On the functional origins of essentialism

Abstract
This essay examines the proposal that psychological essentialism results from a history of natural selection acting on human representation and inference systems. It has been argued that the features that distinguish essentialist representational systems are especially well suited for representing natural kinds. If the evolved function of essentialism is to exploit the rich inductive potential of such kinds, then it must be subserved by cognitive mechanisms that carry out at least three distinct functions: identifying these kinds in the environment, constructing essentialized representations of them, and constraining inductive inferences about kinds. Moreover, there are different kinds of kinds, ranging from nonliving substances to biological taxa to within-species kinds such as sex, and the causal processes that render these categories coherent for the purposes of inductive generalization vary. If the evolved function of essentialism is to support inductive generalization under ignorance of true causes, and if kinds of kinds vary in the implicit assumptions that support valid inductive inferences about them, then we expect different, functionally incompatible modes of essentialist thinking for different kinds. In particular, there should be differences in how biological and nonbiological substances, biological taxa, and biological and social role kinds are essentialized. The functional differences between these kinds of essentialism are discussed.
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