Theory in Biosciences

, Volume 129, Issue 2–3, pp 159–166 | Cite as

Pattern, process and the evolution of meaning: species and units of selection

  • André Levy
Original Paper


Many of the fundamental concepts of biology lack consensual, precise definitions. Partly, this is due to a contrast between our discrete language and the continuous character of nature. Some debates over these concepts are confounded by the use of the same terms with different specific meanings, indicating a possible need for an expanded scientific lexicon. Words have their own histories, and frequently scientific terms with a vernacular origin retain associated vestigial meanings. Even terms newly coined within science have histories and changing meanings, which can lead to confusion among debaters. Debates over concepts are further confounded when the same terms are used in different fields of biology, with distinct (even conflicting) objectives, and by biologists with different approaches and perspectives. I illustrate these issues by considering the debate over the concept of species and the unit of selection.


Definition Language Species concept Unit of selection 



I thank the promoters of the International Symposium “Evolution: Today and Tomorrow” and the Centre of Philosophy of Science of the University of Lisbon for hosting the event and organizing the publication of its proceedings. This study was funded by the scholarship SFRH/BPD/41391/2007 from the Foundation for Science and Technology (Portugal).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Unidade de Investigação em Eco-EtologiaISPA – Instituto UniversitárioLisbonPortugal

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