Biological Theory

, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp 170–179 | Cite as

Cell Types as Natural Kinds

  • Matthew H. Slater
Thematic Issue Article: Natural Kinds: New Dawn?


Talk of different types of cells is commonplace in the biological sciences. We know a great deal, for example, about human muscle cells by studying the same type of cells in mice. Information about cell type is apparently largely projectible across species boundaries. But what defines cell type? Do cells come pre-packaged into different natural kinds? Philosophical attention to these questions has been extremely limited [see e.g., Wilson (Species: New Interdisciplinary Essays, pp 187–207, 1999; Genes and the Agents of Life, 2005; Wilson et al. Philos Top 35(1/2):189–215, 2007)]. On the face of it, the problems we face in individuating cellular kinds resemble those biologists and philosophers of biology encountered in thinking about species: there are apparently many different (and interconnected) bases on which we might legitimately classify cells. We could, for example, focus on their developmental history (a sort of analogue to a species’ evolutionary history); or we might divide on the basis of certain structural features, functional role, location within larger systems, and so on. In this paper, I sketch an approach to cellular kinds inspired by Boyd’s Homeostatic Property Cluster Theory, applying some lessons from this application back to general questions about the nature of natural kinds.


Cell types Homeostatic property cluster kinds Natural kinds Stable property cluster kinds 



Ancestors of this paper were presented at the meeting of the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB) in Salt Lake City, Utah and the Granada-KLI Workshop on Natural Kinds in Granada, Spain in 2011. I thank the organizers of my session at ISHPSSB (Andrew Reynolds and Hannah Landecker) and the organizers of the Granada Workshop (Thomas Reydon and Miles MacLeod) for the opportunity to present in those fora. I am also very grateful to Ronald Amundson, Jessica Bolker, Werner Callebaut, Marion Godman, Brian K. Hall, Miles MacLeod, Maureen O’Malley, Thomas Reydon, Andrew Reynolds, and two anonymous referees for their questions, comments, and suggestions; any remaining mistakes are of course my own fault. Research support for this paper was provided by a Scholar’s Award from the U.S. National Science Foundation (SES-0924376), for which I am very grateful.


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Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyBucknell UniversityLewisburgUSA

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