Essentialism in Biology

  • John S. Wilkins
Part of the History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences book series (HPTL, volume 1)


Essentialism in philosophy is the position that things, especially kinds of things, have essences, or sets of properties, that all members of the kind must have, and the combination of which only members of the kind do, in fact, have. It is usually thought to derive from classical Greek philosophy and in particular from Aristotle’s notion of “what it is to be” something. In biology, it has been claimed that pre-evolutionary views of living kinds, or as they are sometimes called, “natural kinds”, are essentialist. This static view of living things presumes that no transition is possible in time or form between kinds, and that variation is regarded as accidental or inessential noise rather than important information about taxa. In contrast it is held that Darwinian, and post-Darwinian, biology relies upon variation as important and inevitable properties of taxa, and that taxa are not, therefore, kinds but historical individuals. Recent attempts have been made to undercut this account, and to reinstitute essentialism in biological kind terms. Others argue that essentialism has not ever been a historical reality in biology and its predecessors. In this chapter, I shall outline the many meanings of the notion of essentialism in psychology and social science as well as science, and discuss pro- and anti-essentialist views, and some recent historical revisionism. It turns out that nobody was essentialist to speak of in the sense that is antievolutionary in biology, and that much confusion rests on treating the one word, “essence” as meaning a single notion when in fact there are many. I shall also discuss the philosophical implications of essentialism, and what that means one way or the other for evolutionary biology. Teaching about evolution relies upon narratives of change in the ways the living world is conceived by biologists. This is a core narrative issue.


Natural Kind Homeostatic Property Cluster Biological Kind Psychological Essentialism Definitional Essentialism 
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.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia
  2. 2.Historical and Philosophical StudiesUniversity of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia

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