Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 27, Issue 5, pp 755–765 | Cite as

The species problem: seeking new solutions for philosophers and biologists



The new millennium has opened with a perfectly splendid decade of scholarship relating to the ‘Species Problem’. So, at least we now have a clear idea of what this is, but still no clear solution that will suit both biologists and philosophers. Richards (The species problem. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010) has recently attempted to capture this story and to fill the void with two projects in one book. The first project (Chapters 1–4) is a descriptive and analytical history of the problem, which provides links to other recent works and thereby allows one to fully reconstruct the literature. The second (Chapters 5–7) is prescriptive and presents Richards’s solution via a ‘division of labour in a conceptual framework’ followed by recapitulation and conclusions. It is my assessment as presented here that the first project will appeal more to biologists and the second one to philosophers. There is much of value in Richards (2010) approach including an excellent evaluation of the essentialism story in the descriptive project and clear exposition of several key issues such as the ‘species-as-individuals’ versus ‘species-as-categories’ debate which are covered in the second project. Interesting and informative as these arguments undoubtedly are, something still seems to be missing here. In this essay I suggest that this perception arises from Richards’ (and others) failure to embrace ideas about the importance of relativity and contingency in species definitions and further that his new conceptual framework lacks one hierarchical level to link overarching lineage concepts of species as evolutionary units with practical definitions for their recognition. In my view, the missing link is reproductive isolation and I conclude my review by presenting a prescriptive project for biologists to balance the one that Richards has delivered to philosophers.


Species concepts Essentialism Contingency Speciation 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Biological SciencesVictoria UniversityWellingtonNew Zealand

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