, Volume 79, Issue 5, pp 1077–1097 | Cite as

Seven Misconceptions About the Mereological Fallacy: A Compilation for the Perplexed

  • Harry SmitEmail author
  • Peter M. S. Hacker
Original Article


If someone commits the mereological fallacy, then he ascribes psychological predicates to parts of an animal that apply only to the (behaving) animal as a whole. This incoherence is not strictly speaking a fallacy, i.e. an invalid argument, since it is not an argument but an illicit predication. However, it leads to invalid inferences and arguments, and so can loosely be called a fallacy. However, discussions of this particular illicit predication, the mereological fallacy, show that it is often misunderstood. Many misunderstandings concern the use of this illicit predication in the course of discussions of understanding the mind/body problem. Our aim here is to provide an accessible overview through discussing common misconceptions of the fallacy. We also discuss how conceptual investigations of the relation between living organisms and their parts fit within the framework of modern evolutionary theory, i.e. inclusive fitness theory.


Multicellular Organism Nonverbal Behaviour Inclusive Fitness Conceptual Investigation Teleological Explanation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We thank two reviewers for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


  1. Bennett, M. R., & Hacker, P. M. S. (2003). Philosophical foundations of neuroscience. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  2. Bennett, M. R., & Hacker, P. M. S. (2008). History of cognitive neuroscience. Chichester: Wiley.Google Scholar
  3. Birkhead, T. (2012). Bird sense: What it’s like to be a bird. New York: Walker & Company.Google Scholar
  4. Boomsma, J. J. (2009). Lifetime monogamy and the evolution of eusociality. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London B, 364, 3191–3207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bourke, A. F. G. (2011). Principles of social evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Buss, L. W. (1987). The evolution of individuality. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Churchland, P. M. (2005). Cleansing science. Inquiry, 48, 464–477.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Clutton-Brock, T. (2009). Cooperation between non-kin in animal societies. Nature, 462, 51–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dainton, B. (2007). Wittgenstein and the brain. Science, 317, 901.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Darwin, C. (1859 [1968]). On the origin of species by means of natural selection. Hammondsworth: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  11. Darwin, C. (1871 [2003]). The descent of man and selection in relation to sex. London: Gibson Square Books Ltd. With an introduction by Richard Dawkins: First published in 1871 by John Murray.Google Scholar
  12. Dawkins, R. (1979). Twelve misunderstandings of kin selection. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 51, 184–200.Google Scholar
  13. Dennett, D. (1995). Darwin’s dangerous idea: Evolution and the meanings of life. New York: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
  14. Dennett, D. (2007). Philosophy as naïve anthropology: Comment on Bennett and Hacker. In M. Bennett, D. Dennett, P. Hacker, & J. Searle (Eds.), Neuroscience and philosophy: Brain, mind, and language (pp. 73–95). New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Fisher, R. M., Cornwallis, C. K., & West, S. A. (2013). Group formation, relatedness and the evolution of multicellularity. Current Biology, 23, 1120–1125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Gardner, A., Alpedrinha, J., & West, S. (2012). Haplodiploidy and the evolution of eusociality: Split sex ratios. The American Naturalist, 179, 240–256.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Gardner, A., & Grafen, A. (2009). Capturing the superorganism: A formal theory of group selection. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 22, 659–671.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gardner, A., West, S. A., & Wild, G. (2011). The genetical theory of kin selection. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 24, 1020–1043.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Glock, H.-J. (2000). Animals, thoughts and concepts. Synthese, 123, 35–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hacker, P. M. S. (2005). Goodbye to qualia and all what? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12(11), 61–66.Google Scholar
  21. Hacker, P. M. S. (2007). Human nature: The categorial framework. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  22. Hacker, P. M. S. (2013a). Before the mereological fallacy: A rejoinder to Rom Harré. Philosophy, 88, 141–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hacker, P. M. S. (2013b). The intellectual powers: A study of human nature. Chichester: Wiley.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hamilton, W. D. (1964). The genetical theory of social behaviour I and II. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7, 1–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hampshire, S. (1959). Thought and action. London: Chatto and Windus.Google Scholar
  26. Harré, R. (2012). Behind the mereological fallacy. Philosophy, 87, 329–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hodgson, D. (2005). Goodbye to qualia and all that? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12(2), 84–88.Google Scholar
  28. Kenny, A. (1963). Action, emotion, and the will. London: Routledge, Kegan & Paul.Google Scholar
  29. Kenny, A. (1984) The homunculus fallacy. In The legacy of Wittgenstein (pp. 125–136). Oxford: Basil Blackwell. First published in M. Greene (ed.), Interpretations of life and mind. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.Google Scholar
  30. Kenny, A. (1989). The metaphysics of mind. London: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  31. Maynard Smith, J., & Szathmáry, E. (1995). The major transitions in evolution. New York: W.H. Freeman.Google Scholar
  32. Maynard Smith, J., & Szathmáry, E. (1999). The origins of life: From the birth of life to the origin of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Nesse, R. M., & Williams, G. C. (1994). Why we get sick. New York: Times Books.Google Scholar
  34. Paley, W. (1802 [2006]). Natural theology, or evidence of the existence and attributes of the Deity collected from the appearances of nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Edited by M.D. Eddy en D. Knight.Google Scholar
  35. Queller, D. C., & Strassmann, J. E. (2009). Beyond society: The evolution of organismality. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364, 3143–3155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Rundle, B. (1997). Mind in action. Oxford: Clarendon Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Scott-Phillips, T. C., Dickins, T. E., & West, S. A. (2011). Evolutionary theory and the ultimate/proximate distinction in the human behavioural sciences. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 38–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Searle, J. (2007). Putting consciousness back in the brain: Reply to Bennett and Hacker, philosophical foundations of neuroscience. In M. Bennett, D. Dennett, P. Hacker, & J. Searle (Eds.), Neuroscience and philosophy: Brain, mind, and language (pp. 97–124). New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Smit, H. (2010a). Darwin’s rehabilitation of teleology versus Williams’ replacement of teleology by natural selection. Biological Theory, 5, 357–365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Smit, H. (2010b). Weismann, Wittgenstein and the homunculus fallacy. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biology and the Biomedical Sciences, 41, 263–271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Smit, H. (2013). Effects of imprinted genes on the development of communicative behavior: A hypothesis. Biological Theory, 7, 247–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Smit, H. (2014). The social evolution of human nature: From biology to language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Visser, M. E., & Lessells, C. M. (2001). The costs of egg production and incubation in great tits (Parus major). Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 268, 1271–1277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. von Wright, G.H. (1963). Varieties of goodness. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  45. West, S. A., El Mouden, C., & Gardner, A. (2011). 16 common misconceptions about the evolution of cooperation in humans. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32, 231–262.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Williams, G. C. (1966 [1992]). Adaptation and natural selection (2nd ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Wittgenstein, L. (1953 [2009]). Philosophical investigations. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker & J. Schulte. Revised fourth edition by P. M. S. Hacker & J. Schulte.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Cognitive Neuroscience, Faculty of Psychology and NeuroscienceMaastricht UniversityMaastrichtThe Netherlands
  2. 2.St John’s CollegeOxfordUK

Personalised recommendations