Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 25, Issue 4, pp 497–527 | Cite as

Why was Darwin’s view of species rejected by twentieth century biologists?

  • James MalletEmail author


Historians and philosophers of science agree that Darwin had an understanding of species which led to a workable theory of their origins. To Darwin species did not differ essentially from ‘varieties’ within species, but were distinguishable in that they had developed gaps in formerly continuous morphological variation. Similar ideas can be defended today after updating them with modern population genetics. Why then, in the 1930s and 1940s, did Dobzhansky, Mayr and others argue that Darwin failed to understand species and speciation? Mayr and Dobzhansky argued that reproductively isolated species were more distinct and ‘real’ than Darwin had proposed. Believing species to be inherently cohesive, Mayr inferred that speciation normally required geographic isolation, an argument that he believed, incorrectly, Darwin had failed to appreciate. Also, before the sociobiology revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, biologists often argued that traits beneficial to whole populations would spread. Reproductive isolation was thus seen as an adaptive trait to prevent disintegration of species. Finally, molecular genetic markers did not exist, and so a presumed biological function of species, reproductive isolation, seemed to delimit cryptic species better than character-based criteria like Darwin’s. Today, abundant genetic markers are available and widely used to delimit species, for example using assignment tests: genetics has replaced a Darwinian reliance on morphology for detecting gaps between species. In the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species, we appear to be returning to more Darwinian views on species, and to a fuller appreciation of what Darwin meant.


Darwin Species concept Essentialism Levels of selection Group selection Holism 



This article was written while the author was in receipt of generous sabbatical fellowships at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. I am extremely grateful to Janet Browne, Marc Ereshefsky, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Jürgen Haffer, Michael Ruse and two anonymous reviewers for critically reading the manuscript, and to the library staff of the Wissenschaftskolleg for help in tracing many original sources. I am especially grateful to Maureen O’Malley for heroic editorial work, which has greatly benefited this final version. I am also grateful to Axel Meyer, Patrik Nosil, and Jeff Feder, all fellow members of the Schwerpunktgruppe on Sympatric Speciation at the Wissenschaftskolleg, and Richard Lewontin for discussions and support. This paper was first presented at the workshop, Perspectives on the Tree of Life, sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust and held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, July, 2009.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Wissenschaftskolleg zu BerlinBerlinGermany
  2. 2.Radcliffe InstituteHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA
  3. 3.Galton Laboratory, Department of Genetics, Evolution and EnvironmentUniversity College LondonLondonUK

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