Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 2, Issue 3, pp 329–346

Species concepts and the ontology of evolution

  • Joel Cracraft


Biologists and philosophers have long recognized the importance of species, yet species concepts serve two masters, evolutionary theory on the one hand and taxonomy on the other. Much of present-day evolutionary and systematic biology has confounded these two roles primarily through use of the biological species concept. Theories require entities that are real, discrete, irreducible, and comparable. Within the neo-Darwinian synthesis, however, biological species have been treated as real or subjectively delimited entities, discrete or nondiscrete, and they are often capable of being decomposed into other, smaller units. Because of this, biological species are generally not comparable across different groups of organisms, which implies that the ontological structure of evolutionary theory requires modification. Some biologists, including proponents of the biological species concept, have argued that no species concept is universally applicable across all organisms. Such a view means, however, that the history of life cannot be embraced by a common theory of ancestry and descent if that theory uses species as its entities.

These ontological and biological difficulties can be alleviated if species are defined in terms of evolutionary units. The latter are irreducible clusters of reproductively cohesive organisms that are diagnosably distinct from other such clusters. Unlike biological species, which can include two or more evolutionary units, these phylogenetic species are discrete entities in space and time and capable of being compared from one group to the next.

Key words

Species evolutionary theory individuality 


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Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joel Cracraft
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of AnatomyUniversity of IllinoisChicagoU.S.A.
  2. 2.Field Museum of Natural HistoryChicagoU.S.A.

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