Non-essentialist methods in pre-Darwinian taxonomy

Biology and Philosophy 18 (3):387-400 (2003)
The current widespread belief that taxonomic methods used before Darwin were essentialist is ill-founded. The essentialist method developed by followers of Plato and Aristotle required definitions to state properties that are always present. Polythetic groups do not obey that requirement, whatever may have been the ontological beliefs of the taxonomist recognizing such groups. Two distinct methods of forming higher taxa, by chaining and by examplar, were widely used in the period between Linnaeus and Darwin, and both generated polythetic groups. Philosopher William Whewell congratulated pre-Darwinian taxonomists for not adhering to the rigid ideal of definition used in the mathematical sciences. What he called the method of types is here called the method of exemplars because typology has been equated with essentialism, whereas the use of a type species as the reference point or prototype for a higher category was a practice inconsistent with essentialism. The story that the essentialism of philosophers dominated the development of systematics may prove to be a myth.
Keywords Essentialism  History  Linnaeus  Mayr  Method of exemplars  Polythetic groups  Popper  Typology  Whewell
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DOI 10.1023/A:1024139523966
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Evolutionary Essentialism.Denis M. Walsh - 2006 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57 (2):425-448.
Collection and Collation: Theory and Practice of Linnaean Botany.Müller-Wille Staffan - 2007 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C 38 (3):541-562.
The Essence of Scientific Theories.David L. Hull - 2006 - Biological Theory 1 (1):17-19.
The Darwinian Revolution as Viewed by a Philosophical Biologist.Michael T. Ghiselin - 2005 - Journal of the History of Biology 38 (1):123-136.

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