method of exemplars” because typology has been equated with essentialism, whereas the use of a type species as the reference point or prototype for a higher category was a practice inconsistent with essentialism. The story that the essentialism of philosophers dominated the development of systematics may prove to be a myth.

Essentialism History Linnaeus Mayr Method of exemplars Polythetic groups Popper Typology Whewell