Theory in Biosciences

, Volume 124, Issue 3–4, pp 281–307

The history of essentialism vs. Ernst Mayr's “Essentialism Story”: A case study of German idealistic morphology

  • Georgy S. Levit
  • Kay Meister
Special Papers: From Evolutionary Morphology to the Modern Synthesis and “Evo-Devo”

DOI: 10.1016/j.thbio.2005.11.003

Cite this article as:
Levit, G.S. & Meister, K. Theory Biosci. (2006) 124: 281. doi:10.1016/j.thbio.2005.11.003


Idealistic morphology as perhaps the most important historical manifestation of typology is very suitable for a historical analysis of Ernst Mayr's “Essentialism Story”, which postulates an antagonism between “typological thinking” and “population thinking”. We show that Germanlanguage idealistic-morphological theories consisted of two clearly distinguishable parts. The cornerstone of these theories was the concept of the type as an abstract pattern representing a certain class of phenomena and embodying the norm of this class. The primary objective of pure typology was to create a non-phylogenetic classification system for living organisms based on structurally explicable characters. Thus, typology, as a non-phylogenetic foundation of idealistic morphology, was conceptually neutral with respect to hypotheses of evolutionary mechanisms. Typology was often accompanied by concepts such as Lamarckism, orthogenesis, creationism, essentialism, etc. These peripheral (with respect to pure typology) concepts were autonomous constructions and did not represent a direct logical consequence of typology. In our view “population thinking”, as part of the Darwinian theory of evolutionary mechanism, could not be directly opposed to “typological thinking”. Rather, it was peripheral concepts such as essentialism or creationism that led to conflicts between the Modern Synthesis and idealistic morphology.


Population thinking Topological thinking Edgar Dacqué Wilhelm Troll Adolf Naef Otto H. Schindewolf 

Copyright information

© Elsevier GmbH 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Georgy S. Levit
    • 1
  • Kay Meister
    • 1
  1. 1.Institut für Geschichte der Medizin, Naturwissenschaft und Technik, Ernst-Haeckel-HausFriedrich-Schiller-UniversitätJenaGermany

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