Biological Theory

, Volume 7, Issue 4, pp 338–345 | Cite as

Classificatory Theory in Biology

  • Sabina LeonelliEmail author
Thematic Issue Article: The Meaning of “Theory” in Biology


Scientific classification has long been recognized as involving a specific style of reasoning and doing research, and as occasionally affecting the development of scientific theories. However, the role played by classificatory activities in generating theories has not been closely investigated within the philosophy of science. I argue that classificatory systems can themselves become a form of theory, which I call classificatory theory, when they come to formalize and express the scientific significance of the elements being classified. This is particularly evident in some of the classification practices used in contemporary experimental biology, such as bio-ontologies used to classify genomic data and typologies used to classify “normal” stages of development in developmental biology. In this paper, I explore some characteristics of classificatory theories and ways in which they differ from other types of scientific theories and other components of scientific epistemology, such as models and background assumptions.


Biology Bio-ontologies Classification Data Theory 



This research was funded by the ESRC as part of the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society. I warmly thank the following individuals for very helpful discussions: the editors of this special issue Massimo Pigliucci, Kim Sterelny, and Werner Callebaut; the participants in the KLI Workshop on “The Meaning of ‘Theory’ in Biology” (particularly Jim Griesemer) and the Biological Interest Groups at the University of Minnesota (particularly Alan Love and Bill Wimsatt) and the University of Exeter (particularly Staffan Müller-Wille, who also provided insightful comments on the draft; John Dupré; and Berris Charnley); and Maureen O’Malley, Thomas Reydon, Jane Lomax, Midori Harris, and James McAllister.


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Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology and Philosophy, ESRC Centre for Genomics in SocietyUniversity of ExeterExeterUK

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