Biology & Philosophy

, 33:39 | Cite as

Individual essentialism in biology

  • Michael DevittEmail author


A few philosophers of biology have recently explicitly rejected Essential Membership, the doctrine that if an individual organism belongs to a taxon, particularly a species, it does so essentially. But philosophers of biology have not addressed the broader issue, much discussed by metaphysicians on the basis of modal intuitions, of what is essential to the organism. In this paper, I address that issue from a biological basis, arguing for the Kripkean view that an organism has a partly intrinsic, partly historical, essence. The arguments appeal to the demands of biological explanation and are analogous to arguments that I have given elsewhere that a taxon has a partly intrinsic, partly historical, essence. These conclusions about the essences of individuals and taxa yield an argument for Essential Membership. Finally, I cast doubt on LaPorte’s objection to that doctrine arising from the view that a species cannot survive having a daughter.


Taxon essentialism Individual essentialism Essential membership Kripke Cladism LaPorte 



Earlier versions of this paper were delivered at Macquarie University in November 2015, the University of Utrecht in March 2016, and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in October 2016. My thanks to the audiences at those talks and to Peter Godfrey-Smith and Antonella Mallozzi for helpful comments on drafts.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy Program, Graduate CenterCity University of New YorkNew YorkUSA

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